You guys. We can do this.
If you compliment my shoes, I tell you how old they are. If you like my hair, I want you to know it’s dirty. If you like my writing, I minimize my talent. Whatever you like about me, I can’t also like about me, not with any kind of natural grace or ease, anyway. The way I cope with compliments, because I guess that has to be a thing, is to insult myself right back at you. It is compulsory, the speed with which I correct any praise bestowed upon me as though it is inherently incorrect. I am a human woman, I cannot take a compliment, and this shit must simply stop.
For many of us, accepting compliments and praise is awkward at best and self-shaming at worst. We instantly assume that the compliment or nice thing said about us both a) isn’t true and b)needs correcting. We volley the compliment back over the net by letting the complimenter know how wrong they are, thereby suggesting we’re worse than they assumed and that they were wrong for praising us in the first place. We disagree with the compliment. A compliment is an opinion, and our default setting is to describe how it’s wrong. It’s only after we’ve brought ourselves back down from the place this compliment was trying to lift us to that we feel comfortable enough once again to go on living.
Why do we do this?!
I think it’s because we’ve been taught to be small. To take up as little space as possible, so that we don’t impose the great burden that is our existence upon other human beings who don’t deserve to have to deal with us. Somewhere along the line, a very tired person who should have recognized their own exhaustion and participated in some fucking self care instead decided to solve their own burnout by convincing those around them to operate at half mast instead. If we’re never much, we can never be too much, and isn’t it our job as people to make life easy to live for other people? By barely breathing? Don’t sit there darling, someone else might want to.
Compliments are little reminders that we deserve the space we occupy. That we might even—dramatic gasp—deserve even more. They’re a mental disconnect between everything we’ve been taught to be which is not much and everything we want to be which is everything. Compliments dare us to believe that we can be infinitely infinite, and that’s uncomfortable because…you know, childhood.
I have a memory that’s been hard to disconnect from. The woman who lived next door to my family when I was very small ran an entirely illegal daycare out of her home. Her two sons attended the daycare as well. I remember the main rule was that I couldn’t “scream.” To this woman, any noice emanating from a child at any volume was a scream, and I was put in time out more than once for…playing. In a daycare. In her attempt to educate me, I was forced to tell this hellwitch what I’d done to deserve punishment. Why was I in time out? “Because I screamed.” I remember the offense in question was that I was riding a rocking horse and singing to myself. I was four. I don’t remember anything else but I do know I only attended that daycare for one day, such was the tantrum I threw when they tried to take me back. But the limiting belief was there, planted. Shani, remember—be quiet.
This is what we teach each other, that if we live fully, and out loud, we’re too much. We should be less, in order to be loved and liked. The smaller we are, the easier it is to love us. And then when we receive love, or praise, or compliments, we can’t even take them, because they make us feel bigger, and we’ve already learned that bigger is bad. We become a thing that gets complimented and then we can’t accept the compliments we wanted so badly in the first place. Isn’t that just the antelope’s eyebrows?
It’s a troubling feeling, wanting praise while at the same time being physically and emotionally unable to withstand it. But the best part of this particular conundrum is that the discomfort associated with it doesn’t have to belong to us if we don’t want it. It is possible to learn to accept a compliment without instantly freezing like a squirrel who senses danger. As with anything, it takes practice.
If you receive a compliment from a person and wish to accept that compliment without first insulting yourself almost as though you had no other choice, here’s what you do:
You say, “thank you!” or “you’re welcome” or “I appreciate that.” And then you just stop talking. Or typing. That’s it. That’s the end.
Recognize that you don’t actually have to say anything else. That’s where the reception of the compliment naturally ends. Anyone who was hoping for more out of you wasn’t giving you a compliment, they were just giving themselves an opportunity to get one in return. You may elect to give a compliment back if there’s one readily available that you mean, but above all else please don’t associate receiving a compliment with the need to criticize yourself in order to still be likeable at the end of the compliment. By ending the criticism behavior and starting to feel that things are okay without it, you slowly get more comfortable receiving praise.
This is new. It’ll feel awkward, it’ll feel short, but really, the only thing you ever have any business expressing following a compliment is gratitude. You’ll get better at this over time, it will feel more natural. You’ll start to see that nothing bad happens to you or your loved ones if you simply learn to accept the praise you’re given. Over time you will start to see yourself as more worthy of praise that you didn’t have to negate in order to accept. Hint: You were always worthy of it, this practice is just you teaching yourself that.
We’ve been in this life a long time. We’ve sponged up a lot of shit. Some of that shit has taught us to feel small and unworthy, and therefore ashamed of any compliments we receive, as we believe ourselves to be inherently unworthy of them due to the adoption of aforementioned smallness. Shake off your smallness. Shake off the belief that you have to be anything other than what you are, to take up any less room than what you naturally occupy. Take it further, and get comfortable knowing that you can occupy even more space, if you want it.
We are likeable, loveable, and praise-worthy. We’re here and human and our existence isn’t an accident. We exist to learn and to love as much as possible before the wheels fall off. That opportunity is inherently ours, and cannot be stripped from us no matter how exhausted or put out people are around us. Let them deal with their exhaustion, and we will deal with our ability to receive nice things. At one point or another, perhaps at many points, other people will like and appreciate us. Being liked and appreciated and praised doesn’t have to make us uncomfortable. It can just, perhaps with practice, make us feel good. Thank you.
Shani Silver is a humor essayist and podcaster based in Brooklyn who writes on Medium, a lot.