One of the reasons it took me so long to say the words, “I’m a writer” out loud was the fear that it would attract attention. I wouldn’t exactly say I’m a shy person… I can meet strangers easily enough, have conversations at parties, I do okay in new situations. What I don’t like, in a skin crawling, want to climb out of my body and run kind of way, is the attention of others, and in particular, compliments.
I’ve been thinking about this lately. I’ve come a long way since I was an insecure twenty-something. I can confidently say what I like and what I don’t, what I agree or disagree with; I can stand up for a cause I believe in, even if it’s unpopular. So why can’t I accept a compliment?
While it sometimes feels like everyone around me can bask in the glow of attention and take a compliment with ease, the fact is that I’m not alone. Loads of people hate compliments. And we usually deal with them in one of four ways:
(1) Deflect! Deflect!
Whenever anyone ever says anything nice about the way I look, I usually say this: It’s all smoke and mirrors. Meaning, it’s trickery. It’s makeup, or clothes, or whatever. What I mean is – it’s not really me, please, please, stop looking at me. When someone says something about my body (usually in relation to being thin after having children), I always say this: All the women in my family are small. Even if I’ve actually invested my time and energy in working out. Even if I’ve been eating well. It’s harder when someone compliments my work, because I have nowhere to hide. At the risk of sounding cheesy, writing is the truest part of myself. I can’t lie in my work, or lie about my work, because to me, it’s sacred. I can’t say, “Oh, you know, I just threw some words together.” Because I did not throw anything together. I typed and deleted; wrote and rewrote; I fretted over comma placement; I woke in the night thinking of ways to describe a night sky. So, for writing at least, I am learning to say, “Thank you.”
(2) The Put-Down
Some people handle a compliment by immediately pointing out why the person giving it is mistaken. “You’ve done a great job with the wallpaper,” is immediately followed by, “No way, look up at that corner. See how it doesn’t line up?” Women do this a lot with clothes. How many times have we heard a variation of this:
“I love your dress!”
“This? I bought it a million years ago. I just threw it on at the last minute.”
As soon as someone says something nice, we launch in with anything negative we can think of to prove them wrong.
(3) The Hot Potato
This is the compliment you try to get rid of as quickly as you can.
“It wasn’t really me. I barely contributed anything to the project.”
“You should have seen it before my editor fixed it up. She should get all the credit.”
I didn’t do much, my name shouldn’t even be on there, really…
It wasn’t that big of a deal
I got lucky, I didn’t really deserve it
So many of us (me included) can’t seem to say ‘Thank you’ without following it up with a but.
So what’s the deal with this?
There are probably a whole raft of deep psychological reasons why women in particular struggle with accepting compliments. Women in creative fields have to learn how to do it because it invalidates us as artists when we don’t believe in ourselves. Why is it so hard? I think it’s because we so often feel like impostors. We’re not used to taking up space and owning it. It took me ages to tell people that I wrote books for a living. I still don’t like doing it. But I know I can write well. Not every time I sit down to write… but enough for me to know that writing is what I was born to do.
Here’s what I know: If we want to make things, create good work, put that work out into the world, then we are entering into a contract. We’re sharing our work and in return, people are going to read/view/experience/listen to that work, and they’re going to offer their feedback. Some of that will be negative, because that’s the way it is, and some of it will be positive. Some of it may even be exuberantly so. And we must learn how to accept it. If we keep using the tactics above, what we’re really saying is that the person complimenting you is wrong for loving your work. That’s not how we make progress, both as creatives, and as humans.
If you’re like me and you struggle to accept a compliment, I’m convinced that the only way to change this is to practice. Make yourself say, “Thank you” and bite your tongue when the word, “but” follows. Refuse to put yourself down, or give the praise away to someone who doesn’t deserve it (if they do, that’s another story).
This is easier for me to do when I picture my thirteen year old daughter in my mind. What do I want her to learn from her mum?
That she’s worthy? That she can and should do great things?
Or that she should hide?
Until she’s older, I am her experience of womanhood. She watches everything, takes it in, remembers it. I want her to know that she can take up space, own her talents, and be proud of them. Showing her how to accept a compliment with grace and confidence is a good start, isn’t it?
So … if you liked this article, let me say, Thank you.