A little over a year ago, I wrote an article for Elephant Journal on how to take negative feedback.
At the time, I thought I was done writing about receiving feedback.
But I see that this conclusion was premature. What has come up for me lately is that I have a problem taking positive feedback, especially in the form of compliments.
In this article, I’d like to describe how I bat compliments away, reflect on why I might do this, and offer lessons I’m learning about how to truly accept positive feedback. What I’m hoping is that my learning might also hold meaning for other readers and writers in the Elephant Journal community.
I regularly deflect compliments by pointing out to the compliment-giver the ways in which I’m undeserving of whatever I’m being praised for.
For example, last week, my wife said that she regarded me as an “athlete.” This was only part of her message to me, but I never heard the full message. I got hung up in giving her an unwanted tutorial in what it meant to be an athlete and how my involvement in various movement traditions and sports fell short of what was required to earn the honorable title, “athlete.”
Perhaps this was a regrettable instance of “mansplaining” on my part. But whether or not my explanation of athleticism was somehow related to my gender, it caused my wife to feel as if she was being needlessly corrected and put on the defensive.
As another example, two nights ago, my mother said on the phone that she thought I was a really good father and grandfather. I thanked my mom for this affirmation but then tacked on the following qualifier, “You know, I was always bad at doing arts and crafts with the boys, and now I don’t even try to do artsy-craftsy things with my grandkids.”
I couldn’t simply appreciate the compliment. I had to poke holes in it and in myself.
Why do I do this?
I sense there may be three reasons.
The first is that I don’t want to be held accountable, by others or by myself, to a high standard, one that I very well may not meet. Praise typically implies that I have crossed a threshold of merit or exhibited an admirable quality of character. The compliment-giver may not be thinking in such vaulted terms, but I tend to see such standards and qualities as attached to any judgment of how I am or how I present myself.
But sometimes I feel lazy, ordinary, and uninterested in meeting any sort of standard. If people think of me as distinguished in achievement or in character, will I have to live up to this? Perhaps deflecting a compliment is a way of lowering expectations of others and of myself for being better than I often feel I am.
Maybe another reason I reject or minimize complements is that that they remind me of a lonely time in childhood when it appeared like my life depended on a compliment. When I felt all alone, a way to get attention and love was to perform exceptionally well at something adults valued and to watch their eyes turn toward me in acknowledgment. Or, if I listened exceptionally well to the stories adults told about their own lives and showed that I could understand their narratives in adult-like terms, I might have received a credit that otherwise would have been withheld.
The third reason that I might hide or push back from compliments is that on occasion they have seemed to be a sign that the compliment-giver is using the compliment as a way of distancing themselves from me, and I want to hold onto a sense of commonality and closeness. When someone says something like, “You are a natural writer,” I’m poised to hear how they are not. While the fitting response on my part would be to show acceptance and respect for whatever their experience as a writer might be, I may get stuck on the contrast they are drawing between us. And in those cases, I would likely say something about how writing wasn’t so natural for me, that I often struggled with the whole process.
So, compliments can be freighted with more emotional weight than the situation warrants.
To make compliments lighter and more workable for me, I’m discovering that I can apply three understandings.
Honor the intention behind the compliment.
When my wife referred to me as an athlete, she wanted me to hear that she was impressed at my regular engagement over many years in yoga, dance, swimming, and walking, and, earlier in life, tennis and fencing. When I turned her acknowledgment into a lesson on the boundaries of the concept of “athlete,” I shifted the focus to my hidden fears and needs and away from her intention.
When I can see a compliment as part of a genuine conversation, in which the other’s communication intention in the present moment is more important than a fear I’ve harbored in the past, I can pause and let myself hear what the other is wanting me to take in.
“Good enough” is sufficient standard.
I may not want to be held accountable to a standard of rigor or exceptionality, but I don’t mind being held accountable to a more relaxed standard. If a standard that I’ve attained is implicit in a speaker’s compliment, it’s doubtful that the speaker is equating me with an Olympic-level achiever or elevating me to a saintly level of goodness. And I don’t have to hold myself accountable to imaginary ideals.
When my mom said I was a good dad and granddad, I didn’t have to automatically translate her remark into the conclusion that I was Mr. Rogers. And I don’t have to demand of myself that I be this ideal father figure.
I can hear a compliment as a way of saying that I’m good enough in a particular realm or particular way, not that I’m perfect. And the pressure to be good enough is manageable.
Remember that I take compliments best when I need them least.
The best way for me to handle complements as a pleasing affirmation and not an emotionally fraught one is to tend well to the deeper sources of meaning, love, and enjoyment in my life.
If I’m laughing alongside my four-year-old grandson as we frolic together in the ball pit of his indoor playground, for example, I’m not concerned with whether somebody is or is not going to compliment me for being a good grandpa. No judgment is needed, and if a positive one does come along, I can take it graciously without any emotional entanglement.
If I’m in my yoga community and enjoying a class on embodying the natural elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space in our postures and movement, I feel a sense of belonging in the community, a belonging with the traditions of yoga, and a belonging to the natural world that both surrounds and flows within me. Whether or not I get complimented for being a good yogi is incidental. If I do receive a compliment, I can receive it with an inner peacefulness and a note of gratitude.
When I’m writing a personal essay, like the present one, I may come to a place of quiet satisfaction that I’ve touched into my heart’s truth. From this place, I can embrace compliments (or criticism) as valuable feedback and not burden the messages with undue psychological complexity.
When I take care of myself, nourish my connections with others, and pursue life practices that deeply matter, I need compliments less and can appreciate them more.