Do you find it challenging to accept compliments? A few weeks ago, I was talking to my friend Stephanie about my new book (which is about self-kindness. You will see the irony here in juuust a second). I’d reached the point of “done is better than perfect,” and was telling her that I planned to release it this year, even though I wasn’t totally happy with it. Stephanie had just finished narrating the audiobook of From Coping to Thriving (and did an amazing job), and she said “I remember you saying that about FCTT and I thought it was great!”
A graceful response would have been “Thanks!” or “That means a lot to hear,” or something along those lines. Instead, faster than you can say “pity party” I responded “Yeah, I feel that way about all my books,” and the conversation moved on.
Afterwards, I realised with a tinge of guilt that my response was dismissive bordering on rude. Someone had shared genuinely positive feedback with me and, because it didn’t sit with my own (unrealistic, perfection-driven) story, I a) hadn’t acknowledged it myself, and b) hadn’t shown my appreciation and gratitude to a dear friend.
This isn’t an isolated incident. When I’m not being mindful of my responses, my knee-jerk reactions to compliments is to downplay my effort or the result. Not only does this distract from the compliment, but it’s a bit of a slap in the face for the person giving it too. When I respond in this way, I’m essentially saying “Thanks. Here’s why you’re wrong.”
I know I’m not alone in finding it hard to accept compliments with gratitude and grace. And I know there isn’t one simple reason for this. For me, it stems from the part of my internal dialogue that tells me I’m not enough, the fact that I was taught that acknowledging things I’m good at and have done well is boastful (and no one likes a boastful person), and not wanting to raise people’s expectations of me in case I disappoint them in the future. It’s a self-protective mechanism that—like most self-protective mechanisms—backfires spectacularly and puts a damper on other people’s generosity and vulnerability.
So, like most of the posts here on Becoming Who You Are, this post is as much for myself as it is for you. I found it useful to think through how I want to respond to positive feedback and the different ways I could do so. I hope it’s helpful for you too.
Stop, pause and take a breath
We always have a choice how we respond to the things that people say to us and compliments are no different. The situation I described above is a classic example of reacting rather than responding, so one way I’ve made it easier to accept compliments with grace and gratitude is to stop and pause.
I’ve found it helpful to practice pausing and taking a breath before I say anything in response. The pause might be mere seconds but it helps reign in the desire to downplay or negate positive feedback and helps me remember how I’d like to respond.
Pausing also gives me a chance to reflect on how I feel in response to what the other person is saying. Not only does this help me enjoy the warm fuzzies that come from genuine positive feedback more but it also helps me be more specific in how I respond (see below). Saying to someone “Thanks, that makes my day!” because it truly does creates a positive feedback loop. When we offer someone positive feedback and can see it is gratefully received, we’re more likely to do so again in the future.
Say thank you, then nothing.
In The Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes writes about her own struggle to accept compliments and positive feedback. She also shares her approach to dealing with these struggles: ”Say thank you, smile and shut up.”
This is something I’ve been practising and it can feel super uncomfortable to accept compliments and leave it at that. However, I like this approach because it’s simple and it helps us avoid the urge to immediately follow up with self-deprecation or minimisation. Similar to the pause I mentioned above, shutting up also gives me the chance to be mindful of what I say next.
Share how it feels to hear the feedback
Although we often talk about how difficult and vulnerable it can feel to share issues, requests and so-called negative feelings, it can also feel vulnerable to share our joy in the form of positive feedback and compliments. So, if someone else is willing to be vulnerable with us in that way, one way we can show them the same in return is by reflecting how it feels to hear their feedback.
This could be as simple as “Thank you, that means a lot,” or “thank you so much, I appreciate you taking the time to share that.” As long as we stick to expressing our gratitude (rather than using it as a springboard to leap back into self-deprecation) and mean what we say, there is no wrong way to respond.
Acknowledge your hard work
We tend to have a rather messed up view of success, especially thanks to our ability to filter and curate what other people see of us online. It can often seem like people become successful (however you define that) effortlessly, or have lives that are unrelatably perfect compared to ours. In reality, success at anything takes hard work, grit and perseverance.
That’s why I love this response to positive feedback and compliments from Sarah Von Bargen: “Thank you, I worked hard at it.”
Not only is this usually true (and we should own it!), but it also reinforces a much healthier idea of success that is based on a growth mindset rather than a “you either have it or you don’t” attitude.
Bask in the glow (and take note for future reference)
When I worked with coaching clients, one of the exercises I’d ask them to do was to approach three people in their lives and ask these people to tell them what they thought their strengths were. This exercise did not meet with much love (because cringe) but I would set it because other people can usually see things about us that we ignore or can’t see ourselves.
Noticing what other people compliment us on serves a similar purpose. It can clue us in to what people see in us that we might discount because it’s a natural strength (and therefore we assume everyone is like or can do that) or we tend to gloss over because it falls outside of our personal stories about ourselves.
What if, instead of assuming they were wrong or somehow mistaken, we assumed they were right? Many of us (myself included) are quick enough to internalise negative feedback and criticism, so how about internalising the good stuff too?
Let’s start today.
Do you have any suggestions about how to accept compliments with grace and gratitude? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.
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Image: Ben White