by Kassandra Lamb (Note: this post was inspired by some of the writings of Shan Jeniah Burton on her blog)
When someone gives you a compliment, do you immediately feel like you should say something self-deprecating? Or at least shuffle your feet and say, “Aw, shucks. It was nothing.”
Some of you may be wondering what I’m talking about. But those of us raised before 1980 (and maybe some after that period) were taught to deflect compliments. This was taught more by example than by blatant words. The message we absorbed was that if you didn’t respond with something self-deprecating, then you were arrogant.
Now there’s nothing wrong with being humble. Nobody likes a truly arrogant person. As my mother used to say, “We all put our pants on one leg at a time.”
The dictionary defines the word humility as “a modest opinion of one’s importance, rank, etc.” Hmm. So I looked up modest – “having or showing a moderate or humble estimate of one’s merits, importance, etc.; free from vanity, egotism, boastfulness, or great pretensions.”
Okay, I’ll buy the last part. But is it necessary to only have a “moderate estimate of one’s merits” in order to be humble? How about “an honest estimate of one’s merits?”
I like the definition given by John Bradshaw, a speaker at a workshop I attended many years ago. The workshop was about toxic shame (or UNhealthy humility). Bradshaw defined healthy humility as “being aware that you are an imperfect human being, just like everybody else.”
He went on to tell the story of a time when he was presenting his workshop to an auditorium of over a thousand people. The workshop was going very well, and he was feeling quite full of himself as he left the stage for the mid-morning coffee break. Then he looked down, and realized he’d been prancing around that stage for the last two hours, in front of all those people, with his fly open! “Talk about a healthy reminder of my imperfections,” he said.
But let’s get back to the subject of compliments. Being humble in a healthy way does not mean that we can’t acknowledge what we are good at. We all have strengths and weaknesses. If we are able to feel good about our strengths, then we will be able to acknowledge our short-comings more readily.
So by all means, be humble in a healthy way, but don’t deflect compliments. Doing so does harm in two ways:
#1: It’s insulting to the person giving you the compliment. S/he just told you how good you look and now you’re saying that’s not true because you’ve gained some weight recently or your dress is an old one or your hair just wouldn’t behave this morning.
You’re essentially saying that they are either lying or they’re an idiot for not realizing that you don’t really deserve that compliment.
#2: You are not letting the compliment sink in so that it can feed your self-esteem. Good self-esteem is essential to leading a happy life (see my post on this). And even those of us with a good foundation of self-esteem need validation now and again that we really are okay, and that we do certain things well.
Good self-esteem also gives us the nerve to venture into new territory, to try new things. At those times, we especially need others’ heart-felt compliments to sink in, so we know that our efforts are working, that we are making progress and learning that new skill.
I know this all too well as someone who ventured into the world of writing fiction in my latter years. It was the compliments of those who read my first book that kept me going. All of them said it was good, but what convinced me the most that I should keep on writing was the note of pleasant surprise in many of their voices. They hadn’t expected it to be good, but it really was. That’s how I knew the compliments were sincere. 🙂
One other thing about accepting compliments. It’s hard to do at first. You will get a weird feeling inside when you just say “thank you” and nothing more. There may even be an awkward pause in the conversation, as the other person waits for the usual deflection.
Here’s something I figured out when I was trying to break myself of the compliment-deflection habit. Go ahead and say something else – something that agrees with them without sounding arrogant. This fills that awkward space inside of you, and in the conversation.
Here are a couple examples:
Complimenter: “Hey, I really like your outfit.”
Complimentee: “Oh thank you. It’s one of my favorites.”
Or “Thank you. I get a lot of compliments on it.”
You will probably catch yourself slipping back into the self-deprecation at times. I certainly did, and still do occasionally. But keep practicing. Responding this way to compliments will make both you and the complimenter a lot happier!
What are your thoughts? Did you learn to be a compliment deflector as a kid?
Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.
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K.B. OwenMarch 18, 2014 at 10:44 am
Great post, Kass! I used to be a big-time compliment deflector. It’s just how I was raised. Through maturity and feedback from friends, I learned to accept them gracefully. It’s a wonderful thing to be complimented, but it still feels a little awkward to me sometimes!
Kassandra LambMarch 18, 2014 at 3:45 pm
It was big-time awkward for me at first, Kathy. That’s when I stumbled on the idea of saying something additional to ease past that awkward feeling. It usually works. Sometimes I still feel like shuffling my feet though. 🙂
Kirsten WeissMarch 18, 2014 at 4:26 pm
I remember when I was in the 5th grade, a teacher complimented me on an assignment in front of another student. I said “thank you.” When the teacher walked away, the other student (a girl), berated me for accepting the compliment. This had the opposite affect she’d intended – from then on, I was more determined than ever to accept compliments where I could find them!
Kassandra LambMarch 18, 2014 at 4:48 pm
Wow, she actually berated you?!? I would probably have the same reaction to such a blatant attack. Sounds like it turned out to be a good thing for you, Kirsten, in the long run.
Shan Jeniah BurtonMarch 19, 2014 at 1:05 pm
Wow! It’s so cool that my post, inspired by my friend Julie Persons and her tiny porcelain doll, Claudia, inspired this!
It says something about using our voices to speak what’s within us. =)
Obviously, I’ve struggled with accepting compliments. My father had a saying, when I was growing up, “If I didn’t tease you, you wouldn’t know I love you.” The environment in our home went beyond training us not to accept compliments lest we get a “swelled head”; it was generally an environment where humiliating others was far more acceptable. And it stretched beyond our family and out into the world – my parents were openly derisive of those with whom they didn’t agree.
I’m learning, though, and this post helps. I hadn’t thought of substituting the expected deflection with a statement of agreement. That’s a simple choice to make, and I’m going to practice it!
This is a wonderful post, Kassandra! =D
Kassandra LambMarch 19, 2014 at 2:43 pm
Shan, you often touch my heart and inspire me with your blog posts, so I’m very happy that this one was meaningful to you.
My family of origin was quite dysfunctional as well. We weren’t put down per se–the dysfunction took other forms–but compliments were few and far between. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized my mother really did love me and thought I was pretty neat. She never would have told me that as a kid because of that whole “swelled head” fear.
I’m glad you like my little substitution gimmick. As you say it’s ‘a simple choice to make’ and it gets everybody past that awkward moment.
Karen McFarlandMarch 19, 2014 at 3:30 pm
Oh my goodness, what a wonderful topic Kassandra. It’s a subject that I think most of us struggle with. I think the negative reflection deflect can stem from anywhere really. It can come from a parent, as in the case of dear Shan, in which I totally relate to her father’s statement. I heard the same thing. Yet, it can come from someone who is jealous, as was the case with Kirsten which can create a life-long scar. There’s a fine line between modesty and breaking your own back with a pat. But it’s good to know that we can acknowledge our positive attributes without browbeating ourselves to death. We all need a positive foundation to build good, healthy self-esteem. And I’m so happy for you that you’ve received wonderful feedback on your writing. Thanks for sharing that because it gives me hope for my own writing since I too started to write later in life. 🙂
Kassandra LambMarch 19, 2014 at 8:39 pm
It is a fine line, Karen, and when we are close to the line, I guess it is best to err toward modesty. But we still need to let the compliments sink in, and not negate what the other person is saying, so we can have that good foundation, as you say.
And one thing about late-blooming authors like you and me, we sure do have lots of life experience to draw on in our stories. 🙂
Changing Your Self-Esteem Filters | Pirkko RytkonenApril 28, 2014 at 12:30 pm
[…] conscious effort to let the good stuff in. Accept the compliments rather than deflecting them. (See my post for hints on how to do this.) Take a long look at the people who say they like or love you. Are […]