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"I'd rather take coffee than compliments just now."

"I'd rather take coffee than compliments just now." - Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

I hate compliments.

(And I don't mean complimentary bread at a restaurant. I'll take that any day.)

Let me re-phrase: I am terrible at being on the receiving end of compliments in the moment. They make me feel awkward. They make me crawl out of my skin. They make me feel exposed. My knee-jerk response to compliments is to diffuse them and turn the topic away from me. I spew ungraceful responses at the complimenter, which I immediately regret, and which cause my internal dialogue to further spiral in to negativity.

Here is a classic scenario: Complimenter - "That dress looks really nice on you." My reaction - "It has pockets."

And another:

Complimenter - "You sing that aria so well." My reaction - "Massenet did all the work. I just had to sing what was on the page."

Worse is when I feel I am undeserving of the compliments. My internal dialogue of, "that was terrible" is at odds with an external compliment of, "you did a nice job." My immediate reaction is skepticism towards the complimenter. Did they just say that to make me feel better? Are they being sarcastic? They may think I did a good job now, but they'll eventually realize I'm an imposter.

I have decided that it is high time for me to make a conscious effort at becoming a gracious compliment accepter. Receiving compliments, like most things, is a learnable, practicable skill. This blog post is my excuse to put this effort in to words and hold myself publicly accountable. I invite you all to practice along with me, so we are prepared to face a sea of compliments and appreciation for our art when public performances begin again.

Let's start by looking at why we give compliments. I have a difficult time saying things I do not believe. When I give a compliment, it is because I feel something so sincerely that I have to put it in to words. Those words are never idle or over-stated; they are pure and sincere and from the heart. I imagine it is much the same for others. Compliments are just as much about the feelings of the complimenter as they are about the receiver; They are a gift, specifically chosen, to express a feeling of appreciation or admiration. To turn away a compliment sincerely given says, "I do not value your gift."

The first step to learning to receive compliments is to empathize with the complimenter. Note: I am not saying you have to internally agree or sympathize with their words; just take the time to understand that their words are given to express their appreciation, which is valid regardless of your feelings. If you cannot receive a compliment internally for your own sake, receive it externally for the giver's sake.

To receive a compliment externally, start with a smile. Smiling, even a fake one, activates the release of feel-good chemicals in your brain, which relaxes your body and can lower your heart rate and blood pressure. (Don't believe me? Check out this article from Psychology Today about the magic of smiling). Starting with a smile will not only put you more at ease, but it will put the complimenter at ease, as well. It is also a moment to pause, to collect your thoughts, and to proceed gracefully.

After you smile, simply say "Thank you." If you trust yourself to say more, "that's so kind of you to say," "thank you for coming to the performance," or "I'm so glad you enjoyed it," are wonderful follow-ups. If you don't trust yourself to say more, a simple "Thank you," is a great first step.

Finally, after you smile and say "Thank you," pause and listen. You will find that many complimenters enjoy an opening to further express their appreciation. Pausing gives them that opening, and it prevents you from saying anything you'll later regret. Listening to others is a compliment in and of itself. As Henry David Thoreau said, “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”

Practicing receiving compliments externally is the easy part, because those three simple steps - start with a smile, say "Thank you," and pause and listen - are systematic and immediately affective.

Practicing receiving compliments internally, on the other hand, is difficult and more abstract.

It is so easy to hone in on our own perceived failings that we ignore our successes and good qualities entirely. For this, I offer a simple exercise from Dr. Jennice Vilhauer:

  • Keep a pad of paper next to your bed and every night before you go to sleep, write down three things you liked about yourself that day.

  • In the morning, read the list before you get out of bed.

  • Keep adding three new things to your list every day to keep the list growing.

  • Do this every day for 30 days.

Receiving compliments is a learnable, practicable skill. Why not start practicing by receiving compliments from your toughest critic: Yourself.

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