An Open Letter to All the Beautiful, Talented and Awesome People of the World.
Guys, we need to talk about compliments.
Many of you really, really suck at taking them. Sometimes it’s because you think accepting a compliment will make you look arrogant. Sometimes it’s because you have low self-esteem. Either way, I really want this to stop.
Arrogance vs. Modesty
There’s a bit in Mean Girls, possibly the Internet’s favourite movie, where Queen Bee(yotch) Regina says to Cady, the main character:
“You’re, like, really pretty.”
“Thank you,” says Cady.
Regina pounces. “So you agree.”
“You think you’re really pretty.”
And I think that’s pretty much what’s going on your heads. Rationally, you know that the person offering the compliment is probably not just trying to trap you into saying something that sounds cocky. Most likely, they genuinely admire the trait or achievement they’re trying to praise and want to make you feel good by telling you. But you feel compelled by modesty to argue.
This post by author Bronwyn Green, which is what inspired me to write this post, sums it up nicely.
I know plenty of women in my age bracket who have difficulty being proud of themselves and an equal amount of difficulty accepting compliments. Probably because saying thank you feels a lot like bragging. Instead, we point out what’s wrong with our hair, our weight, the project we just finished, etc. We downplay it instead of just enjoying the fact that someone said something kind to us.
Like Bronwyn, I think this is most likely a societal thing. It will probably have been forced on you to a greater or lesser extent depending on who you are and where you grew up. Modesty is a virtue. It’s “polite”.
Personally, I think modesty is out of date. You won’t get far in the world today by writing “I would be reasonably successful in this role” on a job application or “You could probably do better” on your online dating profile. Not only is it okay to know what your strengths are and to talk about them, it’s often the only way to be successful.
Don’t get me wrong: I hate arrogance too. It’s probably my least favourite trait and it will put me off a person immediately. But the failure to be modest does not make you arrogant. It’s not a binary, on-off thing, where you have to be one or the other. It’s a continuum.
Saying “Thank you” doesn’t mean that you think you’re entitled to receive all the compliments that are coming to you and then some. In fact, it doesn’t even have to mean that you agree with what was said. It just means that you acknowledge it and that you appreciate the speaker’s kindness. That’s polite – and it doesn’t involve minimising your qualities and achievements.
Of course, being modest is very different to genuinely believing that you’re not worthy of praise. Way too many of you awesome people feel like this and I know I can’t really help you. I’ve been in the position before of liking a person much more than they liked themselves and it sucks, but fixing that is a change that has to come from inside.
What I will do is offer an analogy, fuzzily remembered from a self-help book called ‘Being Happy’ by Andrew Matthews. I read it when I was a kid and didn’t really have any problems (unless we’re counting my bizarre and very real fear of the wind and unusually large daisies – and perhaps we should). Several parts have stayed with me into problematic adulthood, though, including this idea: a compliment is a gift. Perhaps you don’t think you deserve a gift. But someone did, so they gave you one.
There are some situations where a gift can legitimately make you feel uneasy – generally if it’s a lavish one from someone you don’t know very well or don’t like, or that you can’t afford to match with a gift of your own. Similarly, it’s okay not to accept a compliment that makes you uncomfortable because it comes from someone who doesn’t know you well enough to give it or seems to have an ulterior motive.
But let’s assume a thoughtful, well-meant compliment-gift from someone close to you: a friend, for example, who says you look really nice today. If you’re self-conscious of your appearance, you’ll want to reject the compliment. It doesn’t suit you. It’s the wrong colour, it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t match anything else you’ve got. If it was a physical gift, you wouldn’t say any of that. You’d say “thank you”, because the thought behind a gift makes you feel loved even if the item itself is not something you can use. But people reject the gift of a compliment. “No, I don’t,” you might say. “I’ve got the wrong body shape, I’ve got bad skin, my hair looks awful, I can’t afford nice clothes.”
Maybe listing your flaws like that makes you feel worse about them. Maybe you do it so often that it doesn’t make a difference any more. But it will definitely make the compliment-giver feel bad – and, especially if they’re someone you love, that will make you feel pretty crappy too.
The truth is that a compliment is an opinion. Maybe, compared to everyone else on the planet, you’re not unusually smart, or pretty, or talented. Unless you’re a celebrity, though, no one is comparing you to everyone else. The only people you can hope to impress are the ones who know you’re alive – and, if they’re complimenting you, that means it’s working!
So please, awesome people, just give it a try. The next time someone offers you a compliment, take it. Say “Thank you.” Not “Thank you, but…” Just “Thank you.” I think you’ll feel a little better.