An uncomfortable person’s guide to accepting praise
It’s going to happen again, I know it. I just know it.
I’m standing in a crowded room on a Friday night in a busy pub, unwinding after a frenetic week where I pretended to be an adult (and almost succeeded in fooling everyone). A person I know is leaning in, a bit drunk, which is fine I guess, and I am slowly trying to inch backwards, because my usually expansive personal space bubble is feeling a little threatened.
I can feel it brewing in the air, this thing I dread. I see the person’s mouth beginning to shape into the introductory moue that signals only one thing: another compliment.
Fuck, what do I do?!
The person’s mouth continues to work. Oh, God. Christ. Here it comes. The person takes another big swig of their drink, and regurgitates it in verbal form, thwarting my subtle attempts at escape by stepping forward every time I step back. It’s like we’re dancing, only instead of a waltz, it’s an interpretive allegory for prison.
‘Your hair looks GREAT’, the person says.
There it is! Compliment claxon!!
The person waits to see the effect of their words have on me, running a thick index finger through my hair, uninvited, to reinforce the point. My smile, in response, grows wider. I can feel my lips straining against my teeth, which are tightly clenched. The person continues, the booze in their glass quickly disappearing and turning into a pink flush on the person’s face. I have been smiling this weird, fixed smile for so long and so hard now I can feel my jaw creaking. Anyone who truly knows me will see that my eyes are wide, dark and brimming with awkwardness. It never used to be this way, but for various different reasons, I find people and social situations rather draining these days. But still here I am, working through it, enjoying the mental break from my own imagination and feeling at least half-way human now that I’ve let myself out of the writing dungeon for a bit.
At least, I was. Until the compliments came.
The person continues, and imagine, if you will, tense, strings-only background music building subtly as they speak:
‘And I LOVE what you’ve done with your eye make-up,’ they say, and it’s as if they can sense my discomfort, like a terrier sniffing around at a rabbit hole, they can sense it, and are reveling in it, a bit like the aforementioned terrier then rolling around in freshly laid rabbit droppings.
How long can this go on for? I think, eyeing the fire exit desperately. A long time, it seems: the compliments keep coming, and I keep smiling, and smiling, and smiling, until I feel like my entire face will split in two, and all the skin will roll back like a pair of stockings rolling down a chubby thigh, and my whole skull will soon be on display for all and sundry to see, and all this person will do is say ‘OH MY GOD I LOVE WHAT YOU’VE DONE WITH YOUR EYE SOCKETS’ and this is hell for me, pure, actual hell.
Okay, so I think I have effectively established, in suitably dramatic form, that I am not good at or comfortable with accepting compliments. I love dishing them out, I am an enthusiastic person and love to offer praise where praise is due, but, I am also British. And we don’t, as a nation, do well with compliments. Why? Who knows. It’s ingrained in us, self-deprecation, avoidance, concentration on one’s flaws. All of my true friends are the same. We never throw compliments at each other, and if one does happen to squeak out, like a sneaky fart, we roll our eyes, throw things at each other, mutter ‘stop being a twat’, and move on as if it’s never happened.
From experience, compliments and our collective phobia of them starts becoming a thing during childhood, and somehow, it feels as if it is worse for girls. As a child, I remember a relentless string of comments along the following lines: ‘Oh, what a beautiful bag!’, ‘Oh, how pretty you look today!’, and ‘Oh, isn’t your hair adorable?’ and ‘look at those sparkly shoes!’
As the mother of a boy, I can tell you that small man-kids rarely get such a concentrated appraisal of their looks from such a young age. People don’t say ‘Oh, look at how blue that t-shirt is!’, they say instead ‘Look how hard working you are!’ and ‘Look how clever that Lego model is!’ and so on. You get the idea, without wishing to sink into a study on gender issues- from the word go, we are forced to confront other people’s ideas of our self-worth. Some of us, like me, are deeply uncomfortable with this. Others are taught to accept these verbal bouquets with alacrity and grace. Either way, our attitudes to this can be compounded by our parents: my mother is famously sparing with compliments, whereas my grandmother overcompensated as a result. The balance was not a good one: I developed a healthy skepticism and conviction that each and every compliment was an empty statement designed to make you feel better, and not actually reflective of any real beauty, or cleverness, or talent, or other personality trait.
And so I’m here, in this pub, and this person is raining nice words down on my head, and all I can think of is to run away, but I can’t.
So I do something I’ve decided is better than my usual response, which historically has been to gurn, blow out my cheeks, mumble ‘Cheers, now fuck off’ under my breath or, in extreme cases, throw myself out of the window and into the path of oncoming traffic.
No, I don’t do any of these things. Instead, I keep that smile where it is (by this point it is the only adhesive keeping my head from tumbling off my shoulders) and say two simple, life changing words:
And it works. The person nods, duty dispatched, and moves onto aggressively complimenting someone else. I sigh, and relax. Another mate of mine, who has been half-listening in amusement, winks at me from across the pub. ‘Well done,’ they mouth, chuckling, and I jam my middle finger up at them.
But here’s the thing I’ve realised about compliments. Sometimes, the compliment isn’t about you. It really isn’t. I find this to be the case particularly with writers. It’s a perverse truth that the very nature of our career now revolves around putting our work out there for others to scrutinise. Our immediate assumption is that people will critique and not compliment, so when kind words do come your way, it’s a bit of a shock. And this is why I’ve had to readdress my approach to accepting praise. Because not acknowledging it alienates your readers massively.
See, sometimes, a person has read your work and wants to talk about it, to reach out, to engage with what you’ve done. This person (and I have done this many times myself with writers I admire) has been moved by what you have written, and just needs to let that out somehow. The most logical way of imparting this enthusiasm is via a compliment, whether it’s a review, or a tweet, or whatever. And doing so makes that person feel more connected to you, like they are part of your story somehow, and they are simply sharing their love of your work with other people, as well as signalling to you that you have touched them in some way (no, not like that, you mucky devil). This is very different to the kind of compliment that was the subject of our opening scene in the pub, or the type of compliment a child typically receives-these are not people who are uncomfortable with silence, filling it with meaningless plaudits. These are real advocates of the things that matter to you, and as such, you should probably learn how to embrace this.
So here’s what I’ve learned, after a year of putting myself out there for people to comment upon, and listen up, because it’s quite simple really.
THE ONLY WAY TO RESPOND TO A COMPLIMENT, EVEN IF IT MAKES YOUR SKIN CRAWL TO DO SO, IS TO SMILE AND SAY ‘THANK YOU’.
Always. Tattoo it onto the palms of your hands if you have to. Eventually, it will come naturally to you, and guess what happens as a result? You start to have a little faith in yourself. Its a positive reinforcement cycle that miraculously, despite your own self-awareness, does work.
Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about pervy, uninvited remarks about your tits or smile or hair or anything else that is actually irrelevant to what you’re about as a creator (unless, of course, you want that kind of attention, each to their own). I’m talking about the compliments that actually add something to your life. It’s important to remember that you are not an object, and there is more to life than slavishly trying to gain approval from others.
BUT: this does not mean that you can’t school yourself to handle that approval when it does come your way. I see so many talented people who are deeply uncomfortable accepting praise about the thing over which they have worked so hard, and truly, it’s got to stop. And I say this as the worst type of hypocrite, a woman notorious for running away from compliments.
Take it from me, dearest readers, life is better if you let the good words in, and attach some value to them.
And, may I say: I LOVE WHAT YOU’VE DONE WITH YOUR HAIR TODAY.