How to accept a compliment (or at least put on a convincing performance)

An uncomfortable person’s guide to accepting praise

Yay, compliments (groan)

Hideous, isn’t it

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.


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.




Imposter Syndrome and authors: how being so hard on yourself is hurting your writing  

At some point, these people are going to realise I am a phoney, I thought sadly, as I flipped back through the pages of my newly published short story collection. The cover shone with that new book sheen, the pages were crisp and the spine bore my name. All of my lifelong desires sat there in my hands, dreams manifested into reality, metaphysical to physical via one papery oblong form: my book. I was finally a published author!  

And yet.

And yet, all I could do at that moment in time was leaf through the pages with a heart heavy as a stone, desperately scanning the words for errors, wincing at phrases I suddenly found uncomfortable or clumsy, and squirming as I thought of a better way to write this sentence, or that paragraph. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps, just perhaps, I did not deserve this book. That my hard work was misplaced, and somehow inauthentic. The thought became a certainty, and the certainty gestated, morphed, split the sheath of its skin, emerged, larger, hungrier, and slowly became a huge, terrifying beast that chewed hungrily at the back of my mind: you aren’t good enough, it said, as it ate, ravenous. Give up now. Everyone will laugh at you.

You will fail.

I overcame it, went on to write a whole lot more. But gosh, it was difficult, that first imposter attack.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I am sending a brand new novel out to literary agents and publishers for consideration. This is something I have not done before, having been quite happy to just publish my own work or work with smaller presses. When I have worked with indie presses, they have invariably approached me, which takes my own doubt about whether or not they think my stuff is any good out of the equation.

But this? Sending my scrappy little weird genre-blender manuscript off to big, important agents? Yikes. Yiiiiiiikkkkkeeees. Surely they will say no (one already has, although they were incredibly supportive and courteous about it).

This, my friends, is called Imposter Syndrome, and boy, it’s a stone cold bitch.

How do you know if you have Imposter Syndrome?  

A caveat (everything I write is riddled with caveats, this post is no exception): I am not a psychologist or mental health expert, I am a writer with an interest in the topic. So the following is a personal take on a commonly spoken about psychological phenomena that affects writers, and is not intended to sound official, or to be grounded in anything other than anecdote.

So, with this aside, how do you know if you are suffering from Imposter Syndrome?

Let me tell you how it feels from this end. There is an amazing scene in an episode of Family guy where Peter Griffin finds himself in front of an electric keyboard in a music shop.

imposter syndrome is a bitchThe keyboard comes with a pre-loaded demo mode (remember those? Oh, Casio). He presses the button, and mimes playing a happy tune. He’s enjoying himself, having fun, no harm done. A guy wanders up, watches him, impressed, and then collapses into self-righteous anger as he realises Peter is not, in fact, playing the keyboard, only miming. This guy then becomes a running joke, following Peter around all episode, shouting ‘Hey, you’re a phoney! This guy’s a GREAT BIG FAT PHONEY!’

Questionable use of pop-culture to illustrate my point aside, this is what imposter syndrome feels like, to me. It feels like an angry, disappointed dude with a megaphone trailing around after you, shouting about your failures to anyone who will hear. That guy is, in reality, your subconscious, I think, working through the fear that inevitably comes with being a creative person who gives birth to things out in public, onto the big wide world stage, the logical progression of which is critique, both good and bad.

But don’t let my take on this lead you in anyway. I asked my friends, peers and followers on Twitter to describe how it felt in a single sentence,

and this is what they said:

imposter syndrome explained

Now, just read through all of those. It’s utterly heartbreaking, isn’t it?

(FYI, if you’ve gotten this far in the post and are having any thoughts along the lines of ‘oh cheer up,’ or ‘oh my god these people are just snowflakes’ or ‘fuck sake, aren’t there more important things going on in the world?’ then you can gladly leave the room, the door is over there, watch it doesn’t hit you on the arse as you go. Seriously. Go on. ‘Bye.)

The full tweet is here, if you want to read all of the responses, as there were too many to show in this post .

The point I’m trying to make is that Imposter Syndrome affects everyone differently, and also: you are not alone. This is very important, because sometimes, the act of discussing how you feel with others who feel the same is hugely cathartic and helpful. Some of the tweets above are from writers and creators in my circle that I admire enormously, and even the big hitters, the literary megastars, the celebrities and Moghuls experience these feelings, as so eloquently described by the mighty Neil Gaiman himself.

Understanding that you aren’t alone is, and can be, very useful in tackling Imposter Syndrome.

Putting yourself on the page: why imposter syndrome stalks writers

So why do we seem to get it so bad? Well, I guess it’s not difficult to see why. The very nature of being a writer is that you open yourself up to critique. That in itself makes your chances of becoming overwhelmed with these feelings much more likely. Combine this with the ready-made pressures of our digital society, where carefully crafted social media personalities are our new currency, and the constant strain of living up to that hype is exhausting. You are essentially opening the door for anxiety just by trying to be who you want to be. Add to this the immediate cruelty of others, who can, with a casually composed tweet, tear down a person’s confidence in seconds, and it’s understandable why those in creative industries sometimes buckle under the weight of everything.

There is a flipside to this, however, which helps me sometimes, and that is this: if I don’t put myself out there, then I don’t even get to feel like an imposter, because I have created nothing around which this feeling can feed.

To break it down even further :

If I do nothing, take no risks at all, then sure- I might feel ‘safe’ from the fear of failure. But my burning desire to write or draw or sing or act or cook or create anything at all just cannot be squashed, and this is something that I forget, all the time. I need to write, and that is BRILLIANT. Why don’t I appreciate this, more? I fucking wrote something! I put it out there, for people to see! That is a wonderful, sparkling, nuclear flash of brilliance and it should be enjoyed for what it is- creativity spreading its wings. Regardless of how it feels, afterwards, the important thing is that I did it in the first place. Many others, don’t. I force myself to remember that, as often as I can.

This is all well and good, but Imposter Syndrome is a complicated demon. For writers, it presents itself in a number of ways that really fuck with our actual, you know, writing:

  • Procrastination
  • Obsessive self-editing and critique
  • Writing yourself into a loop
  • Abandoning projects
  • Having difficulty plotting
  • Losing a character’s ‘voice’
  • Continually comparing your work to your contemporaries
  • Chastising yourself for being unoriginal
  • Eating too many biscuits
  • Drinking gin angrily (to be honest, I know no other way)

So how do you defeat imposter syndrome? Killing the monster in your brain

Have you seen the Babadook? If not, the film is about a small boy and his mother battling with grief. They are terrorised by the Babadook, a horrifying fictional boogeyman that eats away at their sanity and reason, ruins their day to day lives, their relationship with others, and stops them from moving forward. Sound familiar?

the babadook as a metaphor for grief The Babadook, in this instance, is a metaphor for grief and trauma, but what interests me about this example is how the Mother character, Amelia, defeats the beast destroying her future (spoiler alert).

She doesn’t.

What? I hear you think? What are you blithering on about now, Amor? (Blither is a grossly underused non-word and I love it).

What happens at the end is a dramatic confrontation, sure. Amelia faces the Babadook head on, and her fear and trauma turns to rage, and a desperate need for survival. After this, however, there is a plot-twist. We see Amelia and her son Samuel happy once again, healing, going on with their lives. And then we see that Amelia has not banished the Babadook from her life, but rather, it now lives, locked in the basement, where she visits it, feeds it, and there is a truce, a bit like Simon Pegg playing video games with Nick Frost at the end of Shaun of the Dead (we were getting a little serious, after all).

I guess what I am trying to say is that this feeling will probably, for many of us, never go away. Every success will feed it further, and every failure validate it thus.

But, it is possible to acknowledge this as part of the life-cycle of a writer. It’s possible to acknowledge that it comes with the territory, is part of the day job, and may never ever go away. So, with that realisation, comes the next stage: if I can’t defeat the monster in my brain, can I at least lock him away, out of sight, in the basement? Might that be enough to get me through?

Still with me? Good, in that case, I’ll finish this existential ramble by listing my ways of tackling Imposter Syndrome in the hope that they might help you, too:

  • Go and find your champions.

I don’t mean your Nan. My Nan is my biggest champion, but I’ve been trained from birth to roll my eyes every time she throws praise my way (I’m British, afterall, we don’t do compliments very well, which I guess is part of the problem). BUT there will be a core team of people who are on your side, and who think you are great, so go and find them and get that ego massaged a little. Explain the predicament you are in, and try and enjoy their support for what it is: they think you rock, so that’s good, isn’t it?

  • Take a break

There is no point trying to continue on through intense feelings of fraudulence and confusion. So, take a break. Step away for a while, go for a walk, listen to some good music, watch a movie, maybe even read an old, favourite book and try to recapture that love and magic that you have for the craft, just a little- not by comparing yourself to others, but by simply enjoying something for what it is. The world will not end if you do not finish your word-count for the day. Maybe even have a gin and tonic, but not too many- take it from me.


Good reviews, or bad reviews. Just don’t. I don’t mean ever. I just mean when you are wracked with self-doubt. WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS TO YOURSELF? It’s like texting that person you know you shouldn’t text, it’s like rubbing acid into an open wound- stop it! Immediately! Don’t make me come over there, or I will put you over my knee, I swear. Put the reviews down.

  • Consider taking a social media break

You’re an adult, you know why. Social media is poison, sometimes- cut it out of your life for a while, and let your poor, tired, over-stimulated brain rest a bit.

  • Find a beta-reader and/or a mentor

You know that person whose work you really admire? They had to start somewhere too, and the chances are, they will be sympathetic to your plight. Maybe they can critique something you wrote. This can be a great confidence booster but also just REALLY helpful in making you a better writer. In all likelihood, they have also experienced feelings of Imposterhood (I’m going to start a new society, the Imposterhood, sticker designs welcome) and can also talk to you about it in helpful ways. (Another caveat: don’t take it to heart if that person has too much on to critique your work. There will always be someone else.)


This goes back to my Babadook point above. So you feel like you don’t deserve any of this?

So what?

Fuck it, keep going anyway! I know I’m shit at running, but it doesn’t stop me from putting on my trainers and my too-tight leggings and going for a jog, because I want to stay fit, not win the Olympics. So you might not win a literary prize or sell millions of copies of your books, but who cares? You write because you love to. Don’t let anything interfere with that, not least, yourself, or the monster in your brain.

I hope some of this has been helpful to at least a few of you. For my part, I am a reluctantly proud member of the Imposterhood, and I don’t see it changing any time soon. And, as a friend of mine said when he read my new book, the one I had been so convinced was a sham, ‘It isn’t shit, Gemma!’, and so, with that, I crack on with the next.

If I can do it, you sure as shit can too.