Compliments are one of life’s little joys. I love giving compliments, and as much as I enjoy receiving compliments, I struggle to accept them without denying their truth right off the bat. I don’t think I’m alone in that.
I don’t know where I learned that denying compliments was something expected of me. I know I grew up being as humble as I could about my academics, because being proud and happy about a good grade pissed off my classmates, leading to social alienation, and was hard for my sister to face repeatedly because she had undiagnosed dyslexia as a tyke. Whether than academic humility bled over into all other areas of my life or whether I emulated the habit of denying compliments, I’m unsure. What I DO know is that I have long struggled to accept a compliment paid to me, no matter the source, and that has affected my self esteem and likely affected my relationships with others.
I love complimenting other people. Being able to put a smile on someone’s face with a single comment brings me delight, and I always hope they believe I am being genuine. Teenage me was extremely wary of compliments, suspecting an ulterior motive for any positive comment made about me. Is this person trying to have a laugh at my expense? Are they trying to butter me up? Are they just bored and fucking around? I played all compliments off as attempts to undermine me somehow, which was very likely the exact opposite of the intention behind those comments. Adult me became a bit less suspicious but no better at accepting compliments.
When I started working at a garden centre, I had a position as a cashier. I helped hundreds of people, but one party that came through burned itself into my brain. A grandfather and a tiny little girl, maybe three years old, came through my till. The little girl was seated in the little seat in the cart, and was shyly staring at me for the entire interaction. I smiled at her, and she smiled coyly back before turning away and stuffing her face into her grandpa’s sleeve. I rang all their items through, and as they rounded the end of the till, the little girl whispered something to her grandpa. He smiled, turned to me, and chuckled as he said, “She wants me to tell you she thinks you’re very pretty.” I almost burst into tears on the spot. I definitely teared up and couldn’t help but grin the biggest grin I had in that place. I thanked them both, and said I thought she was very pretty too. She smiled too, and we waved goodbye as they walked out to the parking lot.
That interaction was undoubtedly cute beyond measure, but it highlighted something important for me: a little child, without ambition or motivation, paid me a compliment. There was no reason for it. She didn’t know me. She stood to gain absolutely nothing from it, and yet she told her grandpa to tell me. Sharing something positive you feel about someone else can be genuine and can make their day.
Being the person paying the compliment is a wonderful position to be in, but having your compliment, paid in all earnestness and with pure intention, played off or denied by the person you’re complimenting is a shitty feeling. It can make you feel devalued. It can make you feel as though the person you’re complimenting somehow disagrees with your perspective on maybe more than just their self-image. In some ugly situations, it can lead to you inadvertently shouldering some emotional load or labour from someone whose esteem is bad enough or who is looking for bolstering. I am guilty of having sought affirmation from others from others by denying their compliment, in hopes that they’ll buckle down and really try to impress upon me their belief. I haven’t done that in a long time, thankfully, but I’m familiar with why people do it. It’s a sad place to find yourself in, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to put people in a place where they either need to sweeten their original compliment or come off as an asshole by backing out. Having your compliment dismissed or denied is an unpleasant feeling, and while I’ve gotten a lot better at not taking it personally qhen people do it, it’s made me re-evaluate my approach to accepting compliments.
If someone is paying you a compliment, my approach now is to accept it at face value. Just take it. Someone thought your new haircut looked great, another person loves your smile, someone else thinks your dad jokes are the best.
Let people share their positive impression of you with you, because you deserve to feel nice and they deserve to be heard.
Of course in some situations compliments aren’t being paid with pure intention, but until there’s a pattern of behavior to detect, take the compliment and evaluate that person’s behavior as it develops. There’s no sense in shutting someone down out of unwarranted suspicion. Fostering a spirit and environment of love and appreciation goes a long way in making your own world, and the broader one that we all share, a happier place.