The Art of Accepting Compliments

My lilacs are at least twenty years old, having grown into enormous, rangy bushes that burst into lovely color every spring, filling the air around my house with their delicate scent. This is a photo taken last spring.The bushes were just starting to bud this year when a late April snow storm nipped them all. The buds all shriveled and died. The bushes themselves were damaged by the heavy, wet snow, with huge pieces breaking off and splintering down almost to the core.

I’ve been telling people this is a metaphor for my life lately. I’m only partly joking. The last 14 months of my life (oddly enough corresponding with the current Presidency, don’t think I haven’t noticed) have been very difficult. The damaged lilacs, just on the verge of blooming, seem very apt these days as a depiction of my life.

But recently I ran across a thread on Twitter that made me pause. It was about self-deprecation with respect to your writing, but this is something I struggle with in general:

 

I shared the tweet, adding my own comment, “Guilty. I’ve been digging that groove deeper every day of my life. The problem is self-praise sounds like bull sh*t to me. Gotta work on both issues.”

This resulted in one of my Twitter friends suggesting looking in a mirror every day and saying something nice to myself. We tweeted back and forth on the subject, but the truth is yesterday was a bad day in so many ways and my ability to believe I was anything other than a horrible human being and a talentless hack was nil. I wasn’t very encouraging or cheerful in response.

I’ve tried doing the positive affirmation thing. I even went so far once as to record a bunch of affirmations so I could listen to them daily in a kind of meditative state. I created a journal, lovingly decorated, where I could record my kick-ass affirmations too.

I make talismans for myself, like the I Know My Value bracelet (because I love the Peggy Carter quote so much) and my Persistence bracelet I got from MyIntent.org.

I do these things because every day I need to reverse the well-worn narrative that’s been playing in my head as long as I can remember–the one that I was taught so well I took over the lessons long after the original input ceased.

There’s a Facebook post that’s been circulating on my feed recently about Jim Carey and his self-belief in his comedic talent, even when he was shot down again and again in the early days. I find that kind of belief and persistence admirable, but I don’t understand how someone can have it. How someone can make themselves believe if the belief isn’t there in the first place.

There’s a great scene in the old Steve Martin movie Roxanne, where Martin’s Cyrano-type character Charlie is accosted in a bar by a jerk who attempts to insult him by calling him “Big Nose”. Charlie comes back with, “Is that all you’ve got?”

In the ensuing scene, Charlie insults himself with 20 better insults than the one he’s just received.

 

 

I confess, I have long identified with Charlie. I’ve always been of the mindset that you can’t say anything to hurt me because I’ve already said worse to myself. But at some point, what is a useful coping mechanism for getting through middle school becomes a chain around your legs that prevents you from getting what you want out of life.

The thing is, I’ve always been better at accepting insults than compliments. I don’t trust compliments. When someone compliments me out of the blue, I have a tendency to squint and think, “What do they want?” On the rare occasions a compliment comes my way, my response is always padded with qualifiers. Thank you, but this isn’t my best work. Thank you, but actually, I’ve gained weight. And so on.

I’m working on a conversation between characters in the current book about this very subject, where the heroine explains how difficult it is for her to believe compliments about her looks after growing up hearing how ugly she was. Because I think this is important. I think we need to stop running ourselves down–our appearance, the decisions we’ve made in life, our abilities, our intelligence–all of it. I was raised to believe self-deprecation was far more appropriate than arrogance, but the laughable thing is arrogance will never be one of my flaws. I’ll be lucky if I stretch up to reach a point of self-confidence.

And yet most days, it’s a struggle not to fall back into the old patterns. Probably because arrogance and ‘putting yourself forward’ were portrayed as something far uglier to me than believing in yourself. But I know the power of the mind. I know the things you tell yourself on a daily basis are the things that come true. Maybe you don’t look at yourself in the mirror and think how ugly/old/fat you are. But perhaps you tell yourself you don’t deserve that raise, or you aren’t that good a writer, or you’ll never get ahead, or bad things always happen to you. On the surface, these don’t seem like terrible things to say to yourself. You probably think they’re true. But are they really true or is it that your belief makes it so?

In the past week two compliments have come my way that I do trust because I trust the people who made them. The first came from a friend I’ve known since college, who is well-aware of my sensitivity toward aging. Out of the blue, she said, “I know you won’t believe me, but honestly, I can’t see any difference in your appearance now than ten years ago. It’s like you’ve stopped aging.”

Hahahahahaha. No seriously. I can see the changes, even if she can’t. But this friend isn’t prone to complimenting lightly just to do so, and I found myself oddly able to accept her kind words.

The second came last night. I’d had a horrible day to cap off an extremely stressful couple of weeks. Tearfully, I expressed to the SO that I wasn’t sure how much more I could take, given the past year. He had me sit down while he made dinner. He went all out–grilling steak kabobs with baked potatoes, and serving them with apple pie, salted caramel ice cream, and a bottle of Merlot. All my favorites.

And then he apologized for not realizing sooner I was struggling. “You just always seem so resilient.”

Resilient. I like that. I like to believe that’s true, and so it is easier for me to accept the compliment without any added ‘buts’. It also makes it easier for me to lift up my chin when the Next Bad Thing comes down the pike and say, “Yeah, I got this. I’m resilient.”

Those are the kinds of words–the ones I can believe in–that make it possible to undo some of the harm of a lifetime of negative self-chatter. 

Remember the lilac bush that isn’t blooming this year? The one that is such a perfect metaphor for my life right now?

I just took this picture just a few minutes ago.

Huh.

Well, what do you know?

 

 

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