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Why I Can’t Take a Compliment

It has nothing to do with what I've done, and everything to do with who I am.

“You are a phenomenal husband!”

That’s what my mother wrote to me as we were instant messaging this morning.

I had just explained to her that over the weekend, while my wife was out of town, I cleaned our house. And in typical motherly fashion, my mom couldn’t pass up the chance to (unnecessarily) praise her son.

I do not bring this up to gloat, to pat myself on the back or to convince the world that my mother’s perception is indeed reality.

I bring this up because, upon hearing someone tell me I was phenomenal, I felt anything but.

I Am an Enigma

Compliments are pure upside.

They’re flattering. They cost nothing. And their sole purpose is to make their recipient feel appreciated.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word as, “An expression of esteem, respect, affection or admiration” — four pillars on which an accomplished life is built, and four prisms through which anyone would want to be viewed.

So it’s a strange thing to reject.

Yet I’ve been rejecting them for as long as I can remember. And I’m not sure why.

I Am My Father’s Son

One theory I have is that it’s inherited behavior.

When it comes to declining compliments, few are quicker on the draw than my father.

It doesn’t matter what he’s just done or how indebted/impressed his admirer is, he dismisses the sentiment and deflects the attention, either to another subject or back onto the subject who offered the compliment.

One second I’m saying what great a golf shot he just hit; the next he’s saying he could never hit a shot as great as I could.

He’s a master at flipping the script — even though the flip leaves him pinned against the mat, deprived of the appreciation he deserves.

I’ve learned countless lessons from my father, from how to be a man and husband to how to write the letter “p.”

But after nearly four decades of observation, I’m not sure if my mimicking of his modesty was learned, or if it’s encoded on my DNA.

I Am Doing What I’m Supposed to be Doing

As a sports fan, my wife, Emily, is excitable and passionate and knowledgeable.

But one thing she’s not, is impressed.

When a player celebrates a routine play, her reaction is equal parts confrontational and confusion.

“What are you dancing for? You just did your job. You did what you were supposed to do,” she says.

That’s how I feel about much of what garners me compliments.

Like cleaning the house.

I just didn’t put much thought into it.

There was dust on our bookshelves. There was expired food in our freezer. There were towels that needed washing and beds that needed making and floors that needed vacuuming.

So I addressed those issues. I was home, and I had the time.

It was nothing more than that — and nothing that warranted a compliment.

Which is why when my mom offered one, I was as confused as Emily is while watching a football player’s new end zone dance.

Of course, once Emily got back and walked around the house, I sensed she was at least a little impressed. And when she told me the refrigerator looked brand new, it resonated as a compliment that’d been earned.

I Am Not Worthy

Too often that’s what it feels like.

I don’t feel worthy of compliments.

Not because of what I’ve done, but because of who I am.

For the last 20 minutes, I’ve been sitting here, staring at the screen, trying to explain why I feel this way. But I can’t figure out how to.

The best I can come up with is that, typically, when somebody offers a compliment, their words don’t ring true to me. Their words sound like a lie.

Which kind of makes sense.

What they’re saying, I rarely believe about myself; so why would I believe anyone else believes it about me either?

Clearly, the underlying problem is a lack of confidence and self-worth. And the long-term solution requires that I solve those deficiencies.

But in the meantime, the more I’ve thought about this, the more I wonder if the answer to better receiving compliments lies in how I give them.

When I praise someone, I mean it. Looking from the outside in, free of my own inner demons, I can objectively see how the person has done something worthwhile, something substantial — for me, for themselves, for the greater good.

And I want them to know that. I want them to understand that.

So when they dismiss my compliment, they’re not only denouncing my viewpoint, they’re denying me the satisfaction I get from giving it. And that’s not fair to either of us.

Which is why this morning, though I didn’t agree with my mother’s words, I forced myself to respond with two of my own that sufficiently acknowledged the gift she’d offered me:

“Thank you.”

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Originally published at www.brentstoller.com

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