Monday, November 27, 2006

The Anatomy of a Compliment

Over the last month, I have received several compliments. My reaction to them has made me wonder about my reaction to the compliment, and the persons delivering the compliments.

One compliment I stumbled on completely by accident. A fellow NaBloPoMo participant wrote this about me, “Mit_moi posts the best business parable of all time. And she tells it at length with the flair and panache with which I tell my favorite joke. I'm going to print it and hang it in my cube. Mit_moi is a super-engaging blogger who totally gets me; I'll be following her throughout the month.”

When I read this I felt like Sally Field at the academy awards. I wanted to immediately write back and say, “You like me, you really, really like me!” But I didn’t, because this comment wasn’t sent to me … and I felt like a kid who’s been discovered sitting behind the living room couch, listening to the grown ups talk. (Shhh, Mom – really, do we have to tell them I did that all the time as a kid?)

The next set of compliments were sent directly to me. I was opining about my writing skills, and what I hoped to learn from the month of NaBloPoMo, and these comments popped up,

“I definitely don't think you need writing lessons! :) It's always good to strive for improvement, but don't get too tangled in your technique - If you just focus on developing a distinct and consistent voice much of the technique will follow (and the parts that don't will be part of what makes you distinct).”

“All the things you describe, and what Peter said are true: they are technique, things you can work on. For me the key is whether you can touch the creative impulse, and you have demonstrated that ability ably.”

Other comments I’ve received about specific posts have also made my little heart glow …

“You have a gift young lady, I’m not sure where you would go with it but you might think of going to talk to the editor of the local paper. You know I find myself looking forward each morning to the profound thoughts of Mit_Moi”

“**sniff - wipes away tear** Wouldja look at that!! Not only does Moi write something that has me giggling like a little kid... but she's even gathering up her own audience of commentators now - based on her very clever skills alone!! I'm so proud!! **blows nose - sound of Canadian Goose**”

And finally,

“The more I see how eloquent you can be, the less inclined I am to think that you need writing lessons of any sort whatsoever. :)”

So, what is the proper way to respond to such compliments? Many times, when I’m complimented, I brush the compliment aside. “Oh, it was nothing.”, “Anyone could have done it.”, “But it wasn’t ‘perfect’.” Do I make those statements because I don’t know the gracious way to receive them? I’m sure Miss Manners would counsel me to say, “Thank you, you’re very kind”, and then to shut up.

I’ve also noticed I react differently depending on who is proffering the compliment. If it’s someone I admire, I am inordinately pleased, although I still don’t know how to respond. If it’s someone I’m not terrible fond of, I disregard the compliment all together. (Obviously they can’t be trusted to render an accurate judgment).

I find it easier to trust the compliments of complete strangers over those who know me casually. Why is that? Maybe because strangers have nothing to gain by offering a compliment? I suppose part of me believes compliments are offered as currency before a request. Usually those compliments sound like this, “Oh you did such a good job of “x”, would you also do “y”? Half the time I don’t think they even liked “x”, it’s just they know no one else will undertake the project – or I can be conned into undertaking the project if they just offer a scrap of a compliment.

The hardest compliments of all to accept, are those from family and loved ones. Maybe this isn’t so for everyone, but I find two things happen when I receive acknowledgments from these two camps. First, they “undo” me. They’re hard to hear – and I have to work very, very hard to maintain my composure. It’s like I’ve constructed this hard, concrete shell around myself. Typically compliments just bounce off the shield. But accolades from a family member? They have secret powers – that render all the protective shields obsolete – and they go straight to my heart. My heart that is screaming, “Unworthy! You are unworthy of these compliments! Look at all the other horrid, horrid, half-way done things you’ve done. You know you don’t deserve this compliment – this isn’t your best effort.” Somewhere I can hear the buzzer and alarms ringing “Decline, decline, compliment declined”. “Forfeit, forfeit, you are a fake, no compliment for you, because you are not worthy!”.

Do you know what’s even worse than feeling horrible about receiving compliments? It’s the desire to run out and publish to the world that someone has said something nice about me. I feel like this small newspaper boy lives inside me. “Extra, extra, read all about it! Someone said something nice about Mit_Moi!” I feel if I tell enough people about the nice things that have been said, maybe they’ll know what a nice, capable person I am. How screwed up is that? I do believe it’s called, “Tooting your own horn.” Of course, this is a very, very, bad disease. And one I am utterly hopeless to combat.

All coins have two sides. Here’s the second side of the compliment coin. Do you want to piss me off? Do you want to see the flash of the laser eye? Do you want to wither under my sarcastic condemnation? If you do, then fail to compliment me when I feel I deserve it. And God help you, too. You know the saying, “There’s nothing so bad as a woman scorned?” Well, let me just tell you … slighting me – or praising someone else for doing less of a job, a more incomplete job, or an easier job that what I did??? Heaven help you. Actually? Heaven help both of us. You, because you will feel my wrath. And heaven help me, because I will expend so much energy to make your life a living hell – that I will exhaust myself.

Are you wondering what prompted this post? Thankfully it isn’t ire. It’s self examination. Over the Thanksgiving holiday I was accorded many compliments. Some on my nature, some on my physical attributes, some on my perceived intellectual skills, (see I can’t even write that one without minimizing it), and each time I felt compelled to decline the compliment. Time after time, these thoughtful, beautiful things were said to me, and about me … and without fail I heard, “you are unworthy” in my head. Do you know what I saw on the face of those delivering the compliments? Sadness and pity.

Slowly it dawned on me. They weren’t saying nice things to me because they felt obligated or because it would bring them a reward. They paid me the compliments because they felt the thing they were observing was justifiably noteworthy. In fact, how outraged would I be if someone blew off my compliment to them! As I thought about it further I realized not only was I belittling their values and esthetics, but I was being rude in return! Because if I say to someone, “You write well”, or “Gee, that’s a pretty shade of blue on you”, I say it because I mean it. Because I hold it to be true. Because I’m a woman of integrity – and someone who doesn’t stand on bullshit. If I give someone a compliment, it’s because I’ve taken the time to think of something meaningful, and made the effort to acknowledge the value/thought/time/skill it took for the recipient to undertake the complimented task, highlight their beauty, or hone their cleaver mind. How dare they demean my judgment?!

And then I realized I was looking in the mirror. Hello, are you listening to yourself? How dare they demean my judgment, if I declare something valuable. How dare they insult my intelligence to recognize quality. How dare they DECLINE my compliment

Starting tonight, I’m going to try and turn over a new leaf. I don’t think the change will be noticeable immediately. It’s going to be hard. Because I’m not just trying to change a behavior, I’m trying to change a belief. Maybe a misguided belief I’ve held too long. A belief tied into perfectionism. The belief that only “perfect” is valuable, and every action and reaction which falls short of perfection is worthless.

Please be patient with me as I adjust. If you’ve complimented me in the past, “Thank you”. If I’ve told you how great other people find me … forgive me of my insecurity. If I extend a compliment your way, know it’s heartfelt.


Anonymous said...



Woodstock said...

Would it help to tell you that you're not alone in your difficulty with compliments? Would it help to tell you that you're not alone in your ability to completely disregard your own worth (by diminishing compliments given) while believing completely that those to whom you give compliments totally deserve them? Would it help to tell you that I wondered half-way through this post if you were not, in fact, my doppleganger?

peter said...

I'm sorry I made you feel like you were hiding behind the couch. It's a testament to how introverted I had become as a blogger that I didn't even think to leave a comment on a post I enjoyed so much. This month has definitely broken me of that habit.

I've gotten into the habit of trying to respond to compliments in the spirit they are given. Those currency compliments just a get a "thank you." If I have to demure when receiving a compliment I try to do it without minimizing the work I did, because in a way that's an insult to the complimenter.

People who pay sincere, detailed compliments (like some of the examples in your post) tend to be interested in how you achieved your accomplishment - if a "thank you" seems too abrupt they might appreciate a little extra explanation.

Mit_Moi said...

Peter, please do not feel bad about my hiding behind the couch comment. It made me smile to think about how many times I was "listening to the 'big people' instead of playing." I'm sure I was gathering fodder for my stories EVEN then!

And Woodstock, I too think we're doppelgangers! How nice to find a kindred spirit - and not just other tree in the forest.

Finally, Alacrityfitz? I know you're just trying to avoid the laser of death, aren't you?! (lol)

Anonymous said...

Brevity... soul... wit - A.fitz

(Actually, I just flew back from the Left Coast and may have more time for commenting soon!) : )