I like to joke that my superpower is being impervious to compliments. But there’s truth there.
I’ve learned over the years that the best thing to do when someone compliments you is to either say “thank you” or smile and say nothing at all. Even if you don’t agree with what they’ve said or think that you deserve the compliment.
Your business with the compliment giver is accepting the compliment on a social level. This is not a court case. They’re just saying something nice.
Even if you have reservations, nine times out of ten it’s simply annoying to the person complimenting you if you turn around and argue with them. Or demand evidence of what you feel is a preposterous claim.
So say “thank you” and move on. Or do the Mona Lisa smile thing if you can’t say “thank you” for some reason (For example, if you think the compliment is disingenuous and solely to curry favor. Or if you think thanking someone for something you disagree with is a bridge too far re: obfuscation. People differ that way, in their notions about honesty and dishonesty and which side of the line any given act of tact or discretion falls on.)
Anyway, that’s the social act of accepting compliments. I’ve become decent at that.
But deep acceptance of compliments? I find that pretty much impossible.
Because even when I’m not arguing against myself, thinking that there’s nothing to compliment me for, I run into another big barrier: I realize that the credit for any of my positive qualities and actions is not mine alone.
I Have Been Influenced By So Many People
Regardless of the arena, I have been influenced by so many people.
The most concrete example I can think of is the way I dress. I don’t talk about it often on this blog, but in my everyday life, I’m known as a rather memorable dresser. I wear dresses the vast majority of the time. They are usually bold and in striking colors or with intricate patterns. I also wear high heels quite often.
I also have a nice collection at this point of heels of varying heights and styles snapped up on a deep discount or given to me as gifts. Like my dresses, many of them are in vivid colors or emblazoned with intricate patterns (although I do have a good smattering of sensible neutrals).
My shoes stay serviceable for years, basically indefinitely. I rotate through them and also have been known to repair and in effect cobble them whenever they have structural issues.
I tend to accessorize with a variety of jackets, cardigans, or shawls. And I have leggings in about every color you can imagine.
My fashion choices are all based around fun. I have a good time getting dressed and feel as though I’m putting on a costume most days. I save the more outlandish getups for parties, but I’ve managed to dress easily in professional settings (when working as a trainer and psychological consultant in corporate America) in very sharp, smart, semi-conservative getups — but usually with a splash of color. Say, wearing a funky print dress with a high neckline that is also under a suit coat.
I get a lot of compliments about what I wear. From friends, from coworkers. I’ve even gotten stopped in the middle of convenience stores by strangers who like the dress or shoes I’m wearing (many times, actually).
I say thank you to them. And if they ask, I’ll tell them where I got whatever it is or what the brand is.
But it always feels weird to accept those compliments: Because I don’t have a natural sense of style. Instead, the way I’m dressed is largely based on an ex-girlfriend from high school.
I Dress Like an Ex-Girlfriend
She was high femme, soft, whimsical. Beauty incarnate. And I loved the way she dressed. Her clothes made me feel warm and fuzzy. Like the Avatar of Fun was visiting me.
We were the same size, too, and my life at that point had me largely living out of suitcases. Sleeping in spare rooms at friends’ houses. So my own wardrobe was limited (butch actually — and mostly earth tones, I found them soothing). She encouraged me to wear her clothes — both as an act of kindness and also one of intimacy (I felt so close to her wearing her clothes). And I was amazed to see that I could pull the same look off that she did.
Over the years, I began to gradually pick up pieces when I could at thrift stores and yard sales. Ones that reminded me of her, of that whimsy.
And as time went on, I met other people who had made other style choices that knocked me off my feet. And I learned from them, too.
So while I may have picked out the things I wear now, it always feels weird when people compliment me on my style or something I’m wearing. Because all I did was see something beautiful and roll it into my life.
Everything Good About Me Came From Someone Else
I can see that same pattern in other areas of my life as well. It was never as concrete as with fashion, never as conscious. But if I look back and think of all the people who were kind to me, who made me feel good, I tried to take what they did on board, to be more like them.
And the same with those who were cruel or tedious or disappointing. I did my best to avoid those behaviors.
So it’s funny now when I’m complimented. If someone tells me I’m funny, I immediately want to tell them all about my grandfather who passed 20 years ago. He was the funniest person I ever knew. Just full of piss and vinegar. A Quebecois janitor who managed to be absolutely filthy in both French and English — often at the same time. Extroverted, shredded on the harmonica like you wouldn’t believe. I still miss him. And I know that my sense of humor is influenced by him.
Or if someone tells me I’m a good hostess or nice, I immediately want to tell them about my grandmother (still living, my last surviving grandparent). She is walking sunshine. An exceptionally kind and lovely person. You do not forget meeting this woman. She makes rooms seem larger and brighter than they are; she’s so positive that being with her practically changes the weather. If I am kind or a good hostess, it is because the tiniest slice of her fell into the roiling pot that is my personality and melted in.
Same for the individuals who made me soup and held me after I was sexually assaulted. And didn’t ask questions or judge.
Countless other people were good around me and good to me. In big or small ways. They deserve credit for who I am. But they probably won’t get it. At least not as much as they should. Because no one knows to compliment them, the real MVPs.
Those who were cruel also taught me lessons, although I generally try not to dwell on them for too long unless I’m teaching whatever lesson I learned from them to others. They’ve had enough of my energy.
Everyone In Your Life Has Something to Teach You
It’s just like Kari Kampakis says in one of my favorite quotes:
Everyone in your life serves a purpose. Everyone has something to teach you.
And while people who are kind and friendly help teach you who you do want to be, those who are not kind and friendly teach you who you don’t want to be.
So when you encounter someone who hurts your feelings, lean into that feeling. Ask yourself what they did to make you feel that way. Was it the words they chose? Their tone? The way they picked favorites and then ignored everyone else?
Whatever they did, make a pledge. Promise yourself that you’ll never treat anyone the way they treated you. This is how you become a kinder and more compassionate person. This is how you learn from their mistakes.
And when you meet someone you really like, lean into that feeling, too. Ask yourself what they did to make you feel so good. Then make a pledge to yourself to be more like them. This is also how you become a kinder and more compassionate person.
Regardless of how anyone treats you, you stand to benefit. While some people teach you who you do want to be, others teach you who you don’t want to be. And it’s the people who teach you who you don’t want to be that provide some of the most lasting and memorable lessons on social graces, human dignity, and the importance of acting with integrity.