I recently attended a high-profile personal development event. The speakers were crème de la crème: Tony Robbins, Gary Vaynerchuk, Shark Tank’s ‘Mr. Wonderful’ to name a few. The kind of conference where you jump up and down, have multiple rounds of ugly cry, become best friends with the people sitting next to you, and yes, experience incredible personal breakthrough.
Sometimes the breakthroughs come from unusual places. I happened to be sitting next to an interesting gentleman. He was the president of a company. Tall, dark, handsome, confident, intelligent, attentive — the type of man that makes a woman’s heart go pitter patter (ladies, you understand). We bonded over Myers Briggs, Dale Carnegie, and our cocaine-like addition to reading books. In the middle of a rather deep conversation about a business loss, I said to him ‘I really admire the way you were able to pick back up and start all over again. It shows courage.’ To which he responded, ‘Not really. It’s just in my nature to keep going.’ I winced. It felt like a giant industrial machine just plowed through my field of kind sentiments. Later in the conversation, I gave him another compliment about a particular mindset he possessed. Whack. He swatted that one away too. We eventually started talking about the 5 Love Languages. He revealed that his main love language was words of affirmation. My face must have betrayed my bewilderment.
“You look surprised,” he said, eyebrow raised.
I see so many people messing this up.
Well-meaning, kind people. People who want to excel in life and in relationships, but keep shooting themselves in the foot.
Here’s the big idea: dismissing compliments erodes your influence.
Let’s look at some common compliments.
Now let’s look at how people reject compliments.
They use false humility.
To your ‘I like your sweater’ compliment, this person may respond:
They underplay their abilities.
To your ‘great job on the presentation’ compliment, this person may respond:
They focus on the negative.
They make it transactional.
Another bizarre response is the recipient’s knee-jerk reaction to compliment right back. ‘I like your sweater.’ ‘Oh, I like yours too!’ ‘You’re so insightful’ ‘Oh, you’re smart too!’ Just, stop. This isn’t a tennis match. You don’t owe the other person anything. Compliments are a gift, not a tit-for-tat game.
This one is more rare. To your ‘I agree with you, you have interesting insights,’ compliment, this person will respond, ‘You just mirrored what I said. Congratulations, you can hear.’ Overly-sarcastic. Biting. In some twisted way, this person takes compliments as a way to puff up their own ego and put you down. It’s an effort to get the upper hand. RUN.
What’s so bad about rejecting compliments?
I mean, there are worse things I could be doing, like torturing puppies or stealing canes from the elderly. What’s the big deal?
It makes you look insecure.
When you reject a compliment about your appearance, skills, mental abilities, or efforts, it makes you look weak. It makes you look like you don’t believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in your value, why should anyone else?
It communicates you cannot receive.
Relationships are a give and take. We all like to be looked after. We also enjoying doing the looking after. The healthiest relationships are ones where both individuals are able to give and receive in a fluid, organic way. By rejecting a compliment you demonstrate that you are only comfortable giving, not receiving. That’s boring. But if I receive, won’t that make me too reliant on others and therefore weak? On the contrary. While you might be able to take care of things all by yourself, acknowledging that a life with others edifies your own is a position of strength.
Giving someone a compliment is like giving a gift: unexpected, thoughtful, joy-producing. Can you imagine a birthday celebration where someone opened a gift you gave them and instead of expressing excitement and gratitude, they walk right up to you and place the gift back in your lap? Ouch. Rejecting a compliment is like rejecting a gift. It’s yucky, rude, and frankly embarrassing.
It’s low-level gas-lighting.
When you give someone a compliment and they reject it, they are not just rejecting the compliment, they are rejecting your evaluation of reality. We all come to our conclusions based on obvious facts (at least we like to believe so) —e.g. he held the door open for me, therefore he is thoughtful. When you reject the compliment, you are forcing the giver to replay the whole sequence of events in their mind to make sure they picked up on all the cues correctly. In a subtle way, you’re making them doubt reality. It’s low-level gas-lighting. With similar repeat occurrences, the compliment-giver will associate you with feelings of being uncertain in their thought processes. This will make confident people want to avoid you in the future.
It’s contrary to your own interests.
We don’t attract what we want, we attract who we are. If you are overly critical and routinely reject compliments, you will find, overtime, that you attract critical people. If you want your life filled with people who will encourage you and build you up, stop rejecting overtures of people who are trying to do just that. Negative energy attracts negative people. That will not serve you well in life.
So, how do I respond to a compliment?
Accept it, humbly. Smile, say ‘thank you’, then move on in the conversation.
That’s it? Yes, that’s it.
If it helps, mentally imagine yourself receiving a birthday gift. Taking it in. Owning it. Letting it fill you with joy.
Sometimes, receiving a gift can be a bit of a surprise. The shirt really isn’t your style or the book is not really in your preferred genre. Or sometimes the giver misses the mark completely and gives you something bizarre. Receiving such a gift can be a bit awkward because you’re not sure you like it. Yet, you smile, accept it gracefully, and move on. And here’s the oh-so-funny thing. That shirt you didn’t like? You try it on later in the evening and it looks incredible. It ends up being a staple in your wardrobe. And that book you initially thought was weird? It ends up opening your world to a whole new way of thinking. It becomes one of your favorites that you frequently recommend to others.
Like a present, some compliments take us by surprise. We need to try them on for size, digest them, read between the lines, and check out the footnotes. They reveal aspects of ourselves we did not see initially. These are the compliments that live long after the initial delivery and end up shaping us in critical ways.
So say, ‘thank you.’ Say it again and again, even if the compliment is shocking.
You’ll notice the more you say it, the more compliments you receive.
The inverse is also true.
See, that’s the thing about rejecting compliments; soon enough, people stop giving them.
What is it about pain that makes us want to run in the other direction?
I’m not talking about when we experience pain ourselves (although we’re not rousing fans of that either). I’m talking about when someone in our lives is in the throws of deep suffering and we’d rather watch episodes of Ready Set Cook than check in.
These aren’t pint-size pains like Martha the arthritic senior, Samuel who just broke up with his girlfriend, or Kat whose cat (also named Kat) passed away. Those are on the ‘manageable’ side of the pain spectrum, and thus much easier to wade into. Not so hurtful, easy to get over. It’s fairly simple to be there for your friend amidst this sort of low-impact pain.
I’m talking about the heart-wrenching, stomach-churning, wail-producing sort of pain that leaves you with a metaphysical conviction that life is just not fair. I’m talking about high-impact pain. Some examples include:
If your answer every time is a resounding yes, well then, you are incredible. You are courageous and kind. The world does not deserve you.
If you’re like me, you’re ashamed to admit that on your bad days, the answer to this question is no. The reaction of many to high-impact suffering is to avoid. You know you should want to check in and provide comfort, but deep down, you’d rather not. You’d rather curl up under a blanket and not face them. Then you feel guilty that you don’t want to reach out, which makes it 1000x worse.
You find stupidly meaningless things to do instead of contacting them. Re-organizing your silverware drawer. Binging Marie Kondo on Netflix. Looking at houses you can’t afford on Zillow. Stalking high school acquaintances on social media. Meanwhile, in your head, the lies you tell yourself to help deal with your own cowardice include:
(None of these, btw, are the real reason)
So we don’t reach out.
We distance. We ignore. And then so much time passes that it now feels awkward to engage — even if the pain, scandal, or loss has now passed. The giant elephant in the room — I wasn’t there when you needed me — makes it easier to continue our Avoidance Campaign. Regret gives birth to shame. So we soldier on, valiantly, in the shadows. Only to wake up one morning and realize a year has passed. I-don’t-know-how-to-approach-this-person-in-their-pain has suddenly morphed into I-shunned-a-person-who-was-suffering. It’s inexcusable and unsettling. We’re left wondering How could I be so awful? Is there hope for a meaningful relationship with this person going forward? How on earth will I show my face to them again? Hint: we usually don’t.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the isle, we have the person experiencing the suffering. What exactly is going through their mind, you ask?
Step 1 is acknowledging the pain to themselves.
This is part of me. This is part of my life now. I must determine how to live a fulfilled life with this suffering. No more pity parties.
Step 2 is acknowledging the pain to others.
I’ve lived through years of chronic, physical pain. You get to the point where the pain is so bad, and for such an extended period of time, that you can’t keep it from others. Withholding feels a lot more like lying. Withholding also expends too much energy, energy that is better used elsewhere when your tank is already on empty. Putting on a fake face and pretending everything is okay is no longer an option. You have to accept that your emotions will manifest what your body is experiencing. You will come to find that once you’ve embraced this, speaking the brutal truth suddenly feels comfortable.
A typical run-in with an acquaintance during my pain period went something like this:
‘So, how’s it going, MaryBeth?’
‘Actually I’m not doing that well today.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. I wish I could stop & chat, but I have to go. Nice seeing you.’
Mmmmkay. I’ll just sit here and nurse my gaping wounds, now increased by that power-packed jab to my vulnerability.
P.S. have you noticed that most people who ask the ‘how are you question’ expect a positive response, and, upon receiving a negative one, seem to be irritated and inconvenienced? ‘How dare you dampen my day with your bad news!’ They seem to say.
Step 3 is settling into quasi-isolation.
You still have to go to work and run errands, but when it comes to your private life, people engage with you differently. Suddenly, the phone calls stop. The invites stop. Instead of distractions and encouragement, you’re left to feast on nothing but your suffering. The thing that makes pain unbearable isn’t the feeling itself, it’s the sensation of being alone in it. It’s the ‘no one understands’ ‘no one cares’ conga line that seems to be on repeat in your head, only bolstered, might I add, by interactions like the one above.
Having been on both the giving and receiving end of suffering avoidance, I’ve always wondered why we do this. Why do we avoid people who are in pain? Why don’t we engage those who are suffering?
I’ll tell you why. We’re afraid of three things.
→ Afraid of saying the wrong thing.
We’ve all been the recipient of cutting comments in response to our pain. The kind of comments that mean well, but sting. We’d hate to say something that will injure the person further. Driven by the fear of saying the wrong thing, we say nothing at all.
→ Afraid that the platitudes won’t cut it.
When faced with someone’s brutal suffering, the only thing that seems to come to mind are useless platitudes like:
Everything happens for a reason
It will get better
This will make you stronger
Time will heal
It even feels robotic saying these to a suffering person. The phrases are devoid of power. As Faulkner would say, they are “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Platitudes don’t help, which leads me to the last fear…
→ Afraid we don’t have what it takes to make it better.
This is the crux of it. We know, deep down, the sufferer’s pain is so big, entrenched, and expansive, that we don’t have what it takes to make it better. We cannot fix it. And what we can’t fix, we avoid. I will not be enough for this person, so why show up in the first place.
Okay, MaryBeth. I get it now. What can I do instead of avoid?
Below are three options that have personally ministered to me in my season of pain.
Be free of the expectation to ‘fix’ a person’s problems. The suffering person knows you can’t solve their pain. In fact, if a potential solution exists, your friend has tried it already. What the sufferer really wants (and desperately needs) is your presence. They want someone to bear witness to their life, in the good times and the very, very, bad. Show up to their house with no agenda. Maybe you’ll talk about the pain, maybe you won’t, but at least you’re present. You’re there with them, ready to weather the storm. Show up. Get off the Solutions Committee and get on the Presence Committee.
Every sufferer wants to be whisked away from their pain. The best gift you can give them is a mental escape. Show up at their house and say ‘Get in the car we’re going to the park!’ Take them to comedy show. Suggest a walk around the block and don’t take no for an answer 😉. All of these things help them get out of their head, which is a good thing. It is there where they agonize over the pain. Having their mind dwell on something other than the pain, at least for a few hours, is like a drink of cold water in the desert: satisfying, rejuvenating, needed.
Manage the conversation.
Your friend is already overspent with their own emotions. The last thing they want to do is manage yours. Commit to becoming CEO of the interaction. Call them up on the phone and talk about yourself and what is going on in your life. Talk about your job, your kids, an exciting vacation you have planned. Don’t ask them about their pain or how they are doing. Remove any conversational responsibility from them. Carry the conversation. Give them the gift of an interaction that is both low effort and free of any pain talk. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s quite refreshing.
→ → The key to implementing these three strategies is decisiveness.
Don’t ask your suffering friend if they want you to come over or they want to talk. Chances are they’ll say no because the thought of talking about their pain and managing your response to it is more than they can bear. Instead, assume they would enjoy the company (they would) and implement.
Confident. Grounded. Present. This sort of execution will instantly make your friend relax. They’ll be able to breathe a sigh of relief leaning on your strength as a container for their pain. An oasis in the desert. A quiet space in a crowded room. Beautifully held, refreshingly seen.
“…and then he gave me an ultimatum. So I left.”
For years, that phrase — and its many iterations — have bugged me. After hearing someone claim victim to an ultimatum, I feel uncomfortable and queasy. Kind of like eating cooked chicken that was in the fridge a bit too long. It doesn’t sit well with the gut.
I had an epiphany of sorts the other day that cleared it up for me.
---> Claiming an ultimatum is a form of self-victimization.
An ultimatum implies that something is being done to you. That you are being acted on by an outside force against your control. It implies a lack of agency. It says ‘look at this awful person doing awful things to me against my will.’ It hints at oppression. It suggests you believe you are a victim.
Why is it that when someone says ‘he gave me an ultimatum’ it makes me feel like they are trying to get me to excuse whatever behavior follows? To sympathize, shake my head, and say ‘poor you?’ When people leverage the ultimatum talk, I feel like a hostage in the conversation. It seems calculated to elicit a contrived response from the hearer — one of reflexive sympathy and complete absolution.
‘Ultimatum’ is just a fancy word for decisions we don’t want to make.
We’d garner much more respect by saying ‘she gave me a hard decision’ instead of ‘she gave me an ultimatum.’
See, a decision implies responsibility. It takes courage, a stepping up to the plate, and owning what follows. A decision says ‘Yes. This is what I choose. Yes. I own it. Yes. I take responsibility for it.’ More importantly — a decision comes from a person who has agency, who has control of their own mind. A decision can’t be done to you or done for you, it must be self-determined.
How about instead of ‘ultimatums’ we just own our decisions.
How about the next time someone gives us a hard choice to make, we make it confidently without reservation.
But MaryBeth, how can I be confident in a choice when it is sprung upon me? This “choice” came out of left field. And btw, have I mentioned it’s hard?
Just because something is sprung upon us doesn’t mean we have to respond in equal speed. Confidence does not materialize out of the ether; it is a result of deliberate thinking. To be confident in our choices, we must take the necessary time to determine the best course of action. Confidence comes from knowing what we are doing is right.
So what do I say when someone asks me to make a choice I’m not ready to make?
‘I’ll have to think on that. Let me get back to you.’
And if they continue to press you, here’s another version, a bit stronger..
‘I’m not ready to make that decision right now. I’ll let you know when I’m confident in my answer.’
Take all the time you need to ensure your decision is the right one. And be prepared to own the consequences.
And if it turns out to be the wrong decision? Have the humility and fortitude to make it right.
Let’s end the self-victimhood.
Let’s have the funeral for ultimatums.
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