'We're eager to get them and so pleased when we do, but then we utterly fumble their receipt.'
So say Brett and Kate McKay in their article 'How to accept a compliment with class.' But why is it so difficult to accept something so good?
A few weeks ago I spent a weekend with a friend in Suffolk. She had bought a week in a cottage there, in a charity auction, and had invited all her 'best women friends' to share it with her. My friend is a generous, big hearted and kind person; she is also very competent in a range of areas. Not surprising, then, that her friends regularly congratulated her on conceiving the idea of the week, which was wonderful, and complimented her on all the things she did to make it go well.
One of those things was the fire. Careful of not using too much fuel for heating, whenever we returned to the cottage after an outing she would make a fire. I never actually saw her do this - there seemed to be a negligible time span between arriving back and there being a roaring blaze in the sitting room, so as someone who has had little practice at making fires, quite a few failures under her belt, I was impressed.
'You really are good at making fires,' I said.
'Oh no,' she said, 'I cheat, I use firelighters.'
'We all use firelighters!' I countered.
'Yes, but the wood is so good here,' she said, apparently determined not to accept my compliment.
Having had a few days to witness my friend's fielding of compliments I have to concede that she is something of a master. However, once I turned my attention to it, I realised that many, many people are similarly unwilling to accept the sweet pearls of approval that they are offered, including myself.
Watch what happens when you tell someone you love their outfit - 'what, this old thing?' they say. Or when you tell a neighbour their garden is looking fabulous. 'Well, it's very ordinary'. Or when you say 'well played' to someone who's just won a match: 'I was a bit lucky today.'
So what is it that is so difficult about accepting compliments?
There are all kinds of things - we don't want to appear conceited, we're embarrassed, we want to redress the balance by immediately returning the compliment, we don't believe the other person, we don't rate their opinion, we suspect their motives and so on. But these are all reasons to do one thing, reject. Why?
As is so often the case, it helps to go back to what we know about how we first developed our personalities in childhood. In brief, we discover early on in life that the little bundle of joy that we thought we were is not enough to get by. We need to wise up and get our acts together, if we are going to get the love and approval we need for our survival.
So that's what we do. Over the first eight or nine years of life we each develop persona, a shop window if you like, in which we display all the characteristics we have decided work in our favour. Behind the shop window, in the shadows, lies the real us, the one that gets angry and petulant, the one that doesn't want to tidy its bedroom or do its homework, the one that would quite like to throw its food around rather than sit quietly and eat it. Also here is the tender hearted child who desperately needs to be loved.
So imagine that Mummy's friend comments on how beautifully a particular child eats at the table, how do they react?
Well they are pleased, of course, that someone has noticed their efforts, but sadly they know that that person is only commenting on the window dressing - it is not them, it is just something they've learnt to do. Also, part of their shop window is being modest, not taking up space, focussing on others and not themselves, so the attention is embarrassing. They deflect the compliment.
But our shopfront doesn't just deflect compliments, it is quite good at deflecting criticism as well. And this is a useful, if unconscious, survival strategy in a world which is full of judgment. We ensure that as little as possible gets through.
But sometimes a criticism does get through, and sometimes a compliment, too, can take us unawares. Either can cut right through the fa�ade to the pain of that young person who first discovered they weren't good enough.
I have just laughed and cried and gasped my way through 'Spilling the Beans', Clarissa Dickson Wright's autobiography. In it she describes sitting in a group at a rehabilitation centre, where she was starting her recovery from alcoholism. Each person had to write their life story and present it to their fellow group members. At the time they were focussed on Step Four of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: 'We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves'. Once a person had read their story, each member of the group took their turn to help that person identify their shortcomings. As most addicts have a rich vein of past antics from which to draw, this is not usually a difficult task.
On this occasion, Clarissa had read her story. The group, one by one, pointed out her 'issues' and, she writes, 'I reacted to anything I saw as criticism by hitting it to the boundary with withering scorn.' If you have ever met Clarissa Dickson Wright you will not have any difficulty imagining this. She had been so consistently defensive during the time she'd been at the centre that, unbeknown to her, the staff were considering asking her to leave.
So it went, round the group, until it came to a man with whom she'd just spent some time walking in the grounds.
'I was just thinking what a nice person Clarissa is,' he said.
At that point Clarissa looked at him open-mouthed and then burst into tears. And she cried and she cried and she cried. For weeks and weeks and weeks.
So perhaps it is this, more than anything else, that we are trying to avoid when we deflect compliments, the vulnerable little person inside who just wants to be loved for what they are, as they were in the beginning.
Whatever the reasons for our difficulties in accepting compliments, it's good to overcome them. If you reject a compliment it is disappointing for the other person and they are less likely to try again. And you miss out on the good feeling of being appreciated.
Think of the last time someone complimented you - how did you take it? Did you thank the person, really believe them and allow the compliment to sink in? If so, what helped you to do that?
Or did you brush it away, take little notice, let it bounce off you? If so, how did you do that, and why?
What would it be like to let that compliment in now?
Next time someone compliments you, try:
- thank you!
Wishing you a week of compliments!