The Best Way to Respond to a Compliment

I felt like I was about to be publicly beaten, when it occurred to me: it’s way easier to give good words to others than it is to receive the good words they give to us…

self-esteem

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

The first staff meeting of the academic year at my clinical practice—more than twenty psychologists, therapists, and psychiatrists gathered in a circle.

And I felt like crawling into a hole.

Was I about to be reprimanded? No. I was about to be validated.

In order to emphasize the value each of us brings to the treatment team, we were going around the circle and, for thirty seconds, each clinician would be showered with words of affirmation by the rest of the group. I would be the fifth to go.

As the people ahead of me were blessed by good words about who they are, I discovered it was easy to call out affirmations for my colleagues. But as I prepared myself to receive affirmation from them, I began to steel myself for the experience. I wanted to put on armor. Crack a joke. Find a mask. I wanted to hide.

There’s a myth going around that we treat ourselves better than we treat everyone else. It is just that: a myth. Generally, it’s way easier to sincerely give a compliment than to sincerely receive one. It’s way easier to give others the good words they need than it is to show others how badly we need the good words they give us.

As my turn came and the good words began to roll in, I tried to look everyone in the eye and say, “Thank you.” I did it because it’s the polite thing to do, and I did it because, at some level, I was deeply grateful for these good people and these good words. But, I also realized, the way I was saying thank you with such solemnity actually reflected my distrust of the good things being said about me.

Maybe that’s true for all of us.

We say thank-you cautiously, because we don’t believe they mean it. We say thank-you desperately, because we’re not sure we’ll ever hear it again. We say thank-you with surprise, because the good thing would never have occurred to us. We say thank-you profusely, and the fervor with which we say it reveals how much we secretly disbelieve the affirmation. And, sometimes, perhaps we say thank-you just to fill the uncomfortable space created by the good words we have coveted for so long but dare not truly believe.

The night after the “circle of affirmation,” I arrived home for dinner, and my six-year-old son greeted me at the door with a pile of his work from school. He shuffled through colorful drawings and writing assignments and math problems. I responded to him sincerely, and I told him how impressed I was by his hard work and attention to detail and creativity.

I told him I thought he was pretty awesome.

And do you know what my son did?

He didn’t look pained or anxious. He didn’t try to deflect or change the subject. He didn’t mumble any false humility or pithy modesty. No, he simply broke into a big smile, and, as he walked away, he said one word: “Yeah.”

Yeah.

No hiding. No dreading. No protecting. No cringing. Just a smile. Just receiving. Just a wide-open taking in. Just an allowing. My good words welcomed into his good heart, mingling and dancing in his soul.

We have amnesia for our awesomeness. But once upon a time, before our wounds and our world made us forget, we knew the good things were true. We believed them so thoroughly it didn’t hurt to hear them. We believed them so completely we didn’t need to say thank-you as if we were at a funeral.

I know I have to teach my son to say, “Thank you,” because it’s a social convention and we’re social creatures and I do want him to feel grateful for the good people around him. But a part of me hopes he’ll never stop simply saying, “Yeah,” in his heart. A part of me hopes he will sit in a circle of his colleagues thirty years from now and not feel pain when good things are spoken into him.

A part of me hopes every single one of us will return to that place in our hearts, so that when love comes our way, we all might believe in ourselves enough to say, simply and sincerely: “Yeah.”

And when we say “Thank you,” may it not be an expression of our disbelief but a way of saying thank you for showing up, thank you for seeing me, and thank you for reminding me of who I was before I forgot.

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Sara

    Ahem ☺️ I love praise – in fact my partner knows that the best way to disarm me is with a genuine compliment. I have a friend who complains that her husband never compliments her – and then went on to describe how terrible she is at receiving compliments. I asked her if she thought the two may be related and there was a long silence as the penny dropped

  • Mindala

    I plan to express an internal “yeah” whenever I speak the words “thank you” in response to a compliment after reading this article. What a gesture of self-love and acceptance that will be, and no doubt it will feel like a stretch at times! Thank you, Kelly, for the inspiration.

  • Doreen M Vitullo-Matheny

    So appreciate this post… needed to hear it and let it settle into my spirit. Thank you for reminding me!

  • Jenny

    Thank you for this post – so right on target! I remember very clearly a time when I deflected every compliment ever sent my way… I even was chastised by friends that “You need to learn to smile and just say thank you!” In recent years, I’ve become better at it, but it still makes me uncomfortable sometimes. It’s all part of learning to love myself, I think, which is happening, slowly but surely.

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    Yeah!
    And what peculiar creatures we are, to suffer more easily criticisms and complaints than sweet words and up-building insights.

  • Christina Haas

    This post reminds me how important both honesty and the ability to listen are. It’s so beautiful when those around us express so sincerely notice and compliment us. But oh how important, and so difficult it is to listen! To really listen isn’t just about validating yourself either, but is a compliment back to the other person. Thanks Kelly for the reminder to really listen well today.

  • ALEJANDRA71

    It is true It seems that if we accept the compliments with happiness would think we were smug.
    Children do not go through that, it would be good for us to teach to our children go without that mask of “oh, is not that great”

  • Kathi

    Thank you…yeah!

  • CatM

    Reading this brought a sad smile to my face and a tear. As I get older, I have become too cynical and untrusting and also regret choices/words/decisions made so that it skews how I may see myself so that when someone gives appreciation or thanks, It is easy to discount and feel iI really am not deserving . It’s wonderful to see and hear again that children don’t have that heaviness in their heart and can just take it for what it is. I always look forward to reading Kelly’s posts! THANK YOU for reminding us that we just have to be able to say “Yeah” and that is all.

  • Joy

    Thank you. I’ve never responded to one of these before, but this one made me cry. It’s spot-on.

  • I felt my heart opening up just reading this post. Thanks again, Kelly, for another zinger!

  • Patti Ann Ridgway

    Who are we not to see the beauty in ourselves? I love how you take us back. As children we wanted the attention! And receiving someones goodness about us, gives them the chance to feel good as well. It is just as selfish not to receive as it is not to give.

  • “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” by Marianne Williams. Her words came back to me as I was reading your post and it is soooo very true. I think that it is only when we are willing to accept our own brilliance that we can then be still and secure enough to accept what brilliance others see in us and not try to deflect it. It is important also to realize that when others see brilliance in us they are reflecting back their own brilliance or they wouldn’t be able to recognize it in us in the first place. It’s the same when we recognize the brilliance of others — it’s a reflection of our own being reflected back to us. We have to learn to bask in the light of that warm shining so that others can continue to reflect their own light. Thank you for sharing your brilliance with us every week. It helps us to accept our own light – even if a little at a time. Kelly, just say “Yeah.” 😉

  • Suzi

    Boy this really hits home. As you know me, I’m not aware that I mean something to others and that when they tell me how great I am, I can’t help but want to give them a reason that no, I should be thanking them. It’s like being excited to give someone the greatest gift in the world and not allowing them to feel the same excitement and joy in doing the same for you. I try to tell my loved one that to receive with grace and greatful heart, is just as important as giving, and that it shows that person that their gratitude means somethng special. Tonight when I go to work, and I do that haircut or color….. just like I’ve done it for them in the past… I will be sure to graciously receive the “thank you”.
    And may I just say “Thank you, Kelly, for being such a wonderful person and listener. You’ve surely changed my life over these few years.

  • drkellyflanagan

    Dear Awesome People,

    I usually try to respond individually to every new comment on the night of a post. I’ve been sitting here debating about how to do that in a way that will honor the spirit of today’s post. So, I decided to respond only once and to say this: You’re welcome. Yeah. And thank you. Thank you to all of you for being such a valuable part of me remembering who I am. You are good people, and I’m grateful for your good words. I hope each one of you can remember your awesomeness. It’s in there. Let’s continue to journey toward it together.

    Kelly

  • Oh, Kelly, this hits the target. Have you read Prototype by Jonathan Martin? He hits on this in some ways. But you’re so right. My daughter is like your son. She’s sure of what she’s good at. I’ll be thinking about this for a while!

    • drkellyflanagan

      I haven’t read it, Lisa, but thank you for the recommendation. By the way, not sure I ever left a comment, but I loved your post on ‘home’ a few weeks ago. I’ll be in line to buy your book. : )

  • Kathryn

    This is a lesson I have to teach my music students. As musicians, we can pick apart every single note, be it slightly out of tune, off rhythm, or not played with quite as beautiful a sound as we hoped for. So I teach them: When someone tells you they enjoyed your music, you should thank them. All you have to do is say thank you. Remember that they came to hear you play, and they enjoyed your music. They may never have noticed your mistake, because they were carried away with the pleasure of seeing and hearing you play. Allow them the pleasure. You gave them a gift, they expressed their pleasure, and you should say thank you. Not to be polite. But to share in their moment.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I love it. To share in the moment. Enough said!

  • Mike de Vetter

    I said to my 5 year old daughter the other day ‘Rosie, you are so beautiful’ She looked up at me and said ‘I know’ and carried on with what she was doing.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Kids are awesome. And haven’t forgotten yet!

  • Alex

    I just cried a little after reading this. Thank you for reminding me that I’m good enough- awesome enough. It’s hard being an adult, where it seems that others rarely tell me I’m doing a good job or that I’m awesome anymore. I used to hear those things all the time as a kid. Maybe I just need to listen a little harder and believe them when they tell me in the little ways that they do… And know in myself that it’s true!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Alex, you’re right on. We miss a lot of affirmation because we don’t believe it and don’t pay attention. So, pay attention, soak it in.

  • Ruth Baidya

    Thank you! I really needed to hear this..

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Ruth!