Maybe you saw the viral photos of her fellow teens bursting into unexpected smiles, covering their faces in embarrassment, or struggling to manage the joy and disbelief of her kindness. Last year, photographer and teen-cum-sociology genius Shea Glover sought out to capture a specific kind of expression on film: how people react to compliments.
If you’re anything like me, a compliment typically induces one of two reactions: slight humiliation confounded by a deep-seeded fear that my complimenter will soon see what a fraud I am, and that he/she is in fact very wrong about me. Or, the alternative: flattered-ness with a side of distrust. The complimenter wants something from me, I think to myself, he just wants my attention, affection or infatuation. Both reactions have the same underlying sentiment: the compliment isn’t a truism, even though its subjective.
Glover (who was only 18 at the time of the photos) hadn’t intended to conduct a social experiment, but that’s what she created. She was simply seeking to capture beauty, as she puts it, and realized what was most interesting about the work around her. But as heart-warming and inspirational as the art itself might be, it reflects a much deeper problem: not that we can’t take compliments. That’s a simple practice of humility and manners.
The problem is we don’t respect ourselves as being worthy of admiration. And even more harmful, we believe refusing a compliment or putting ourselves down makes us seem humble. It doesn’t, it only diminishes us.
Why You Can’t Take a Compliment
Why does being complimented feel so uncomfortable? Because we’ve stopped seeing what’s worthy of admiration in ourselves. We spend so much of our time putting ourselves down (using inner-monologue to tell ourselves we’re not good enough, smart enough, attractive enough), that when someone expresses an opinion that differs from our own, we feel vulnerable and exposed even if in a pleasurable way. If I told you to give yourself a compliment right this moment, it would probably feel awkward as hell. The truth is:
You’re bad at taking compliments because you’re out of practice; you never compliment YOURSELF.
If we complimented ourselves more, we’d be more willing to take compliments from others. Not only would be better equipped to react and accept compliments, we’d actually realize there are traits about us worthy of complimenting.
This isn’t to say we should expect compliments. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that kind of society where everyone spreads flattery like butter across the desperately dry burned toast that is our cultural landscape. There is a vital and fundamental difference between thinking you deserve compliments, and accepting the fact that there are great qualities and gifts you possess, and being able to enjoy others acknowledging those gifts. Expecting a compliment requires thinking you are special in a discriminatory way; special or talented in a way that is better than others, and that other people owe it to you to recognize it. Appreciating your own wonderful, unique traits and talents is to live within your purpose, and being lifted when others find your uniqueness as rewarding. One works with elitism, while the other works with gratitude and mutual respect.
A self-aimed compliments should start with“I Love Myself BECAUSE”, rather than: “Other People Love Me BECAUSE”.
Positive compliments to give yourself:
I am grateful for what makes me unique.
I respect my individual talents and passions by using them to help others
I’m doing the best I can, and I am enough as I am
I teach others to respect and believe in me by believing in myself
I have been gifted a specific set of unique abilities, and I use them to fulfill my purpose
Honoring Yourself as Unique, Beautiful and Worthy:
There is a light in you that shines out through everything you are and everything you do. It’s in your every physical feature, it’s in your every passion, it’s reflected in everything you say and do. Your looks, your actions, your words, your passions: all of these qualities are designed in accordance with who you truly are and your individual purpose. That light is your unique life energy, and when you are not honoring that unique life energy, it can feel really uncomfortable to be complimented for it.
What if Patti Smith had ignored her passion and genius for writing? Or da Vinci had thought his inability to finish a painting meant he was not worthy of being a painter? What you tell yourself about the worth of your own unique traits and talents has a profound affect on what you are able to do with your life.
Not honoring your light and individuality looks like this:
Saying unkind things to yourself in the mirror.
Not living out your purpose, working with your unique gifts to serve others.
A deep, unsettling lack of peace and calm in your own heart.
If you don’t believe you’re worthy of your dreams, you’re definitely not honoring your light. If you’re telling yourself you’re not attractive or worthy of love, you are smashing out that light like a limp candle. The light within you has a very important job to do on this earth, and the only way to complete that job is to let that light shine and use it to do you work.
Why You Should Say “Thank You” to Compliments
As Maya Angelou said: others will not remember what you did or said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. In the same way, a compliment directed toward you isn’t only about you. It’s an attempt to thank you for the way you’ve made them feel.
A compliment is someone showing appreciation for that individual light within you.
(Excluding occasions where someone offers compliments of a sexual nature *ahem Mr. President*…)
A compliment on your work, or your actions is actually another person thanking you for something positive you’ve brought to them. Don’t worry about what any compliment means for you, just do your job of shining your light out onto the world. Your job is to hold that light, protect that light, treasure that light, guard that light, and share that light. When someone compliments your light, know that it isn’t about you, it’s about how your light makes them feel. You’ve done something that makes them feel good, happy or rewarded. That is your light in service.
Saying “Thank You” to a compliment is really saying:
THANK YOU for recognizing my individuality
THANK YOU for acknowledging my light.
THANK YOU for offering space for my purpose to serve this world.
THANK YOU for allowing me a chance to shine my light in your life.
Seeing that a compliment is about much more than just telling someone they’re pretty…kind of makes you want to go spread some compliments, doesn’t it? The world could use more butter.