Accept the compliment

“You played beautifully.”

“Great job!”

“You sounded great!”

“You have a strong vibrato.”

I ignored every one of these compliments. Just smiling faintly in response before returning to my brooding.

My mom comforted me while I listed every mistake. Every letdown.

“I messed up the run. Half my vibrato was just shaking because I was nervous. I was totally flat. That’s the worst I’ve ever played it.”

I was never a natural violinist. I worked my tail off getting my bow arm relaxed and smooth. I practiced almost daily for a part of my teen years. My vibrato was the result of repetitive exercises that made my arms and wrists ache. I left my lessons each week sweaty and exhausted. And I did learn to play well. But all I could see was how much faster everyone else progressed. And at this particular recital, I watched student after student make my violin teacher proud. And I had butchered my piece. Or at least I thought I had. I honestly don’t remember if it was really as terrible as I made it out to be, but I know it wasn’t what I was capable of. Nerves had gotten to me on that recital day. And as parents wandered among their children’s peers, I felt that each compliment directed towards me was given out of pity.

I was on the edge of tears when my father took me aside and put his hands on my shoulders, looking at me straight on.

He then taught me a principle I have never forgotten.

“Janai, it’s ok to be disappointed. But when someone compliments you, it isn’t kind to invalidate it or ignore it. People are going out of their way to tell you they think you did a good job, so say thank you and accept the compliment.”

We talked more about this on the way home. These kinds of talks with my parents were common during this time in my life. My soul was in turmoil. I was severely depressed and lacked self confidence. In the car my dad told me what he said at the recital was about so much more than good manners, which he had always instilled in us. Most importantly it was about allowing myself to accept, and even believe a compliment.

It’s rude to reject a compliment

He asked me to imagine what it felt like for them, to reach out and extend a kind word and to have that kindness rejected.

Is it ever a comfortable thing to compliment someone and have them self deprecate in response? Often this puts the complimenter in an awkward position. To pep talk and attept to boost the subject with rebuttals to their negative remarks, or to walk away without refute.

A simple “thank you” can really be magic for human connection. Even if you don’t believe the compliment, thank them. Thank them for taking the time to say it, or for noticing you. Even of you think they’ve said it out of pity, thank them for taking pity.

False modesty

It seems that rejecting compliments is a popular practice, with the goal of appearing modest.

In the show Parks and Rec (one of Max and my favorites) the character Tom says something along the lines of, “with all my success, do I have trouble staying humble? No. No I don’t. I am amazing at being humble.”

Rejecting a compliment in the name of modesty is like bragging about how great you are at being humble. Only in a more socially acceptable way.

Say you give someone a gift, and they accept it, gratefully and enthusiastically. You give another person a gift, and they say, “no, I can’t accept that,” and turn it down. Who is really the humble one? The one who graciously accepted what you offered, or the one who turned your efforts down?

Accepting compliments is healing

Just try once to say thank you instead of self deprecating after a compliment. Notice how it feels.

Studies on gratitude have shown a boost in happiness to those who express gratitude regularly. And I don’t think you need a study to know how harmful self deprecating talk is.

Accepting compliments not only strengthens human connection, it actually boosts self esteem.

Receiving compliments does not boost self esteem. But accepting them does.

And before you argue that the false modest types have egos so large they don’t need a self esteem boost, let me clear that myth right up. Egos come from a LACK of self esteem, not an over abundance of it. In fact narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by well hidden LOW self esteem. What a person portrays to the outside is not necessarily a reflection of their inner well being.

True modesty

So where does true modesty come in? The answer is again, gratitude.

Because none of us got to where we are alone. When we’re complimented, who else do we have to thank for that, besides the giver of the compliment? A violin teacher? A parent? God?

Recognizing that it isn’t by your merit alone that you earn a compliment is where true modesty comes from.

I performed in many music recitals as a youth, and I don’t remember many of them. It’s been years since that particular violin recital, and yet I still remember it. I don’t remember what I played, or where it was, or what I wore. But every time I’m tempted to invalidate a compliment, I remember my dad looking at me, with love and concern, asking me to accept the compliment.

And I really did have an excellent vibrato.

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