About a month ago, I was helping to clean up an event space where a gala I’d spent the last few months planning had just wrapped up. As the guests started to head out, I felt a combination of intense relief and pride at how my team’s hard work had all come together.
“This was amazing. You did a great job!” said one my co-workers to me in the earshot of a few other people.
My automatic reply was something to the effect of “Thanks, but I can’t take all the credit. It was totally a team effort.”
“Yes, but I’m saying YOU did a good job. I’m sure you worked really hard on it.”
I chuckled nervously and insisted that I couldn’t have done it on my own.
“Just accept the compliment,” she said in mock exasperation. “I’ll congratulate them too, but right now I’m congratulating you.”
She was right, of course. Ever since that moment, I’ve been thinking about how uncomfortable I seem to be with accepting praise.
My go-to response is generally to talk about all the help I received or to downplay the accomplishment, in what I can only guess is an attempt to seem humble.
I wondered if it was a female thing. Women tend to more self-conscious about seeming like we’re bragging. We apologize more and we often underestimate our strengths in professional situations.
From a young age, society teaches us that the smaller we make ourselves – literally and figuratively – the better.
There have been plenty of times where I’ve watched girlfriends viciously put themselves down in response to compliments. “Oh, this skirt? Ugh. It was the only clean thing I could find in my closet. I actually hate it.”
I’m guilty, too, of doing a lesser version of that. Someone will say they like my hair or makeup and I’ll say “I tried. This is pretty much the only thing I know how to do.”
See how it seems humble without actually going so far as to call myself an idiot? That’s my comfort zone.
But while it’s probably true that women engage in this type of negative self-talk more often, I think this is more than a gender issue. In fact, a guy recently confessed to me that he generally deflects praise when he receives it.
The issue seems to be more about how it makes us look and feel to confidently accept a compliment without adding some kind of qualifier. When someone says something nice about you or your work, it puts you in the spotlight. Even if we agree that we’ve done a good job, there’s a risk that we could be perceived as cocky or too proud if we say so out loud.
Think about the late Muhammad Ali. He was a world-class boxer and he knew it. There are numerous quotes of him blatantly talking about just how he good he was. My guess is that even if we recognize that it’s true, it makes people a little bit uncomfortable to hear someone boldly say things like “The man to beat me hasn’t been born yet.”
But why? If something is objectively true (like you’re the best at a sport or your event went well), why shouldn’t we be able to admit that without seeming like a braggart?
At the very least, why shouldn’t we able to hear someone admit this truth and just say “thank you?”
We don’t all have to be Muhammad Ali if we don’t want to be. There’s a difference between telling everyone who’ll listen how amazing you are and graciously saying thank you when someone says something kind about you.
We try to make people around us feel comfortable by not letting our light shine too brightly. But the more we downplay our gifts, the less we offer to the world. Why do something if you aren’t going to do it well? And why do something well if we don’t want anyone to acknowledge it?
If we want to recognize the efforts of others, we can achieve that by saying, “Thank you. I’m really proud of how it went. AND congratulations to the entire team.” That’s way less of a put-down to yourself than “Thanks, BUT I really don’t deserve credit.”
Responding to a compliment by immediately negating it not only belittles what you’ve worked so hard on, but also suggests that the person giving the compliment is either wrong or lying.
One way I’m making myself more comfortable with accepting compliments is by giving more of them myself. We all like to receive them, so my theory is that if I make a habit of giving them (and really meaning them), it will feel as free-flowing and commonplace as currency.
I can’t force you to accept them, but I can be really intentional about saying things like “I can tell you worked really hard on that,” rather than a general statement like “You’re so smart.”
That way, there’s less room for debate.