The Difficult Task of Taking Compliments

by Janet Arnold-Grych

There are only a few things that make me really squeamish—nasty cuts, complete disorganization… and compliments. According to the Yoga Sutra and other teachings on personal growth, we’re meant to cultivate qualities like non-stealing and non-grasping. Stepping up to compliments can feel a little like moving into dangerous territory. The question is, How can we embrace humble ownership without either dismissing what has been accomplished or feeding the beast that needs applause?

I have a colleague who’s very gregarious. She’s smart, spirited, and even throws her own birthday parties at work. And she makes no apologies for any of it. If told, “Great job on that project,” she might respond, “Thank you. It was a mess going in, but I’m glad it’s under control now.” If, on the other hand, I’m told, “Great job on that project,” I might stutter, “Yes, um, thanks, team effort.”

I admire my colleague’s reaction to praise. Her response is neither gaudy nor selfish. She owns her compliments. I hold mine behind my back. In my experience, stepping up to adulation is important in the business world. Praise gets you noticed, and getting noticed can open doors to more interesting projects. But if compliments feel like a hot potato, even if they’re desired and merited, owning them can feel nearly impossible.

Clinical psychologist, author, and inspirational speaker Maria Sirois, PsyD, a Kripalu faculty member, says this approach may be too black and white. Compliments aren’t the enemy—it’s our reaction to them that determines value. Maria says, “Think about appreciation as something good that comes your way. The healthy and moral thing to do is to receive that. Bring it in to your heart. Honor it. Let it nourish you—and then serve that back up. Don’t become attached to it, but don’t shy away from it.” Maria likens compliments to a ball of energy. When we accept it, that energy fills us and bolsters our endeavors, but we can’t be its final stop. The responsibility then is to pass on that ball, that gift of energy, to others. It’s a beneficial cycle.

Of course, the first step is being willing to open your hands to an accolade, and that can require a bit of reframing. Maria explains that, in some cases, it may be an issue of general self-worth and an inability to recognize when a compliment is reflective of one’s efforts or abilities. Even those with a strong sense of personal competency can have issues around not feeling good enough. “These are the people who have resumes that look great,” Maria says. “They have the title. They have the corner office. But inside, they’re still worried about being ‘found out’ because they see themselves as not as smart or as good as others view them. When that aspect of self-esteem is vulnerable, it’s confusing.”

Finally, due to familial, communal, or spiritual constructs, we might be operating under the notion that there’s a finite amount of praise to go around, and to accept it for ourselves means less is available for others—which is simply not true.

Appreciation—both giving and receiving it—is a good thing, and it’s contagious. The more we gracefully accept it and pass it on, the more the pattern continues among those we interact with. To better receive, own, and pass on compliments, Maria recommends cultivating two critical behaviors.

Become better at noticing your own skills. Rather than dismiss the good you do, pay attention to it. Recognize your talents and gifts, and honor them. It’s about the big things, yes, but also the small things that we commonly overlook. Perhaps it’s the daily activities of being a kind coworker, or a thoughtful and empathic person, or an active team member. Positive self-regard is the groundwork for strength, resilience, and change.

When a compliment comes your way, be mindfully receptive. Don’t immediately negate yourself or your actions. Become still in the presence of that compliment. Take a breath. The ability to notice one’s internal reaction, but not immediately act on it, opens space for a new habit to form; that applies to holding praise but also to so much more.

Growth is earned in stepping up to situations rather than retreating from them. In this sense, accepting praise can be a courageous act, one that opens doors rather than keeps us from moving forward. That’s something for which we can loudly and clearly say “Thank you.”

Janet Arnold-Grych is a yoga teacher and writer whose work has been published in Elephant Journal, Huffington Post, Third Coast Digest, and other outlets. She’s also a marketing manager for a Fortune 200 company.

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