how did you learn to accept kindness and positive feedback with grace?
October 7, 2013 1:18 PM   Subscribe

I have an awful reaction to being on the receiving end of compliments, gifts, and expressions of gratitude: visceral discomfort followed by impotent self-directed rage at having failed to insulate myself against any/all kindness. Ideally, I would love to be able to do things that other people consider to be nice without ever receiving any sort of thanks or even acknowledgment, but I know this is not a realistic goal. What are some concrete steps/resources I can use to learn how to change this overwrought bad attitude, and start meeting others' generosity, kindness, and gratitude with equanimity and grace rather than petulant rejection and destructive anger?

While I am intellectually aware that this is a very common cognitive distortion, I still get disproportionately upset if anything I do is shown in a positive or even neutral light. Perhaps more accurately, I am uncomfortable being shown in anything but a negative light -- it's not like I enjoy being treated like shit, but it is much easier for me to deal with than being treated well. It almost feels like "letting" someone be nice to me without immediately rejecting the sentiment is an admission of some sort of weakness or even attention-seeking. I try hard to do right by my fellow sentient beings, and I have a tendency to wildly overcompensate in recompense when I inevitably fuck up, but I also hate being told that I have done well.

I've had a truly unbelievable amount of luck in this life, and it is really annoying to feel myself getting all het up and condescending when folks are just trying to be nice. For example, there are very few things I love more than giving gifts, but I adamantly refuse gifts that other people try to give me because I don't deserve any gifts for any reason. I know it is beyond rude, but accepting a gift makes me feel pathetic, weak, and beholden, like I need to give them five more gifts to make up for the one they just gave me, I guess to make up for the fact that I did not deserve the original gift and also to express my own gratitude for their unnecessary kindness. I do not know why I assume others feel differently, or why it is so easy to forgo a simple "thank you!" in order to continue ignoring the likelihood that I am probably making people feel uncomfortable by giving them a gift and then divebombing into a self-hate spiral if they try to thank me or give me a gift in return. My internal gears are constantly grinding over the fact that I have resolutely failed to deserve or match all of the kindnesses, compliments, and gifts I have received, and the ongoing imbalance drives me crazy.

Frustratingly, my whole body is an instinctual open book emotion-wise, which can turn "fake it 'til you make it" into an intractable war against myself when this stuff happens in real time. I always try to brush it off with "thanks!" or "no problem!" but people frequently call me out for furrowing my brow, gritting my teeth, rolling my eyes, or otherwise obviously letting on to my rejection of their premise, which (correctly) identifies my professed appreciation as disingenuous. This is particularly tough to wrangle at work: I can't just graciously shut up to let anyone thank me for my efforts or tell me that I met their expectations, I always have to point out where I failed and what I did wrong, even if that means inventing hypothetical situations where I could have done something wrong. I don't know how to objectively gauge my performance at all, but if I get a good review, I freeze like a deer in headlights and then try to overwhelm it with proof of my failures.

I don't want to feel good when I get compliments, or start internalizing praise, I just want to defuse it all to a degree that will stop making me sick. I want to make kindness and acceptance seem totally benign instead of things that needs to be battled against so they can be given to someone who really deserves them, and I am hoping that will help me reinvent my inner goth teenager using slightly more nuance than 'literally everything I could ever hope to do is horrible, hopeless, and worthless, forever!' I want to perpetuate gratitude instead of spinning my wheels over perceived undeservedness.

Have you ever felt like this, but successfully started on a path toward being able to gracefully let niceness and thankfulness wash over you, rather than running away screaming if you perceive that you are receiving not-negative attention? Is there a way to stop stubbornly believing that anyone who says/does anything nice to/for you is uninformed, naive, misguided, or simply wrong? How do you combat feelings of inescapable base unworthiness in order to calmly accept expressions of gratitude and appreciation?

I just started seeing a new therapist in hopes of working toward some massive and long-overdue changes in my life, and this is first on the list. Any terminology, books (other than perennial favorite Feeling Good -- I have that one!), or specific ideas/processes that we might be able to use to direct or focus the path forward are immensely appreciated. Bonus points for tactics that are wholly unrelated to merciless self-recrimination, as I've already got that in spades. Recommendations specifically related to not fighting against positive feedback that is received in one's professional/work life would be especially useful. Medication is not an option at this time.

Thanks so much, AskMeFi!
posted by divined by radio to Human Relations (14 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Dialectical Behavior Therapy. It's a four module program with lots of skills that extend beyond the specific thing you're asking for, but all the things are good for every person to learn or brush up on. It was designed for people with Borderline Personality Disorder, but has been shown quite effective for people with a history of trauma. Your self report of being accustomed to poor treatment suggests that you've been traumatized.

While you're working on that, fake it till you make it. Allow yourself to be feeling what you are feeling in the inside, but smile on the outside and say "thank you" when you receive a compliment. And then shut up. Those two words are enough. I promise.
posted by bilabial at 1:26 PM on October 7, 2013

This may sound trite, but to get you past the "feeling beholden" part -- repay a compliment or gift with a compliment of your own. Something along the line of, "it's really nice of you to say that," or "how thoughtful of you to pick out that gift." Now you aren't in "compliment debt," at least, so perhaps the playing field will return to seeming more level? And the giver of the compliment/gift will feel their effort had the intended effect and will feel good about themselves.
posted by Smells of Detroit at 1:33 PM on October 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Remember that when you accept a compliment, you make the giver feel better.

Imagine you go up to your idol. I don't know who it is. Maybe Roger Federer. Let's assume you just watched him play tennis and you get the chance to tell him that he played a great game. How would you feel if he said "I played like shit out there. Worst game of the year"? You'd feel like an idiot. You obviously don't understand tennis and you just made the king feel worse about himself. If, on the other hand, he said "Thanks, man. Glad you enjoyed it", you'd feel great. Hey, I complimented The Federer Express and he called me "man"!

A juggler once told me that there were only two possible responses you could give to someone saying "Great show!". They were: "Thanks" or "Thanks. Can I have that in writing?".

Maybe they are uninformed, naive, misguided, or just plain wrong. Be nice and let them live in ignorance. Smile, and say thanks.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 1:35 PM on October 7, 2013 [10 favorites]

It almost feels like "letting" someone be nice to me without immediately rejecting the sentiment is an admission of some sort of weakness or even attention-seeking.

I wonder if it would help to look into what that weakness is... are you anticipating that their kindness will be followed by an attack on you? That's what it sounds like to me. When has that happened in your life? Without knowing a single thing about you, except what you have written above, that was my first thought-- that somebody important did that to you when you were younger. Probably multiple times.

I feel uncomfortable with compliments sometimes, but not to the level that you do. I find it helps to say thank you, let a short pause happen, and then start to talk about something else or ask how the complimenter's family/children are doing. (If you don't know about their family, safe topics are: the weather; food; or an upcoming event.) It takes the focus off of me and onto something less emotionally loaded.

You are carrying a heavy load, divined. I hope the new therapist can help.
posted by tuesdayschild at 1:40 PM on October 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think I've seen this a lot in people whose parents were either very undemonstrative or frankly unloving or abusive, and that it functioned to shield the relationship with the parents from disruption by insulating it from unfavorable comparisons in the mind of the child, and has a strong tendency to persist into adulthood.

Insight seems to help some people get over it, but not all that much in my opinion; some sort of re-experiencing and working through of difficult emotions also appears to be important.
posted by jamjam at 2:06 PM on October 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

This sounds like low self-esteem to me. When someone reflects a positive image of yourself back to you (through gifts, complements etc), it does not match your negative view of yourself, and so you get anxious, angry, squirrely and want to shut down their opinion. You just want others to see you how you see yourself - as a loathsome human being. Emotionally, you can't handle their positive view of you. This needs to change.

So you can
- see yourself as equal to others. You are fundamentally equal to every single being on this planet.
- see that your right to happiness and satisfaction is the same as everyone else's; just as they desire to be happy and safe, so do you desire to feel happy and safe, and no one's desire is more important or more valid than the other's.
- by extension of the above, you are equal to those you admire. See yourself as equal to those you admire
- see that those you admire have flaws
- see how you love people (friends, family) despite their obvious flaws
- imagine someone whom you like, but someone else doesn't like this person. It is possible that two people can have different views of the same person. It is truly in the eye of the beholder. No one is fundamentally good or bad.
- now imagine how others may see you. If you did that work well, and on time, it made them happy, so they will see you as a Good Person. They are allowed to have this opinion of you, based on the facts at hand.
- Similarly, the people who love you see you a Good Person; if you trust their judgement in general then it is quite possible that you are the Good Person they see you to be.
- allow yourself to feel good about yourself. Privately, alone, in your room. It is quite possible that you are lovable.
- You are lovable. People like giving gifts and words of praise to lovable people. Embrace being loved, being lovable and by extension, the good and positive energy that others are trying to give you.
- Finally, it is good karma to accept gifts from others. Why? It allows the other person to accumulate positive karma, because their action of giving will be complete. If they try to give you something and you don't accept it, they don't get all of the good karma because they only "half-gave". Therefore, you are doing a good thing for them by accepting the gift. Do so graciously.

Basically, you will have to break down and re-build how you see yourself. Rebuild your mental construct of "self." Allow yourself to see yourself through the eyes of others, and let that sight be good. It's not a crime. And no one is going to manipulate or humiliate you if you do feel good about yourself. You can rise up to the level of the good.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:12 PM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'll second DBT. And therapy. Lots and lots of therapy. I still hate being complemented. I feel like a fraud. But I suck it up and say "thank you". Then I go home and write. Write what the person said, what evidence they have and my negative thoughts. Sometimes just getting it outside of myself is helpful, which is why I write.

Feel free to memail if you want to talk.
posted by kathrynm at 2:17 PM on October 7, 2013

Fake it till you make it.

I noticed when someone visits my house for the first time and they say something nice about it, I am quick to point out its defects in response, just to minimize my discomfort at receiving a compliment.

So, a little while ago I decided to study how an older acquaintance who is very well off and has a fabulous house handled compliments about his home.

Me: "This is a beautiful living room, I love the antique beams."
Him: "Yes, they're lovely, aren't they?"

Me: "Your garden is great, that tree is amazing."
Him: "Yes, I love that tree!"

Me: "This location is so peaceful."
Him: "Yes, we're lucky."
posted by Dragonness at 2:23 PM on October 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Therapy will help, but in the meantime, practice in front of your bathroom mirror. Pretend you are thanking or complimenting someone else, genuinely, for a terrific thing they've done. Use a memory to help you. Look at your face. Feel the shapes your eyes and lips and brow make. Do that a few times while thanking and complimenting this memory person. Then instead of complimenting them, hear the thanks in your mind and say "I'm glad I was able to help," or "Thank you, I appreciate it" or other stock compliment-receiving phrase, all while keeping your face in the compliment-giving configuration. Your body and your mind/words inform each other. Practice this a few times every time you're in your bathroom. It won't solve all the internal stuff, but it will help you fake it when you need to, until you no longer need to fake it.
posted by rtha at 3:01 PM on October 7, 2013

That sounds really painful and shitty and I'm sorry you're dealing with this. While I'm sure your therapist will have lots of great ideas, in the meantime would it help to reframe the kindness as something the giver does for themselves instead of for you?

That way you can take the focus off whether you believe you deserve it, or how uncomfortable it makes you feel. Not that the person saying nice things doesn't mean it, but maybe it's similar to how you enjoy giving gifts - it's something they do for the joy of it. I'm glad you're working with someone to get through this, you deserve better.
posted by Space Kitty at 3:07 PM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Before a recital, my high-school flute teacher sat all her students down backstage and told us:

"I don't care how you do out there. It doesn't matter if you nail it, or if you mess up or if your flute spontaneously combusts and you fall off the stage. Someone will come up to you afterwards and compliment you. And I will kick your ass if you say 'I messed up the second movement' or 'I sucked' or 'my flute caught on fire and I fell off the stage.' All you need to say -- all. you. need. to. say. -- is 'Thank you, I'm glad you liked it.'"

To this day, I still use that. Client: "Great job on on the Foo ad! I love it!" Me: (thinking: it's a piece of junk I pulled out of my butt at the last minute) "Thanks, I'm glad you liked it." (thinking: Because you would, you ignorant troglodyte, all your taste is in your mouth.)

I love that damn phrase so much. Thank you, Cheryl Fogg!
posted by mon-ma-tron at 8:58 PM on October 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

There are studies that suggest identifying the voice that is criticizing you as another person / entity can greatly increase your odds of silencing that voice. For me, I realized that many self-criticisms actually came from my father. This really helped me silence that voice. Before that, I simply recognized the voice as an evil gnome, and that helped too.

Another thing to try may be loving kindness meditation. You simply walk about or whenever you have free time say to yourself - I wish to be strong, I wish to be safe, I wish to be content, I wish to live my life in grace (or, with ease). Thoreau suggested that:

"As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives."

This is a Buddhist meditation, and while saying the words, I also found it helpful to analyze them. Are they in an order? Does one need to be safe before one can be strong, etc.? Also, once one feels they are living the word, the loving kindness meditation first shifts toward other individuals and then, eventually the whole world - "I wish the whole world to be safe, etc." This suggests that you must love yourself before you can love other people.

Don't you want to love other people?... Then you must first master loving your self.
posted by xammerboy at 11:51 PM on October 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

it sounds like someone (family of origin?) has done a real number on you. maybe you have a fear of success and were told that you are not, or aren't allowed to be, good or kind or successful or whatever, so you can't accept those sorts of compliments. rather, you are some lowly worm and that is your place. i'm not sure as i have the fear of failure which looks a bit different. i agree that it sounds very threatening for you to allow yourself to receive praise. you might want to ask yourself what is it that you are afraid of happening if you allow yourself to accept praise. brené brown is the go to person, from what i hear, about dealing with shame & vulnerability. she has given some TED talks about it and has books too. lastly, i think it is better to deal with the root of an issue rather than trying to manage the symptoms of it. or, maybe both can be done simultaneously, but i wouldn't just try to manage the symptoms alone as they will invariably crop up in another fashion.
posted by wildflower at 11:56 PM on October 7, 2013

I've seen a (milder) version of this reaction in people who come from a background where they are always supposed to be the giver. It's definitely a power dynamic, like you say, about strength and weakness - strong / rich / in-control people are generous and giving and kind, weak / poor / needy people are on the receiving end of that generosity.

If that resonates with you, it may help to think about it as just treating other people like your equals, with respect for their feelings even if you don't agree. Rejecting someone's thanks, for example, puts them in an uncomfortable position, because they no longer have any way to balance out the obligation they have for the nice thing you did. Even if you don't think what you did is worthy of special treatment, you should acknowledge that they think so and let them 'balance the books' on their end just like you would want to balance things out if it were a kindness someone had done to you.

Similarly, try to take a compliment as an honest expression of someone's opinion. "I thought this project really sucked, but Mike said I did a good job" should first give you the thought, "Mike liked my work" instead of just assessing whether it matches your opinion of your work and rejecting it outright if not. (which has the implied conclusion, "Mike must be really stupid".)
posted by Lady Li at 12:11 AM on October 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

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