The other day I was purchasing travel sized toothpaste and makeup remover wipes at CVS, and was stuck standing in a long line at checkout. The woman in front of me had long white hair braided beneath a sunhat, sun spotted arms and a gentle, calming air about her. When she came to the front of the line, she looked at the check out clerk and said, "Honey, you have the nicest smile." This gesture seemed innocent enough, but the check out girl blushed and looked down, mumbling a halfhearted "thank you." Her reaction was shocking for a couple of reasons: first, because the woman dispensing the compliment was clearly being genuine, and second, because the check out clerk did have a nice smile, but didn't seem to know it. Or rather, she didn't seem to believe it.
I felt immediate empathy for the check out girl, because I have felt exactly like her for most of my life. Compliments have always made me uncomfortable, even such benign ones as, "You should be proud of yourself," or "You have such beautiful eyes." There is no grace in the inability to accept a compliment, but there is no shame in it either. What other's may perceive as an odd social tick or shyness is often something far deeper, rooted in low self-esteem or self-worth.
I used to be embarrassed and afraid to express my feelings openly. I was similarly embarrassed and afraid to receive compliments, because I sincerely couldn't understand why or how anyone could think highly of me when I thought so little of myself. Often, instead of looking into someone's eyes as they spoke, I would look anywhere but. One boyfriend called me out on this habit, albeit in an unkind way, "Look in my eyes!" he yelled, frustrated as I tried to tell him that his words or actions hurt me, "Say it to my face!" Of course, meeting low self-esteem with anger never helped, and low-self esteem was the inescapable root of my problem.
My eating disorder originated from myriad places, but it was undoubtedly exacerbated by low self-esteem, especially in environments or around people who, intentionally or not, tore me down. When friends, family, or strangers complimented my body, I didn't believe them. When friends, family, or strangers made less-than-complimentary comments about my body, I couldn't remove their words from my brain. We hear, see, and manifest what we believe to be true. I believed I wasn't good enough, thin enough, smart enough, et cetera, so for a very, very long time I manifested those things in my life. This looked like: not raising my hand when I knew the answer to a question in class; letting people talk over me; initiating harmful or abusive relationships and staying in them far too long; or averting my eyes when someone complimented anything about me.
Psychologist Guy Winch Ph.D., writes "receiving praise from others when we feel negatively about ourselves elicits discomfort because it conflicts with our existing belief system. If we believe we’re truly undesirable, hearing compliments about how attractive we are will feel jarring and inauthentic. If we believe we’re unintelligent, someone lavishing us with praise about how smart we are will feel more like a taunt than a compliment. And if we’re convinced we’re incapable of success, receiving praise about our how capable we are can feel like a set-up for future heartbreak and disappointment."
Accepting a compliment cannot and does not begin anywhere except within yourself. Once I was able to recognize and accept good things about myself, I didn't look for positive affirmation elsewhere. When people do compliment me now, I believe them because I know my own worth. C.S. Lewis once said, "Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less." When we are self-conscious, we are wrapped up in our own heads, certain that we are frauds or that other people view us as such. But humans are inherently selfish-we have to be-and most other people are entirely unconcerned with the intricacies of other people's lives.
Jacqueline Whitmore writes in Entrepreneur, that the best way to receive a compliment is to express genuine gratitude. A simple "thank you," without justification or self-deprecating remarks, will always suffice. Of course, our bodies can often belie our true emotions, so she also advises to not cross your arms, look down, or appear disinterested. Maintaining eye contact and smiling will give a nonverbal cue that you accept someone's compliment. Finally, avoid downplaying the compliment or returning a compliment with another compliment. This is confusing and often misconstrued as forthright, narcissistic, or rude.
I've found that the best way to feel at ease when receiving a compliment, is simply to believe that it's true. You are smart. You are pretty. You are funny. You are an engaging leader, or a good listener, or a hard worker. You are enough. You are, and you deserve to hear it. More importantly, you deserve to believe it.