Please don’t compliment me; I don’t think I can take it.

April 8, 2011 § 12 Comments

“I love this, A.Hab.!” V exclaims. She’s reading something I wrote. A draft of something. I can’t remember what now. I must not look convinced by her adoration of my writing. “Don’t you think this sounds good?” She reads me the section that has her so impressed. A smile cracks on my lips…I don’t really know why.

“I…guess…?” It’s not really a question, but my tone inflects up. “I mean…yeah?” I do it again.

Poor V sits across from me, paper in hand, trying so hard to get me to read what she’s reading, the way she’s reading it. She tries again and reads a different section. Afterward, she looks up at me, waiting. “It’s good!” There’s no room for arguing against her–she speaks so emphatically, already convinced that she’s not only right but that I’ll think so, too.

“Well…thank you,” I finally manage. It’s feeble. I’m pretty sure she notices it’s feeble.

“A.Hab., don’t you see that this is good?” she asks again. “I mean, it sounds intelligent. You really know what you’re talking about.”

Yeah, I want to say to her. But we’re talking about my writing here. My writing is never that good. I’m just average. Your writing on the other hand–it’s the real deal!

I don’t say that. I know it won’t go over well. V is trying to help me learn to take a compliment. I’m trying, V, I really am.

Like so many graduate and professional students out there, I suffer from what’s commonly called “Impostor Syndrome.” The imposture here is that, despite my ability to please two admissions committees enough for entrance into two graduate programs (one at the Master’s level and another at the Doctoral level), I’m really not as good as they all think I am. In fact, I know I’m not that good, and one day they’ll find out and boot me from the program. Literally. They will kick me on my rear-end with a boot. Out the door.

I’ve been in my graduate program since 2004. I graduated in 2006 with my M.A., and the same year I entered the PhD program. Maybe I just sort of snuck in under the radar? Maybe they didn’t notice how bad my seminar papers were? How horrible my thesis was? How contrived my theoretical lines of inquiry?

When I receive compliments (especially in regards to my intellect or writing ability), my first thought is an emphatic But!

Would I like to curb this tendency? Absolutely. Of course.

Do I want to value myself and the work I do? Absolutely.

But, honestly, the majority of my motivation to learn how to take a compliment is externally-driven. I would like to be able to believe what others say about me for their sake. I am keenly aware at how disappointing it is for the people who compliment me to be met with a mere shrug or shake of the head or protest. It infuriates me when others do that to the compliments I offer them. I feel embarrassed when others offer me a compliment because I know better than they do. (How arrogant!) And I want to set them straight; I want them to know just how ill-bestowed their kind words are. (Ever the teacher….)

So how do we break out of this habit? What do we do with the Impostor Within? How do we learn to embrace and love and see the Person That Other People See?

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§ 12 Responses to Please don’t compliment me; I don’t think I can take it.

  • Lisa says:

    I struggle with this too, but your post made me think (because it IS a good post). What if we look at the person giving the compliment? Do you admire V? Do you think her work is good? Do you trust her opinion on other things? Well then, if you do, don’t you have to trust her opinion about you and your work? I know this is not always true, but I think we need to learn to differentiate between “kiss-ass” compliments and feedback from people we admire.

    • Robert says:

      I wholeheartedly agree with you, Lisa. The integrity–the ethos if you will–of the person giving the compliment should greatly factor into how well we take compliments.

      AHab has a hard time taking compliments from me, too. I tell her all the time that her writing is very good. Hell, yesterday I told her that her most recent blog entry had a very “authorial” tone to it–like she’s really coming into her own as an author. And that I thought the way she uses italics to emphasize her points was a very good, smart, writerly decision.

      I think I can safely say that my comments were not taken to heart.

      Hopefully, my wife will read your comments and think about how she trusts my opinion on things, thinks my work is good, and that she admires me as much as I admire her (at least I hope she believes all those things…). We’ll get this compliment thing figured out!

      • Lisa says:

        Robert, it is so interesting that I can teach about ethos in the classroom, but I have my own difficulties accepting compliments from people I trust. Maybe Amanda and I need to start a support group, with you and my husband as our lead compliment advocates. 😉

  • Tim says:

    Please let me know once you find out :-). Seems to be one of the hardest lessons to learn. I would love to be able to do away with that plummeting, sick feeling whenever someone pays me a compliment, because it actually does interfere with my performance – especially musically. If someone pays me a compliment, that sick feeling literally shuts my brain down for the next little bit.

  • shobavish says:

    I enjoyed this post and can relate to it. I haven’t been a graduate student for a while now, but this inability to accept compliments has lingered. In recent days it has bothered me more because I see my child doing it – shrugging off compliments. I feel like I have modeled terrible behavior or maybe it is genetic!

  • Tori Nelson says:

    Impostor Syndrome? I gots it. Oddly enough, I am much more comfortable with someone telling me my writing is awful than accepting a compliment.

  • Kirsten says:

    This post could have been written by me. In fact, I decided that I wanted to quit school yesterday because my abstract for Dr. Nunn’s class “sucks” and I never get nominated for any awards. Seriously, Kirsten?

    Anyway, I just wanted you to know that you are not alone! And I think you’re awesomesauce.

  • Many people can relate to this, including me. Thanks for getting those thoughts out there. It takes courage.

  • God, I wish I knew the answer. I really wish I did. I mean, how do some people manage to believe they’re right, worthy, gifted, good, and others of us do not? If anyone out there can give us an answer, I’d love to hear it.

    I am like this crazy believer in Amanda’s brilliance, but it doesn’t matter–really–what really matters is that we are able to believe in ourselves. Why is that so damn hard?

    Answers anyone?

  • Dana says:

    No answers– only more questions and a feeling of relating completely to these issues. Sigh.

  • limr says:

    I’ve never been good at taking a compliment but I’ve gotten better. This is not to say that I believe them more than I used to, but I’m better at forcing myself into the plain, simple “Thank you.”. If I get really uncomfortable, I then just admit the truth to explain the look that is most probably on my face: “You know, it’s a little awkward for me to hear nice things because I tend to be very critical of myself, but thank you for the compliment.”

    It’s a little hard at first, but it gets easier. I find the quicker and simpler the response, the easier it is for all involved.

  • petthedog says:

    I would actually venture to say that I wasn’t even really complimenting, I was stating the TRUTH. Your writing is strong! When you want to write academically you do. When you want to be conversational (such as in blog posts), you are. You can write, and I merely want you to be honest about your ability.

    But, I do understand not being able to take compliments. Poor Ben gets a lot of counter-arguments from me post-compliment. Why are we like that??

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