You’re heading back to your desk after grabbing some coffee when your boss walks by and compliments your work on a project. “Great job on that report,” she says. “I especially liked the way you formatted those graphs. They’re so easy to understand.”
What’s your first reaction?
- You take yourself down (lest some unknown watcher might):“Ha ha, sometimes I get the job done.”
- You parry it (like in fencing) as if it might wound you: “No, no, this was all you!” (Like a Musketeer? “Non. Non. c’était tout toi! Touche!”) “It wouldn’t have been possible without your guidance!”
- You throw out a squirrel: *awkward smile* “So … um, did you see the game last night?”
- You depreciate in front of their eyes: “It was nothing, just doing my job.”
- You deflect on someone or something nearby: “It was really a team effort.”
- You convince them they are wrong about you and their impressions are faulty: “I really don’t think I did a good job, here’s why…”
Do any of these responses feel familiar to you?
A lot of us just can’t take a compliment. Not long ago I complimented a client after hearing a story about their success. They applied almost all the reactions above, but I stood my ground until they had to suffer a moment of praise penetration. In a study of more than 400 people, Christopher Littlefield found nearly 70% of them associated feelings of embarrassment or discomfort with recognition or receiving a compliment. [Thanks Dr. Littlefield for the general outline of this post].
I think a lot of our discomfort has to do with our “view of self.” Some people would attribute it to “low self-esteem.” But it might be more complicated than that. Before we lament our low opinion of ourselves too much and bring it even lower, we might consider that an even more immediate response to a compliment might be surprise. You might squirm simply because you were caught off guard
In their book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, Tania Luna and LeeAnne Renninger define surprise as “an event or observation that is either unexpected (I didn’t see that coming!) or misexpected (That’s not what I thought was going to happen).” They expand their definition into a “surprise sequence,” riffing on the themes of evolutionary psychology. They suggest an unexpected situation — whether it is a pleasant compliment you weren’t prepared to receive or a bear you encounter while walking in the woods — triggers the same prehistoric sequences in our modern brains.
The authors can track four stages in this surprise sequence:
1. We momentarily freeze
2. We latch onto an explanation for what is happening
If we learn something, we can move on into:
3. We realign our perspective
4. We share what is happening with someone else
If you’ve ever been given a surprise party, your first response may not have been “Oh! How wonderful!” The intensity of the moment probably put you right into Stage 1: Freeze. That’s why people say “You about gave me a heart attack!” right after we pop out from behind the couches. Tania Luna explains, “Intense emotional experience can feel uncomfortable and destabilizing. And, as a result, some of us may want to shut it down so we can feel stable and get comfortable again.” So blurting out one of the awkward responses above may be our unconscious way of trying to regain control in what feels like an emotionally vulnerable situation.
After the initial surprise, we start to look for answers in Stage 2. What caused this feeling? When we discover “Oh. They appreciate what I did.” That reality may bump into our usual way of seeing ourselves, which is less positive. The collision can feel jarring. As a music performer and sermonizer, I have had a lot of experience with someone’s praise bumping into my self-criticism. At one point early on I wanted to stop singing altogether because I could not stand the dissonance.
The interplay of surprise and self-image can make it harder to process the nice things we hear about ourselves. I have had many clients tell me something like “I fear if I let in a compliment, and feel good about it, and then end up disappointing others or myself in the future, I risk taking a bigger bite out of my self-esteem.” We’re clever when it comes to self-protection. Sometimes so clever we can’t get complimented!
These psychological triggers are compounded when they are overlaid with some of the debilitating theology which is unfortunately quite common. Many church leaders have been overly successful in convincing people they are sinful, or even totally depraved. If you compliment a Christian they might say, “Not me, it was Jesus.” Or “I’m just a clay vessel in the Lord’s hands.” Or you tell them “Good job!” They say, “Glory to God!” Humility is important. But not having the humility to receive the love of someone else is not what the Bible teaches. It is also humble to accept the idea that if God is at work in you, you must be something praiseworthy. The good you do is not an anomaly or an opportunity for an object lesson, it is you being alive in the Spirit.
Compliments can trigger joy instead of anxiety
The last two stages of the surprise sequence mirror what the Bible has taught us about praise for generations. Walter Brueggemann developed a helpful way to categorize psalms, which are all about praise, so we could use them in normal life. They meet us in one of three places:
- A place of orientation. Things are normal and they make sense. (Like you are just sitting at your desk doing your work.)
- A place of disorientation, in which we feel disrupted, attacked, even brought low. The boss comes up and wants to talk to you (“Am I going to get fired?”) and he compliments you (“Is she crazy?” Am I crazy?”)
- A place of reorientation in which we realize God has lifted us up and we are full or awareness and gratitude. (“Well, OK! I guess I can do something. I make a difference!”)
The third stage of the authors “surprise sequence” is about reorienting. When we find an explanation for the compliment, we can shift our perspective. If we are porous enough, we can fit the new information into how we usually see ourselves. With a little practice, we can expect the unexpected!
The Psalmists effected Stage 4 by writing a Psalm we are still sharing with them! If you share what has happened to you with someone who can listen, that may help you with the integration process. Such changes take practice and time.
Here are three starting points for reorienting how you receive compliments.
Don’t steal the compliment
When a person recognizes you, don’t immediately steal their praise and lock it up in you view-of-self vault. It is their compliment and they are sharing it with you. You may have done everything last minute, lost a whole page of your speech, or burned the French fries. That’s OK. They are talking about what they experienced, not what you did.
I gave up on not receiving praise when an accompanist skipped an entire staph of a familiar wedding song during the ceremony, but the show had to go on. Someone came up to me afterward and said, “I’ve never heard that song performed that way. I loved it.” I said, “Thanks a lot.” I’m still experiencing the dissonance, but I’m also still receiving their compliment.
Prep your vulnerability rather than it prepping you
Maybe “expect the unexpected” should be one of your proverbs. Especially if you follow Jesus, you know that much more than you can imagine or control is going to happen. You might get complimented and not immediately know how to respond! Get ready for that.
Luna and Renninger recommend thinking of your vulnerability not as a weakness but as openness. Praise doesn’t always need to feel unexpected or scary. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to connect with someone else, or learn how others experience you or your work.
When someone praises you, you could have a prepared response ready to go, like, “That’s so nice I hardly know what to say!” Before long you might fee less anxiety and relate to compliments as nice surprises.
Explore how you formed your view of self
Many of our knee-jerk reactions to compliments are learned behaviors. Our reactions are often influenced by what we see, observe, and experience from those around us. For instance, if your parents responded to recognition by making jokes, praising God, or diverting others’ compliments, you may find yourself doing the same. Similarly, if you witnessed classmates being made fun of or excluded after receiving positive recognition (like being called a “suck up”), you may unconsciously avoid similar situations out of fear the same might happen to you.
Below is a series of Littlefield’s questions to help us dig deeper and explore why compliments may make us uncomfortable — extra praise for jotting down your answers on paper so you can see them better!
1) In your culture or faith, what were you taught was the appropriate way to respond to praise? Was it to just say thank you, praise God, or divert the compliment with your eyes down? None of these responses are wrong, just observe what you were taught and how it impacts how you respond today.
2) How abundant or scarce was praise or acknowledgment in your childhood? If you got an A on a test, would people be excited for you? Or would they ask why you didn’t get an A+? How did that make you feel? How do you think that may impact your experience of recognition as an adult?
3) What are the unspoken rules about recognition in your home? Was it something like, “In my house, if you are not being told you’re doing something wrong, you’re doing it right. But don’t expect to be complimented.” How about your house? Did your family have any unspoken rules around praise and acknowledgment when you were growing up?
4) When you were growing up, did people around you regularly use praise inauthentically? Would people use flattery right before asking for something? Would teachers regularly praise one student to make others feel jealous? Would your parents praise people to their faces, and then gossip about them after they left? If you ever find that you doubt the authenticity of people’s compliments, this may be why.
5) Can you think of any incidents from your past, maybe in school or with family, when you were (or were not) recognized that made you uncomfortable? Did you grow up hearing statements like, “It’s not that big a deal,” or, “Don’t let it get to your head?” Reflecting on those experiences, how do you think those incidents impacted your current experience? As a more self-aware adult, how might you reframe those incidents to update your past experience, and thus, your current one?
We can learn to slow down conditioned responses and let ourselves feel gratitude. Just as any other behavior change, learning to take a compliment well starts with self-awareness — hopefully you have been gaining more of that for the past few minutes. The more aware we become of our feeling/thought patterns and how they impact us, the more we can choose how to respond to them and build new patterns.
In my house, I spent a lot of time trying to please my overly-critical parents. When I did something I knew to be praiseworthy, I remember my mother noticing and say, “I think someone needs to take you down a few pegs.” I did not know what that meant for sure, but I could feel being taken down. I am still leery of letting my flag fly too high. But I am not so fearful that I would run away from writing this blog post and telling you the story! Besides, Jesus loves me as I am right now and the ultimate surprise I am expecting is just how good my destiny is going to feel.