One of my Mother’s most famous quotes besides “I love you from the heart of my bottom“, was how she responded to compliments. When complimented my mother would say, “Oh, You just say that…(pause)…because you mean it.” “I’ll give you 20 minutes to knock that off” is a phrase she would use if someone was doing something nice for her, and incidentally, I use it those phrases too. All was done in fun, and often with people she knew well–friends, children, co-workers, and everyone got a good laugh out of it. Sometimes our plays on words can be fun.
The truth is that compliments are often hard to receive, and as I wrote about in my last blog, they are often hard to give as well. Why? Well, because our self-esteem is attached to both the giving and receiving of praise, and depending on how we have been wired as children, or treated as adults, we will hear every compliment through some kind of grid that either receives the words, twists the words, or rejects the words altogether.
The person who has grown up with successes–maybe in their academics, or a particular talent, or athletic ability is a person most likely to receive compliments as they grow. Praise for jobs well done, promotions to leadership positions, and special recognition are often given to those who stand out in those ways. Sadly, often for these same people, the words are different in their homes. The people closest to them–parents in particular, and siblings too, have a way of telling their children they are not good enough. To a competent, achieving child whose parents will tell them they are “the poorest representation of the family gene pool” if their successes are not in the areas the parents had success. If their children don’t make the highest honors they are often told things like “they will soon be riding the short bus to school.” Sometimes to manipulate a child into certain behaviors, parents or siblings will shame the child. I have watched fathers tell their five year old skinny daughters that they are fat, just to get the girl to not be interested in the ice cream he wants to eat. (Oh, they think they are funny.) Fast forward a few years and you have girls with eating disorders, who are never pretty enough for their dad’s acceptance. Maybe to get a compliant behavior, a parent tells the child that they don’t love them, or that someone significant to them does not love them either. Once a child believes these things are true about themselves, compliments become burdens that they just don’t know how to carry.
These conflicting messages of success, and disappointment create the grid through which that person will “hear” for the rest of their lives unless the “grid” is confronted. It’s not just the “successful” that are manipulated through words, consider the siblings that feel like they live in the shadow of someone’s abilities. These children, although talented and amazing in areas that are not publicly recognized often are told that “they should be more like their brother or sister.” The one in the shadows feels as though there is nothing they can do to ever achieve praise, so they either withdraw and never try to excel in their abilities, or they work on bringing “big” people down.
There are also the ones who grow up rejected. They have never been complimented, or every compliment given them was a decomplimentation with a barb, or a sting. “You’re uglier than a mud fence.” “No one will ever want you.” “Why are you so fat?” “You are good for nothing.” “Why weren’t you born a boy?” “You’re worthless.” “Hey stupid, get in the car!” “Well, good thing she can cook, because she’ll never win a beauty contest.”
People who cannot receive praise become deflectors. You tell them “Wow, you are really great with kids!” and they say, “No, I just got suckered into volunteering.” Or when you compliment their basketball skills, they respond with “Well, not as good as my brother.” “You look great!” can turn into a compliment that gets the person worried about the “parts” of their appearance that they aren’t fond of, and they respond with, “Well, just don’t look too close.”
“Beginner’s luck”, “Finally did something right”, “I’m just volunteering”, and other deflecting comments keep a person from absorbing compliments, and keep true words from sinking in. In doing so, the person does not have to “own” the compliment and any panic or pain they associate with it.
If you have ever been in leadership or managed a team, you will know the difficulty of the deflector. Even their obvious skill sets are not visible to them. You cannot convince them that the thing they excel at is “good”, let alone “great”. They are the ones that you end up begging sometimes to do things that they are phenomenal at doing, and at some point you stop begging and allow them to retreat to the shadows. It takes a lot of patience to even befriend a deflector, because in friendship you enjoy the other person’s company, but a deflector will work hard to not be enjoyed.
How do I know this? Well, I have lived most of my life as a deflector. Wounded by words in my youth, I have worked to keep words from landing on me and inflicting any kind of harm. It’s such a protracted, lifeless dance, this life of deflecting. It has kept me from growing, trying new things, embracing friendships, being a part of team sports, or venturing out in new ideas. My energy being spent on being small and insignificant all the while dreaming of doing big things.
So, how do you go from being a deflector to being a person who gives and receives sincere compliments? Confront your grid. When you are complimented, pause. Then reply with “Thank you.” Nothing more. No excuses, no comparisons, no debasing comments about yourself–just “thank you.” And when you walk away ask yourself, “What was it I wanted to say to deflect that comment, and why?” You might be surprised by what you learn.
When God came looking for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden after their sin, He asked two questions. I give these two questions to you for your consideration.
1. Where are you?
2. Who told you?
When you want to hide from the honest praise, ask yourself “where are you going?” or “where are you right now in your mind?” Are you running away? Are you hiding behind humor? Are you panicking?
When you “hear” the words you were tempted to say to deflect the compliment, ask yourself why you wanted to use those words, and who or what is the author of the voice behind your answer. Are these things God says about you? If not, who told you? If you discover your father’s disapproving voice, or the captain of the football team’s degrading comment, or the wounding words of a broken friendship, talk about it right then and there with God. Give Him the pain of it, and ask Him what He would say.
Trust me, this process takes time, but it is a necessary process to confront your grid, recognize lies from truth, and embrace what God intended for you to become. You were made on purpose, in God’s image, dearly loved, and precious. Begin to let those words sink into your wounded soul, and begin healing.
Believe me, I am walking this process too. After awhile, my deflections get easier for me to catch. Yours will too.
Just consider this possibility: “Maybe that person who complimented you just said that…..because they meant it.”