Stuck

Why we can't (or won't) move on from bad jobs, bad relationships, and bad habits, and how we can all move ahead.

The Impossibility of Accepting Praise

People who hate themselves cannot simply say "thanks"

My mother used to open gifts and cry. Not out of gratitude or awe but out of shame. Birthday gifts, Chanukah gifts, house gifts: she unhitched their ribbons, peeled away their wrappers with leaden hands and a hooded look that others might have seen as concentration but which I knew to be dread. Were others present, she would nod and murmur "Oh, you shouldn't have" through clenched-teeth rictuses that they might have taken for smiles.

Were we alone -- the wrapped gift having been given to her previously, or having arrived in the mail -- she sat slack-shouldered, removing ribbon and wrapper gingerly as if she had no earthly right to them, as if even these cheap festoons, much less their contents, belonged not to her but to some king whose slave she was. Seeing whatever was inside the wrappings -- bracelet, say, or cake or paperweight -- she sobbed. 

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Those who hate themselves find it nearly impossible to accept presents, praise and other rewards. Having learned from my mother how to hate myself, I know this all too well. We who hate ourselves believe we deserve no rewards, could not possibly deserve them. Thus upon receiving them we feel like charlatans and thieves. The sweeter and more innocent the giver, the more criminal we feel.

And sometimes - because we believe that praise and gifts given to us cannot be what they seem to be: kindness and thanks and grace - we who hate ourselves are suspicious when receiving them, assuming them to be practical jokes. The cake is made with Ex-Lax. The paperweight will explode.

Upon receiving rewards, we assume that this is by mistake, that through some grievous error we have been awarded what others have actually won, which was rightfully theirs, which once this grievous error is discovered we must hand over to them, hanging our heads in shame although we knew the bold truth all along. We know we could not, should not, would not ever win.

But say - just say - that although you hated yourself, an occasion arose on which you deserved a reward. That somehow, who knows why or how but probably by accident, you did something that was considered worth rewarding. Say you raised more cash for charity than all your fellow club members without intending to. Or your briefcase happened to block a bullet that would otherwise have killed a baby. Then, it came. Your cash payout, your praise. Your prize. You took it because that was expected of you. You took it because you could not say no. You took it with your arms stiff and eyes low. You took it but you took it only in the sense that it washed over you.

Where others, similarly rewarded, would bow and beam and bask with a give-it-to-me glow that looks only slightly like gratitude, we who hate ourselves would stand back abashed or blank, or we would blush, the body saying "no no no", eyes looking wildly for an exit. We would grovel and apologize where others granted the exact same gifts would gloat. My mother felt actual pain upon opening gifts. Sometimes she held these gifts between her hands, her watery eyes scrying them for cruel secret messages. Sometimes she hurled the gifts across the room.

Where do we draw the line? At what point is a compliment simply a compliment, a gift simply a gift? What form must such things take for we who hate ourselves to just accept them?

Anneli Rufus is the author of many books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and Stuck: Why We Can't (or Won't) Move On.

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