Do you deflect attention from yourself when others praise you? Do you minimize your accomplishment, putting the focus on the other person giving or changing the subject all together? Ever notice how your body feels uncomfortable during these moments? Maybe you cringe a little or feel a tightening in your jaw or chest, or maybe you even make a funny face?
It’s particularly common for gay men. Stay under the radar, quietly get by, or keep successes private lest you receive attention or, heaven forbid, appear arrogant. If only it were easier to own and share successes with others. A lifetime of concealing doesn’t automatically change when you come out. Despite liberation, old habits remain.
Proud is an understatement when it comes to describing what I experience when working with Bryan. He just celebrated his second anniversary of being clean from drugs, and I, his psychotherapist, have been with him every step of the way. Before this, the journey had been a painful one, including a psychiatric hospitalization, which only temporarily helped, and several other attempts to stay clean without success. But two years ago, he came to a session in tears, confessed the depths of his addiction, called his husband into a session, and together we decided that it would be best for him to go into a month-long rehab program. Now, he has two years of being clean. Hooray!
In these two years, he has transformed in countless ways. It is like sitting with a different person—his beliefs have changed, he has come to trust his strength, he is able to express vulnerabilities and has allowed his anger to diminish, and in general he has a new sense of softness and openness.
But one of his biggest shifts has been in his generosity and willingness to assist others in their struggles with addiction. He regularly attends 12-step meetings and has welcomed new members, mentored several people, and has officially sponsored people in the program. Not only have these interactions been helpful to others, but they serve as stark reminders both of his previous pain and his progress.
Of course, not all of Bryan’s work is done. Though he is willing to give, he struggles with being complimented on his own recovery or receiving praise for the profound impact he has on others during their own recovery. He calls this his low self-esteem; I call it resistance to own his authority and pride.
Bryan actually knows the nature of his strengths and his capabilities. He can own it to himself, but not with others. He cannot tolerate when others publicly give him the recognition he has earned. He squirms, deflects, changes the subject, or goes limp, like a dog who has been naughty.
Despite turning the page in his story, he continues to hide. He continues to live to some extent with the confines of the old script. He confuses pride with arrogance, and turns away from positive attention.
After discussing this in therapy, I felt that he would get more bang for his buck by using experiential work as a tool for updating this part of himself. Using mindfulness techniques often has greater impact than talk. We started with simple deepening exercises—deep gentle breathing, increasing the awareness of comfort in his body, noting pleasurable sensations—to help him gradually shift away from thoughts in his mind, allowing them to fade, as his focus on pleasurable body sensations increased. Sensory awareness utilized in this way can provide stronger, more lasting effects.
I described how as a boy he had internalized some messages that continued to stick with him—keep your life private, stay hidden, deflect any attention that comes your way. These messages were part of an early script that said that under no circumstances should he stand out in any way. Attention equals risk. Having a history that included trauma only made it worse for Bryan, and his subsequent addiction also required secrecy and deflection.
While in a state of trance, I asked him to recognize the old messages that he has held onto, without even realizing it. I asked him to notice the space inside of his body where he holds this memory. I could tell from how his posture changed and his facial expression shifted that he was resonating with this; his face registered pain.
In an effort to contrast what was “ancient history,” against what is now, I played around with old and new metaphors in the hope that he would be able to highlight the differences—the heaviness of the old and the lightness with the current success.
I asked him to imagine that he was flipping the channels from a TV station of long ago to something more contemporary, from Gilligan’s Island to Oprah, from being stranded to being celebrated. To deepen the power of the metaphor I also asked him to focus on the sensations of going from black-and-white to full color.
His face came alive, as his body and neck straightened, he got it! His burgeoning sense of pride and authority was registering, in a deep profound way, inside his body, but also in his mind—double impact.
When he returned from a trance state into the room, it was as if he had been on a journey to a far-off place. He was thrilled to have this experience, something I never would have been able to explain in a way that he could actually experience it. He then agreed to do a homework assignment before his next session—to speak publicly at his meetings about his intention to own the attention and recognition that he deserves. He agreed to this, and to challenge himself by gracefully receiving compliments from others if they were offered.
How does this relate to the rest of us?
I think many of us can relate to Bryan’s discomfort with really being seen for his strengths. For some, it is a matter of having learned to equate visibility with danger and humiliation. A deep lesson to be sure. But perhaps, like Bryan, it’s time to catch up to ourselves, to do ourselves the favor—and to pay others the respect—of receiving praise, of acknowledging success.
Some ideas for facilitating change:
Make a conscious effort to differentiate between the past and the present, Consciously choose not to enlist old thoughts and patterns; trade them in for a focus on the present. Recognize how scripts dated “long ago” no longer serve you, and replace them with ones marked “now.”
Instead of squirming when others notice or belittling your strengths and accomplishments, create a new space inside for knowing and owning what you are good at, period.
When you get caught up in W-OLD, change the station to newer more adaptive thoughts and views of yourself. Literally see yourself changing the radio or television station to something current.
If you watch others whom you admire, you will notice how they accept compliments gracefully and comfortably. Emulate their energy for yourself. Mimicking can actually be healthy—at some point it will be genuine!
The more you work at allowing yourself to be successful and incorporating positive feedback from others, the more you will believe it. We forget that when we dismiss compliments, we are saying we don’t trust the sincerity (or intelligence) of others. There is a consistency about what others respect in you, and it will be easier to trust as you allow yourself to receive that and integrate the messages.
Allow your body to remain still and receptive during moments of accomplishment and praise. Allow it to be received by your body, imagine there is space for it, and allow it to be safe inside you.
“Arrogance” and “pride” do not mean the same thing, just as “insecurity” and “humility” are not the same. In the first cases, something is hidden and ill-at-ease whereas in the second there is simple acknowledgment and implicit generosity toward others.