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Practical Tips for Metabolizing a Compliment

The art of receiving appreciation

Roman Babakin/Shutterstock
Source: Roman Babakin/Shutterstock

When you get a compliment, how do you feel? Does it make you feel squirmy, suspicious, or uncomfortable? Or do words of appreciation bring a gentle smile to your face and perk you up a little bit?

When someone thanks you for helping them, expresses gratitude for your kind act, or praises you for some accomplishment or quality you possess, do you let it in? Or do their compliments fall flat as you revert to a habit of deflecting blessings that come your way?

Most of us haven’t been encouraged to receive compliments gracefully. We’ve been taught that we’re selfish if we bask in the good feeling it brings: “Don’t let your ego get too big!" "Don’t be full of yourself!" "Be self-effacing.” Sadly, compliments may be contaminated and neutralized by considerations that are fear-based or shame-driven: “Will they think I have a supersized ego? Do I deserve these kind words?”

We need appreciation and acknowledgment in order to thrive. Philosopher and psychologist William James said, “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” When we block ourselves from receiving recognition in simple ways, our appreciation-deprivation may segue into a more hulking desire for praise and adulation. We might seek power, prestige, and money as substitute ways to garner appreciation or cover up shame.

Becoming an accomplished artist, climbing the executive ladder, or being president might offer towering recognition, but it never delivers the more intimate flow of mutual appreciation and connection that would nourish us. A runaway ego condemns us to a comfortably numb isolation — and often hurts others in the process.

It is a refined, soulful art to allow ourselves to receive and metabolize appreciation. To receive and digest a simple compliment can add texture to our day and enhance the quality of our lives.

Here are some experiments you might try the next time someone offers you a compliment.

Take a Breath

We often stay in our head when someone sends a whiff of appreciation our way. Responses such as, “It wasn’t a big deal," or “No problem,” or negative self-talk such as, “If they really knew me, they wouldn’t say that,” prevent us from receiving a compliment graciously. Instead, we deflect, minimize, or sidetrack to avoid the awkwardness of receiving it.

Taking a conscious breath can open a pathway out of our head and into our body — helping to calm distracting fears and considerations. Being in our body, we’re better positioned to metabolize a compliment and let it seep into our bones and tissues.

Don’t Overthink It

A key to receiving a compliment is to not overthink it. Don’t make it complicated by wondering what they really mean by it, or if they have some hidden agenda. These are fruitless inquiries. Take it at face value, and allow yourself to enjoy or even relish it.

I’m not suggesting that we get overexcited or believe this person is now our new best friend; it takes time to know somebody. But feeling appreciated is one thing that can build trust and connection.

Perhaps we can gradually expand our capacity to receive a compliment with graciousness and delight, without it being a big deal. Appreciation is not something to live for, but to live with, when it floats our way.

Stay in Your Body

Being in the moment includes staying in your body and out of your head. Notice how you feel inside to receive someone’s gratitude. Is it a warm, glowing feeling? Or is it unpleasant, perhaps because you’re not accustomed to being appreciated? Does your stomach feel tight or your chest constricted? Maybe you notice shame or shyness to let yourself indulge in feeling good for a moment. Let it all be there; be gentle with whatever you’re noticing.

If it’s a pleasant feeling, see if you can let it course through you without wondering if you can trust it or feeling obligated to reciprocate. A simple “thank you” can be followed by a pause, allowing yourself time to let it in.

Let It Seep In

Allowing a compliment to seep into our body can help heal some of the unworthiness we carry. Life is less isolating and more enjoyable when we give and receive simple compliments. An interesting mindfulness practice is to notice when someone values and appreciates us, whether a kind word from a stranger or a heartfelt compliment from a partner or friend. How far can you let it in?

We’re social creatures who develop our sense of self from being valued. Positive psychology tells us that receiving a thumbs-up enhances our well-being and motivates us.

Appreciating Ourselves and Others

It’s important to remember that valuing and appreciating ourselves is vital, especially when it’s not forthcoming from others. Expecting or seeking compliments can keep us spinning our wheels, but it’s something to cherish when a simple compliment comes our way. As Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us, “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

If you’re feeling deprived of compliments, you may want to experiment with being more generous in expressing appreciation. In an extraordinary letter written in 1855 from Ralph Waldo Emerson to a young Walt Whitman, Emerson wrote:

"One concentrated effort I’ve made in the past year has been the regular practice of sending notes of appreciation to strangers — writers, artists, varied creators — whose work has moved me in some way, beamed some light into my day. It’s so wonderfully vitalizing for us ordinary mortals to send and receive such little reminders of one another’s humanity — especially in a culture where it’s easier to be a critic than a celebrator."

It can feel good to float appreciation toward others, and it just might lead to more compliments drifting your way.

© John Amodeo

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