Accepting compliments as a spiritual practice (Day 57)
Are you able to see your own good qualities? Many of us, apparently, have difficulty doing this.
What happens when someone offers you praise for something you’ve done, or pays you a compliment? What’s your response? Obviously this is sometimes very welcome, but lot of people find this to be a rather uncomfortable experience. They mentally or even physically squirm, and offer up self-deprecating rebuttals, saying it wasn’t such a big deal, or that someone else could have done it better, or pointing out flaws in what they did. Sometimes people feel like they need to pay a compliment back when they’ve been given one, as if a burden has been placed on them which must be discharged as soon as possible. Often people are in such emotional turmoil when paid a compliment that they don’t do the most obvious thing, which is to say “Thank you.”
One woman wrote in a discussion forum, “I won some academic awards a few years back and got lots of positive attention around it, and my response was to fall into a depression – some part of me couldn’t accept that I deserved any of the congratulations or compliments.”
We sometimes won’t allow other people to praise our good qualities because we’re not willing to see them ourselves. We think, like this woman, that we are undeserving. So having a negative self-view is one reason why we might not be able to see our good qualities or rejoice in our achievements. This lack of self-confidence can be helped by cultivating mudita — joyful appreciation — but it also makes cultivating mudita more difficult!
Another reason can be distrusting others. Another woman said she felt like running and hiding when she was paid a compliment, and commented, “I think its because I don’t believe the person saying the compliment, and I feel like they have some ulterior motive.” This is doubly unhelpful, since not only are we refusing to accept that we have a good quality, but we’re discounting someone else’s good actions, and treating them with suspicion for doing something skillful.
As it happens, the Triratna Buddhist Community, of which I’m a part, makes a practice of “rejoicing in merits,” which is a translation of a traditional term, anumodana, which is in fact hard to translate. “Merits” here means “good qualities.” Often after a period of spending time with people on a retreat, there will be an opportunity to rejoice in the good qualities of each person on the retreat, or for each person in a smaller group — for example if people have spent time in study groups. So each person has a turn of being rejoiced in, and each other person will share something that they found admirable in this person.
So this is quite a practice! If one person paying you a compliment makes you squirm, how would you feel about a whole room full of people doing this?
Well, the good thing is that this practice of rejoicing in merits helps us to drop all the defensive habits we have around receiving compliments. It’s made quite explicit in the practice of rejoicing in merits that we need to learn how to accept compliments graciously, and when we let go of our defensive strategies we find that we actually let the compliments in.
So here are a few pointers to help you accept a compliment:
- Don’t squirm or deflect. If you feel uncomfortable, just allow that discomfort to be there. Don’t do or say anything (screwing up your face, turning away, putting yourself down) that discounts the praise. Breathe!
- Smile. It’s discounting to the other person if you screw up your face or shrug. Look them in the face and smile.
- Take it in. Mindfully listen to the other person, and realize that the most important thing is to receive the message you’re being given. Someone is doing you a favor, and the skillful thing to do is to give them your attention wholeheartedly.
- If you blush, you blush. It’s a physiological phenomenon that’s outside your control. Don’t see blushing as a sign of weakness.
- Receive in order to give. Rather than feel that you have to give a compliment back (which discounts the compliment you’ve been given) recognize that graciously accepting the compliment with a “Thank you” and a smile is the best repayment that you can offer. But complimenting the compliment is fine! If you say something like “Thank you. That was a lovely thing to say” then you’re acknowledging that the compliment-giver did a good thing rather than discounting it.
- Share the credit only after you’ve accepted it. If you’ve been praised for something you’ve done, but you know Susie (or whoever) should share the credit, make sure you accept the compliment before saying “Actually, a lot of the credit should go to Susie.” If you jump straight in with passing the compliment on to Susie, then you’ve refused to accept it.
- Accept that the message may be true. You may not want it to be true that you’re good at doing a certain thing, but if it’s true it’s true, and it’s wiser to accept that as a fact. And having a good quality pointed out to you can help you to develop that good quality. And that’s a good thing, right? Your view of yourself can substantially change in very positive ways if a compliment is pointing out something about you that you hadn’t recognized before.
- But don’t take credit where credit’s not due. If you genuinely had nothing to do with the thing you’re being praised for and the praise is therefore based on a misunderstanding, you can still thank the person giving the compliment (after all they are acting with kind intentions) but let them know that it was someone else who deserved the credit. It’s dishonest to accept praise that doesn’t belong to you. But I stress that this should only done when you genuinely didn’t do the thing that’s being praised.
To expand on that last point, after having attended one Buddhist center for several years, I started to visit another one some distance away. Several of the people there complimented me on being kind and friendly. Now this was a complete surprise to me, because in the group I’d been practicing in before, I had a reputation for being prickly and unfriendly. It turned out that I’d been changing, but that the people I’d been hanging out with for years had failed to appreciate those changes. Seeing me afresh, my new community could see me as I was, not in terms of a personality I’d outgrown years before.
Now having my own kindness and friendliness reflected back at me was a big deal. Not only did it allow me to see myself better, and allow me to feel better about myself (believe me, it’s much nicer to have the people around you think you’re kind and friendly than to think you’re defensive and unfriendly), but it encouraged me to deepen those qualities. It’s hard to deepen a quality that you don’t realize you have. So this was a real turning point in my life.
Receiving genuine compliments can be a deep practice that brings about profound changes.
Now for the sake of completeness, let’s say that someone is trying to manipulate you by paying you a compliment. (It happens. My daughter started trying to do this with me when she was about four years old: “Daddy, I love you!” — pause “Can I use the iPad?” Fortunately she’s outgrown this.)
But sincerely accepting a compliment actually makes it harder for you to be manipulated. If someone is paying you a compliment so that you’ll pay them one back, then simply accepting the compliment and saying “It was kind of you to say that” isn’t playing that game. If they’re paying you a compliment so that you’ll then do them a favor, then once again the confidence you get from accepting the compliment gives you the freedom not to fall into the trap of thinking that you have to “repay” them. You can accept the compliment and decline the invitation to “help.”