For much of my life, I wrote for myself. I journaled extensively, wrote poems occasionally, and tried my hand at short stories and essays as well. Then I tucked them away in a safe place like the back of my closet or in the file cabinet under ‘work in progress.’ When I began sharing my writing, people I knew and loved complimented me on both content and style and were affirming. They spoke freely about what they liked. I, however, had a hard time hearing it.
Outwardly, I smiled and thanked them for their kind words. Sometimes, I even let what they said soak in a little. Yet, within an hour or two, I would still discount them in my mind. “She just said that because she likes me,” I would tell myself. “He doesn’t know much about writing; if he did, he wouldn’t like mine!” In the absence of confidence and in the presence of intense vulnerability, I could not take a compliment.
I was aware of my own challenges in this area. I would note how long it took, upon hearing a compliment, before my brain would reject it, resist it, or downplay it. One thing I completely missed, though, was the impact I had on others when I did this.
Years ago, while I was in graduate school training to become a teacher, my mentor teacher remarked on the glowing evaluation the director of the program gave me after observing the lesson I led with a group of students. With youthful arrogance and naiveté, I spoke freely to my mentor teacher. “She just likes me,” I said. “I could have delivered a horrible lesson, and she still would have been complimentary.” I was fortunate. My mentor teacher embodied a powerful blend of compassion and firmness, and taught me lessons that were never covered in our graduate classes. She reminded me of the professionalism, experience, and objectivity of the person who had just evaluated me. She helped me see how far I had overstepped with the comment I had made and how, in my inability to take a compliment, I had actually disrespected and undermined the director of the program and all that was involved in evaluating me.
Many more years passed before I understood that, even when we politely accept a compliment, smiling and nodding on the outside, we commit the same offense if we internally discount it. When we dismiss what another person has said to us, we are effectively rendering their opinion invalid. We are not hearing or seeing who they are, and we are rejecting the gift that they offer to us. Rather than acknowledging the vulnerability they have walked through to express what they saw in us, we turn our attention back to our own experience, protecting and defending, rather than generously receiving and contributing.
This week, a friend whom I have known for years, shared the most beautiful acknowledgment with me. She spoke from her heart, commenting on the confidence she sees in me and her experience of me speaking up more often and more directly in social settings. She spoke of the lightness and the peacefulness she sees in me these days. This person, who has traveled with me though several bumpy parts of the path and who has worked with me every step of the way to arrive where we both stand today, took the time to express what she saw in me. I listened until she was done. I let it all soak in. I felt thoroughly and entirely ‘seen’ by her and thanked her for sharing all that she said. I allowed myself to feel the strong resonance of her experience of me and how I experience myself.
I am grateful to stand in this place. I am grateful for all those who worked with me to cultivate experiences of clarity, confidence, and connection–within myself and with others. I experience great joy in being able to share my words with others through speaking and writing. What really lights me up, though, is being able to be fully present to listen and hear what others choose to share. Each person who chooses to extend a compliment has navigated his or her own vulnerability to speak from the heart. I am grateful to be able to listen.