In my high school art classes, it was universally understood that, when one was told that her piece was good, she had to respond with ‘no, it’s not’. I was a little out of sorts with this: those were some genuinely good pieces being complimented, and it seemed strange that the artists themselves were not allowed to value them if it meant a reputation as someone who wasn’t stuck up. As such, when I received compliments, I began saying ‘thank you’. This was a little unbalancing at first, but I began to take pride in my art, and to value it for what it is. I’m no great artistic talent, not by a long shot, but I developed the confidence to recognise my strengths and, regardless of talent, the joy of creation.
Women are not allowed to accept compliments. (Especially about our looks.) It’s not considered modest. This is a corruption of modesty – if modesty is something you value – because it’s enforced. Being made to deny one’s value, regardless of whether one agrees or not, doesn’t reflect any quality in oneself – apart from following social norms! It’s just a socially enforced way of making sure that women put ourselves down at every public opportunity. It’s a layering of expected falsity in our interactions. Just as prescribed compliments aren’t truly felt, being made to shrug them off, as well as, more importantly, sincere ones, is a harmful social dance.
Denying compliments is denying ourselves some important things: the pleasure in being acknowledged, our own recognition of the best of ourselves, the fulfilment in emotional meeting with another person. And continual denial is far from helpful if you have chronic (nausea-inducing!) self-esteem issues as I do. Even if you don’t believe the content of a compliment, it’s vastly pleasurable to accept that someone else thinks you’re clever, or kind, or interesting, or a good cook. Also, I for one like messing about with social scripts, so there’s a whole lot to accomplish with a ‘thank you very much, I get a lot of joy out of making cheesecake, and that’s one of my best yet.’ I like surprising people, and I like feeling good about myself, so why not?
Brushing aside sincerely meant compliments denies something to their givers, too. I’m thinking of this in light of the comment thread on my farewell post on Feministe. As we know, writing is one of the best and most special things in my life. I have my doubts at times about how good at it I am, however. This is a bit silly because, happily, I’m told all the time that I’m good at this, and you lovely folks tell me that you get a lot out of what I do. But: prescribed I-can’t-really-have-anything-of-value-to-contribute interferes. And, you know, on the one hand, not accepting compliments is just me harming myself here. (How silly to denigrate the skill I have spent my whole life cultivating.) But in telling myself that I am not good at this, or that I don’t really have anything of worth to say, I’m not only harming myself at all. I’m denying the experiences of other people. And it’s deeply disrespectful to brush aside someone saying, ‘hey, what you said here, it has helped me in my life in a profound way.’ That’s special. That’s not just about me, it’s about how we all move towards each other in helpful and loving ways. Taking a compliment is here a matter of acknowledging a shared spark of humanity in us all.
When I tell someone I value them, I mean it, and I hope my words and feelings manage to filter through all the negative messaging and programming around that person. I am learning to accept compliments myself, and thereby nurture not only my soul, but the value of every person with whom I share gestures of goodwill.