I was recently having a conversation with an old friend. We were talking about what was up lately and I was so excited about what was going on in her life, that I didn’t even realize that I was missing so much of what she said. It wasn’t until later, when I was recounting the conversation to my husband, that I realized she had paid me a lot of compliments and I glossed over every one like they never happened.
It’s not humility. Humility means not focusing on yourself, it doesn’t mean ignoring or degrading your achievements. So what is it that makes it so hard to hear and accept compliments?
I often struggle with perfectionism and have a tendency to hear criticism above all else. It’s one way in which perfectionism keeps satisfaction at arm’s length. It keeps us from feeling pride in trying and taking joy in our success. It’s full of sentiments like: I could have done more. I’ll have to do better next time. Everything worked out, but it’s not exactly what I wanted.
Nothing is good enough for perfectionism and it seeks confirmation from our environment that this is the case. It skews our ability to pick up on the positive feedback we receive. Perfectionism is achievement-blind. That’s how confirmation bias works — we tend to search for, interpret, and recall information in a way that confirms the preexisting belief that nothing we do is good enough. This is clearly self-sabotage.
And perhaps we feel we aren’t even good enough. Shame tells us there is something quintessentially wrong within us. We are separated from other people, unable to do and be what we want in life because we are flawed. “Unlike guilt, which is the feeling of doing something wrong, shame is the feeling of being something wrong,” said Marilyn J. Sorensen, Ph.D., in this 2015 article. “When a person experiences shame, they feel ‘there is something basically wrong with me.’”
“Early in life, individuals develop an internalized view of themselves as adequate or inadequate within the world,” Sorensen said. “Children who are continually criticized, severely punished, neglected, abandoned, or in other ways abused or mistreated get the message that they do not ‘fit’ in the world — that they are inadequate, inferior, or unworthy.”
We internalize verbal and nonverbal criticism we receive during childhood and they become shame-based beliefs we have about ourselves — I’m stupid. I’m unloveable. I’m a phony. I’m ugly. This is toxic shame which creates deeply held feelings of inadequacy.
“Emotional aspects of the psyche, both good and bad, seek expression. Therefore, when presented with any opportunity to interpret a situation as personally shameful and confirm what you learned about yourself, this aspect of your subconscious will rise to the surface, like it or not,” writes life coach Mike Bundrandt in his blog NLP Discoveries.
“It’s accompanied by voices, images, or beliefs originating in childhood and is associated with a negative ‘shame story’ about ourselves,” writes Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT, author of Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.
Whether it’s chronic shame or perfectionism editing the praise out of your life, there are steps you can take to start listening to positive feedback.
1. You might start by reviewing your conversations with other people. I often find that there are compliments I glossed over. Scroll up through your text messages or down into your Facebook timeline. I know the praise is there.
2. When someone says something nice to you, resist the urge to immediately say something kind in return. Really hear what they said. If someone thanks you, don’t turn around and say “No, thank you.” Receive that positivity, don’t just hand it back.
3. Don’t approach feedback with fear. When you know someone is critiquing something you did, fear will make you tense up and become almost impervious to anything but disappointment. Criticism is something you can accept or reject — it doesn’t have to be a mark against you. You’re just as likely to receive praise. Approach feedback with an open mind. It’s not about hurting your feelings.
4. Realize that your life consists of far more success than failure. Success shouldn’t be based on some grandiose scale like whether or not you’ve become a billionaire. Success is intangible. You fear failure but you’re resilient, you have a long history of overcoming obstacles. That personal history endures.
You are accomplished, highly competent, and resilient. Keep the focus on this and fill up your tank with praise.