Self-deprecation has never been trendier. Celebrities like Tina Fey and Lena Dunham have built careers around poking fun at lovably pathetic caricatures of themselves, and the modern comedienne is as beloved for her unpretentiousness as she is for her actual skill. For the average woman, a compliment usually triggers either a sardonic wisecrack, a presentation of counter-evidence, or a flushed face coupled with an immediate segue to another topic. Very rarely does today’s woman return a compliment with a smile and a “thank you,” or allow it to hang in the air for more than a moment. Even more rarely does she openly agree with the pronouncement.
A crisis of confidence isn’t necessarily to blame. While many of us struggle with self-doubt behind closed doors, this inner turmoil has little to do with the gracious acceptance of public praise. Rather, we are taught that self-congratulatory behavior is somehow unbecoming—that shamelessly owning a piece of good will renders it, paradoxically, void. In reality, however, deflecting a compliment does both parties a disservice. The recipient loses any momentum that might be gleaned from her moment in the sun, while the giver faces an awkward decision to argue back or meekly redirect the conversation elsewhere. An inability to take a compliment shakes out to something like a rejection.
To understand this emotional exchange, consider the compliments that have stuck with you over time. A generic nod at your appearance can put a spring in your step for several hours, but any stranger on the street can spot a snazzy outfit or shiny hair. The most meaningful praise usually stems from somewhere deeper. Building a track record for your uncanny listening ability or your knack for giving sound advice takes time and effort. These compliments symbolize more than just talents that you possess—they reflect a relationship history that has allowed you to share these gifts with another person. Bestowing praise is that person’s attempt to return your gift in kind.
Accepting a compliment, then, is about honoring the relationship that lies beneath it. Respect yourself enough to believe that the praise you receive is warranted, but also put yourself in the other person’s shoes—would you want your own words hurled back at you as though they were somehow inadequate or ill-advised? The next time someone offers up a blessing on anything from your smile to your sense of humor, let them know how much you appreciate the gift that they are giving you. Absorb the compliment, and let it inform your self-concept and your mood. Then seize the next opportunity to pay that good will forward. Reframing compliment culture means making it acceptable and inviting to give as well as receive.
—Emma Aubry Roberts