Mind your mind: Accepting praise with grace

Recently, my landlord asked me if I would be willing to tutor her kids in core subjects like English, math and French. Listening to her argue as to why I should say yes, I couldn’t help but squirm in my seat. The more she praised my abilities and academic performance, the more scared and frustrated I became. Her persistence triggered so much emotion because they challenged my mistaken beliefs. Soon enough, a little voice inside my head was telling me that my accomplishments didn’t matter that much.

It’s hard to accept compliments from others sometimes. Praise usually makes us feel better than insults, but it can be difficult to own our strengths, much less delight in them. Praise can make us feel uncomfortable and uneasy to the point where we might be tempted to invalidate the other person’s comments.

When somebody highlights one of our positive traits or praises our achievements, it can trigger waves of self-consciousness. For example, if we're congratulated on a receiving a good grade, do we respond with, “Oh, it wasn’t a big deal. Half the class got a higher mark”? Or do we say “Thanks,” for the sake of being polite and then steer the conversation towards another direction? How many of us can accept a compliment and truly feel proud of ourselves without feeling inferior to others?

“We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be?”

— Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love

Why is it so hard to appreciate ourselves? How can we learn to accept praise with grace?

I found my answer in Dr. Kristin Neff’s book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. In her book, Dr. Neff demonstrates that most of our vulnerabilities about feeling good stem from fear. She argues that we’d rather pleasantly surprise others than risk disappointing them.

We make ourselves small to avoid judgement and say aloud to our peers, “I bet I failed that test.” When the grades come out and we’ve got almost every question right, it’s satisfying to hear, “I thought you didn’t understand that particular subject! Well done!” It’s easier not to set high expectations because what happens if we’re confident and then fail? Then we’re open to attack and harm from others. If we keep shy and never show off our greatness, then our performance might not be criticized and maybe even attract sympathy.

Finally, the fear that resonated with me the most was the fear of change — including good change. If we’re used to judging ourselves, then showing ourselves love and kindness will surely be unsettling at first. The idea of viewing ourselves as worthy and valuable can be scary as hell.

The solution? 

According to Dr. Neff, it's self-compassion and self-appreciation: “When we can enjoy what’s good about ourselves, acknowledging that all people have strengths as well as weaknesses, we allow ourselves to revel in our goodness without evoking feelings of arrogance, superiority or overconfidence. We can acknowledge our own beauty. Not because we’re better than others, but because we are human beings expressing the beautiful side of human nature.”

Go ahead and celebrate all your wonderful gifts and talents. Give yourself a hug and rejoice in your positive qualities, even if it feels scary. Be sure to also always remember that it's okay to feel good about yourself.