The holidays are a season for exchanging gifts, sharing time with family and friends, and celebrating joy in our lives. I often use this time of year to purposefully express my gratitude, out loud or in writing, to some of the people who are meaningful to me. As I write a card to go with a gift, I feel this need to tell them that, even though I celebrate them every-day, today is the day I will say it out loud. I want them to know how important they are to me. It is even better when I can say it in person. But a lot of people have trouble accepting compliments.
The best card ever
And, as you might expect, I am also the recipient of gratitude and compliments at this time of year. This week, for example, a coaching client sent me a card that was overflowing with deeply meaningful gratitude. When I opened it, it was like the words tumbled off the page to me. I didn’t read it so much as I absorbed it. It made me tear up as she shared how much our coaching time has meant to her, and how her life has changed for the better. I sent her a text that said “BEST CARD EVER. That makes me kind of cry. It means so much to me!” Later, when we met, she said when she got my text, it warmed her heart all over again, because then she knew that she had hit the mark. She didn’t intend to just express her profound gratitude – she also intended for me to experience it just as she was.
This story illustrates perfectly the power and gift of gratitude. When we give a deeply meaningful compliment or express profound gratitude, we not only intend to give the gift, but we also intend for the gift to bring joy. And, in fact, we also anticipate and hope to receive warmth and joy back when our intent is realized. When we give the gift of deeply meaningful gratitude, we intend to enter into an intimate bidirectional exchange of emotions with another human.
When compliments fail
But many times this intensely intimate emotional exchange goes unrealized, falls flat, or fizzles out because our gift-recipient doesn’t give us any evidence we have hit the mark. As gift-recipients, we can be quite adept at avoiding the very intimate exchange that was intended by the gift-giver. It isn’t even because we are afraid of an exchange or don’t have warm feelings for the gift-giver or because we think we don’t “deserve it.” I think our difficulty accepting compliments is more a matter of having a habitual, purposeless and unintentional response to these “compliment” gifts. Instead of receiving and absorbing compliments, we are just used to letting them bounce right back off again.
Bad habits when accepting compliments
Most casual, off-hand, habitual responses to compliments or gratitude fit under what I like to call deflect, project, and reject responses. When accepting compliments, we deflect onto somebody else, or project it back onto the compliment-giver herself. Or, we reject it, by discounting, justifying, or minimizing. What if I had responded to my gift-giving client like this?
- “It’s just all your hard work paying off!”
- “I’m the one who is lucky to be working with you.”
- “I’ve had great training. I just follow the coaching competencies.”
- “Oh, it’s really nothing. I’m just doing my job.”
- “Any coach would do the same.”
These answers would have moved her (gift-giver) and me (gift-recipient) from a highly charged and shared emotional domain to a superficial transactional domain. They do not allow her intent to be realized. I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist and I have no interest in exploring the reasons why we develop these habitual responses. What I care about, as a coach, is helping you to decide if your rote responses are serving you, and if they aren’t, how can you respond in a better fashion.
The top 5 best responses to compliments and gratitude
I know this will be hard and won’t come easy, but here are the top 5 best responses when someone gives you a compliment or expresses their gratitude to you.
5. Thank you
4. Thank you
3. Thank you
2. Thank you
1. Thank you
Why is it so hard to say “Thank You”
But, seriously, why is it so hard to just say thank you? If you looked at the list above and turned pale and experienced some palpitations, you are not alone! Most of us cringe at the thought of saying only those simple, naked, exposed two words. If I’m honest with myself, when I imagine this response, I see myself with a stiff, uncomfortable smile and the image in my mind is of two bald mountains from my childhood, one burned by a forest fire (near Flagstaff, Arizona) and the other clear-cut by logging in Northern Idaho. And, I just can’t imagine exchanging my habitual response for the simple and dry “thank you.”
So, if you’re like me and need more, here is a real top five list. Here are five strategies for helping you experience and share the joy of receiving compliments and gratitude.
The Real Top 5 strategies for accepting compliments and gratitude
1. Don’t be hurtful.
This person in front of you is giving you a gift, in words, and a potential bonus gift, a potentially meaningful emotional exchange. What if it was a physical gift? Would you hand it back? Would you toss it aside and reject it? Of course not, that would be hurtful. The gift-giver is in a generous mood and has chosen to give you the gift. And don’t forget, the gift giver has made him or herself just a tiny bit vulnerable. Receive the compliment and gratitude as the gift that it is. Try this for accepting compliments: “Thank you. Your compliment means so much to me personally.”
2. Use the compliment right now as a positive antidote to negative energy.
Use the compliment right now as a positive antidote to negative energy. Did your day have an imperfect moment? Did you ever feel “less than” today? Did your inner critic have any moments dancing around in your brain today? Allow the compliment to penetrate your outer shell and absorb it to nourish you. You can even imagine the compliment as something pleasant that lands on you and gently absorbs into your skin. Once you have absorbed it, allow the compliment to find and fight any negative energy that already exists. Try this for accepting compliments “Thank you. You have no idea how much I needed that today.”
3. Store the positive energy up to use for later
Maybe you don’t desperately need the positive energy right now, because you are actually having a great day. Think about tucking the compliment away in a filing cabinet or a logbook, contributing to your personal stock-pile of positive energy reserves for later. Remember the actual words you’re hearing, write them down, and store them for later when you might really need them. Try this for accepting compliments: “Thank you. I am going to remember your words, and the next time I need a boost, I am going to think of you!”
4. Allow yourself to experience pride
Beaming with pride is not the same as arrogance or hubris. You are allowed to take credit for great work and you should take pride in good that you have done. Try this for accepting compliments “Thank you. You can’t imagine how proud it makes me to hear that our work has been meaningful to you.”
5. Don’t cheat the gift-giver
This person in front of you has the enthusiasm, the energy, and maybe even had to work up the courage to give you a compliment or express gratitude. They may have spent time finding or practicing the perfect words. They are anticipating being part of a back-and-forth emotional exchange. They actually want to see you appreciating the compliment, cherishing it, and even savoring it. Allow the moment to unfold and envelope both of you, as the gift-giver intended. Try this for accepting compliments: “Thank you. I am really touched by your words.”
A friend and colleague of mine is taking gratitude to the next level by creating a gratitude database, where we can record compliments and gratitude to other physicians. This is a wonderful idea. We spend way too much time complaining and critiquing and not nearly enough expressing compliments. This database will surely be one way to enhance wellness, as we more readily and regularly reflect upon the people to whom we are grateful. It also allows for public acknowledgement of good work being doneI only hope a database doesn’t become the substitute for face-to-face, interpersonal, live exchanges of compliments and gratitude. A database can keep the records and tabulate results, but it is uni-directional and 1-dimensional. Sometimes, a gift-giver needs more than typing up a compliment and clicking upload to enter it into a database. Sometimes a gift-recipient wants more than a link by email to access an uploaded compliment. Sometimes, both the giver and the recipient need to be wrapped up in a moment of shared warmth, a bubble of an emotional exchange between two human being. Sometimes, we both need to see the compliment tumble out and be absorbed as nourishment for a blossoming real and genuine joy.