I am allergic to compliments.
This is only a slight exaggeration. Compliments produce in me the same reaction as long-haired dogs and moldy cheeses: a red-faced, tight-throated fit of coughing and stammering. I generally follow this with a vague, self-deprecating mumble, typically accompanied by some serious hair fidgeting.
I know this because I have a friend who calls me out on things. (Thank God for those friends). After I gracelessly stumbled over a perfectly lovely compliment about my dress, she sat me down. “When was the last time somebody complimented you on your outfit, and you just said ‘thank you’?” she asked.
I thought about it. I have many responses to outfit compliments. They include: “Oh, I don’t look nearly as nice as you today!,” “Look, I spilled something on my skirt already!” and my most-frequented, “I’m only wearing this nice dress because I haven’t done laundry and I ran out of regular clothes.”
Why is it easier for me to tell people intimate details about the state of my laundry hamper than to simply say “Thank you?”
(And that’s just my outfits. Don’t even get me started about work and writing-related compliments. It’s not a pretty scene).
In a similar vein, a few years ago, I worked through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a program to discover your untapped creative energy. At the end of each chapter, she asks you to respond to a series of questions, and I remember one chapter with startling clarity. Cameron started by asking you to name your “blurts,” the vicious, negative thoughts that pop in your head as you are trying to create (This is amateurish, you are worthless, you are a terrible writer). These flowed like an undammed river. I scribbled line after line of insults I wouldn’t heap on my worst enemy.
Then, Cameron changed course completely. She blitzed you with questions like “name five things you’re good at,” “write ten affirmations of your worth,” “celebrate five personal accomplishments.” The river of thoughts stopped cold. I felt like I had shown up at an exam for a class I had never taken; I couldn’t even begin to imagine what to write.
What is this?
I am so abundantly creative with my self-insults. My witty stream of negative interior dialogue could win a Pulitzer Prize. Yet when I try to turn that energy toward self-love, I choke. I am gracious and effusive in complimenting others, but when the tables are turned toward me, I am painfully awkward. My mind seems programmed to treat budding affirmative thoughts as invasive viruses, attacking them as they enter with the antibodies of self-doubt.
I simply cannot fill my well with joy while, at the same time, my mind will not harbor the possibility that I am, really and truly, good. It’s like filling a bathtub while the drain is unplugged. I can keep running water, but the drain is working just as hard to suck it out.
The road to self-acceptance is a long one. I have been blessed to discover women and men whose calling it is to accompany others down this road, giving them the sustenance of powerful tools, gut-wrenchingly true words, and some straight talk. Julia Cameron is one. Rosie Molinary and Mara Glatzel are two authors who do this thing right. Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen is one of my Life-Saving books.
I have grown through their powerful words and exercises. I’ve learned that I am not alone; the more women who speak their struggle with self-doubt, the less power it has over us. I’ve also realized that self-doubt has layers. Layers upon layers. You dig through one and stop the constant mental barrage of self-hatred. But then you try to compliment yourself and a deeper-seated demon of doubt pipes up, “But really, though…”, so you have to keep digging.
The road is long. Good and life-giving but long. So today, I practiced one of my favorite exercises to rejuvenate myself for the journey. Not long ago, I came across the book You Are Good at Things by Andy Selsberg. This book is pure gold. The entire book is filled with a list of sometimes hilarious, sometimes serious, sometimes bizarre, rarely recognized talents. “You are good at: restarting a new roll of tape, using Q-tips responsibly, seeing things from another’s point of view, balancing on two chair legs without falling, organizing closets, accepting criticism, taking deep breaths when appropriate, parallel parking, avoiding parallel parking, maintaining a perfect balance of belief and doubt in horoscopes.”
I cannot describe to you how much I love this book. I realize that Andy Selsberg used to write for The Onion, and therefore the book is slightly tongue-in-cheek, but I just don’t care. I love the concept of attacking self-doubt with a barrage of your real and completely absurd talents.
Today, I remembered that I am good at: smoothing out the peanut butter perfectly evenly on sandwiches; remembering the names of random acquaintances; keeping my socks paired; intuitively knowing when to switch back to the radio station after a commercial break; sending great recipes to friends; creating ridiculous extended metaphors; almost always showing up on time to things; wearing scarves; giving driving directions; and making creative meals out of scraps of assorted leftovers.
I am not quite up to shouting declarations of my worth from the rooftops yet. I am getting slightly better at accepting compliments graciously. I have a long way to go. But I am teaching my brain to welcome small, perhaps ridiculous, but joyous pieces of affirmation along the way.
We are good at things.
What are you good at? Try it out.