“You’re like, really pretty.”
“Um, thank you ….”
“So you agree? You think you’re really pretty?”
(Reciting this line from memory from one of the all-time greatest: “Mean Girls”, so forgive me if it isn’t exactly right.)
Growing up, I remember watching my mom get complimented left and right. By strangers, people we knew, it didn’t matter. It happened, all the time. And what I remember even more than the compliments was her reaction to them. She was terribly, horribly uncomfortable. She would almost visibly squirm in discomfort, and would mumble some response that toed the line between flat out disagreeing with the complimenter and trying to be polite. So I ask my women readers to honestly answer this question:
Which is worse, disagreeing with someone who compliments you, or agreeing with them?
Growing up, I learned through this and various other observations that a girl should never admit if she feels pretty or smart or funny, or really, anything good. I learned we should deflect all compliments to something other than us, “oh, I am not the brave one, so-and-so is!” “it was pure luck I got that score on the test!” “I only look halfway decent because so-and-so did my make-up!”. I learned we could never accept a compliment without looking conceited, braggy, proud. And I learned that proud for a girl was not a good thing.
I too tried to learn how to artfully walk the line of properly accepting a compliment. I learned it was rude to flat-out disagree with someone, especially as a girl. So I perfected the uncomfortable facial expressions and body language and sheepishly awkward “thank you” that was expected of me. It wasn’t really acting. I was incredibly uncomfortable taking a compliment.
And like all things we struggle with growing up, it is having your own daughter that makes you stop dead in your tracks and realize you are going to have to decide if how you are acting is the model you want your child to follow.
I have already (painfully) noticed that I am not any better at taking compliments towards my daughter. If I hear she is beautiful, I struggle to find the appropriate words to indicate that I agree, but not in an over-the-top way. I agree in a sort of self-deprecating way “Oh thank you. I think she is cute, but I am completely biased.” When her intelligence is complimented or even just pointed out, I am left stuttering and shrugging because I cannot for the life of me figure out the socially acceptable response.
Do I think my daughter is beautiful? Do I think she is incredibly smart? Of course I do! But after years of training myself that I should never be proud of something I didn’t work for, things that were just gifted to me, I have realized that I struggle expressing my pride for my daughter without feeling like I am coming off incredibly obnoxious. She is not working hard at being beautiful, she just is. She is not sitting at home going over flashcards and lesson plans working on becoming the smartest baby on the block, she just is smart. She just is happy. She just is.
What I am really afraid of, if I am being honest, is that enthusiastically and authentically accepting a compliment will make me un-likable. And that my daughter will be punished for my un-likability. That shrinking down to make others feel safer, better about themselves will ensure we will be well-liked. If we want to be well-liked, we must be humble. But I don’t want my daughter growing up feeling shame for her gifts, or worse yet – believing she doesn’t have any because she hears me constantly deflecting compliments.
I don’t want her growing up ingraining the rules of women in her soul, like thinking that she looks bad in every picture. Isn’t that a rule? If you are a woman you must hate every picture of yourself. If you happen to like one, or even *gasp* post a selfie, you are automatically narcissistic. If you do post one, you must defend yourself: “I hate selfies but _____”. There is a secret rule for all women – you must never like the way you look. And if you do, you need to pretend you don’t if you want to be well-liked. Apparently we learned that being humble is the same as hating ourselves. But hey, at least if we are humble, we are well-liked. We may not like anything about ourselves, but at least nobody will call us conceited.
I don’t have the answer. I shower my daughter with compliments when we are alone or with family. It is when we are with friends or in the general public that I freeze up. What is she learning from that? That she is beautiful and sweet and funny and smart and good but only at home? That when we go out into the “real world” her gifts disappear? Will she make the leap that maybe her gifts don’t really exist, that I am manufacturing them in the safety of our own home, but unable to stand by them in front of anyone else?
And I know, I also don’t want her living determining her worth based on what others think. I know her worth should come from within etc., etc. I also know that a day is coming when my words will mean less and less to her as she realizes I can do nothing but find her perfect.
Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” So to my earlier question: Which is worse, disagreeing with someone who compliments you, or agreeing with them? This is what I am thinking: In an effort to live a more authentic life, I will practice graciously receiving compliments, especially about my daughter. I will practice responding with honesty and gratitude. And also, I’m not sure that I compliment enough. I will teach my daughter how to find the best parts of the people around her, and I will teach her how to help point out these things. I think that’s a good start.