This article is for all the people who grew up learning to be self-effacing, and have continued the practice long into adulthood. That practice of deflecting compliments, of saying “Oh, I just got lucky” or “Don’t be silly, it was nothing,” or “Anyone could do it better than I managed to pull off.” We’re taught that it’s good to be humble–and yet that is not being humble. It’s hiding in the shadows, nervous about being praised for something you’ve done, or for a trait you express in the world, or work you are doing, or even just for being you and having a great smile.
In the bestselling book Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes (creator/writer: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Private Practice), she recounts the true story of her own adventure in accepting compliments, in saying yes to invitations, in declining to living a small life. She realized she was constantly pushing away praise, and looking around, noticed countless other women doing the same thing. Powerful women, accomplished women, all saying in essence, “Oh it was no big deal what I did.” So she began catching herself when she started to shake her head or justify praise, and simply respond: “Thank you,” then smile and shut up. Meaning, no explanations or justifications or “But all I did was…” which would get her right back in the deflecting mode.
Here’s an excerpt from her book: “If someone wants to compliment you, let them. But that’s not enough. That’s not, I am starting to realize, even the point. It’s like the Wonder Woman pose. Thank you, smile, shut up is good. It’s good for you. But it’s a pose. It’s a fake-it-until-you-make-it. It’s not real. I can stand and pose like Wonder Woman all day long but that doesn’t make me Wonder Woman. Because when her hands came off her hips and she walked away, Wonder Woman never said to her friend, ‘No, gosh, I’m not a hero. The way the world got saved was totally just luck. I hardly did anything. I mean, if I didn’t have the lasso and these bracelets, I’d be totally lost . . . I’m mean, I’m just a six-foot-tall Amazon girl with a dream.’
“Wonder Woman would kill that version of herself. She’d run over that meek, chaste Wonder Woman embarrassment with her invisible plane. Wonder Woman does not fake it. Wonder Woman is a study in badassery.”
And later, Shonda points out: “Men do it all the time. Take the compliment and run. They don’t make themselves smaller. They don’t apologize for being powerful. They don’t downplay their accomplishments. Badassery, I’m discovering, is a new level of confidence—in both yourself and those around you.”
Why would I say that learning to accept compliments can be like a stepping stone toward acting bravely in your life? Because saying “thank you” to a compliment is a step out of the shadows of living a small life and into the spotlight of being your own person — of fulfilling your own life purpose, a role that only you can fill in the world. We get the idea in our culture that being brave is all about what a superhero does when faced with a deadly foe–but in our everyday lives that deadly foe is our own comfort zone, with its siren call to stay low-key, to not risk a big dream, to keep on keepin’ on and don’t rock the boat.
What can you do today to demonstrate bravery? It might be picking up the phone and making a call you’ve put off, perhaps for years. It might be allowing yourself to relax with a book or a movie and not feel guilty for taking time off for yourself. It might be… what?