Low self-esteem is an awful and difficult thing to live with, and often an even harder thing to overcome. With such a low opinion of one’s self, it is near impossible to believe any complimentary words offered to you by another person. But, why is it that we find it so difficult to see ourselves in a positive light, or accept that others might do so? Low self-esteem, the ‘imposter syndrome’, and a cultural fear of narcissism leave us very cagey about receiving compliments, and oftentimes a compliment can leave us feeling worse about ourselves than we did before we were paid it.
Society (British society in particular) frowns upon arrogance and self-aggrandizing – and so it should. But a problem arises when we must become so humble, modest and negative towards ourselves in order to avoid being labelled as arrogant or narcissistic that our relationships with ourselves suffer. Rejecting and deflecting compliments in a self-deprecating manner has become a social norm. So, even when we may start to believe and be grateful for the compliments offered to us by another, we almost daren’t show it.
Currently, consumerist society does not encourage self-acceptance or self-love because that is not where profits lie. So, we are always left feeling “less than”: less pretty, less affluent, less well travelled… The feeling of insufficiency coupled with the pressure to reject compliments just leaves us feeling worthless. These negative feelings breed other negative feelings such as mistrust, a victim complex, anger and depression, and very low self-regard.
For many years I found it very hard to accept a compliment or attention and would genuinely believe that people were only complimenting me out of pity, or that they were mistaken and that there was something wrong with their eyes! I had such an aversion to appearing arrogant that I would immediately deflect any kind comment by disagreeing with it or pointing out something else that was wrong with me. If people were looking at me, for example, it was because there must be something wrong with my face. This was my attitude towards myself.
I projected all the opinions I had about myself onto others and this was highlighted very strongly one summer a couple of years back. I was in a public park wearing one of my favourite summer outfits: a flowing, paisley print max skirt, white top with flowing sleeves, and a big floppy hat. As I walked along, I noticed people looking at me and immediately my inner dialogue started racing through my head: Why are people looking at me? Is there something on my top? Do they think I look preposterous in this hat? Is there something on my face? Do they think I am trying to be better than I am? I bet they’re laughing at me behind my back. They must think I am ridiculous. And on, and on… The stress crept into my shoulders and my heart deflated. A woman stopped throwing a ball to her son and turned to look at me. I tried to scurry past with my head down. “That’s a really beautiful outfit!”, she said. There was no mockery in her tone, no pity in her eyes, just genuine appreciation for the way I looked. I was taken aback by this, and then it struck me how stupid my automatic reaction to attention was. Why did I find it so hard to believe that people – even strangers – could regard me positively?
And then I realised what a disservice I was doing to the people who paid me attention or compliments: to automatically assume that someone was either so mean-spirited that they were playing a joke on me, or so stupid that they couldn’t see me clearly was a very unfair and ungracious way for me to behave. I wouldn’t throw a physical gift back in someone’s face, so why was I throwing their words back in their faces?
Tentatively, I started to accept compliments with a simple “thank you” and I immediately began to feel better. No longer was I throwing back kind words with ingratitude, I was becoming softer towards myself.
Then, I saw a YouTube video by Gala Darling in which she encouraged us to create compliment lists in order to build self-belief. Every time someone complimented us, we were to write it down. Compliments could be about anything, not just our looks. So I did. And I found that people had lots of praise for me about my skills as a writer, as a photographer, about my thoughtfulness, my positivity, the support I had offered, the fun times we had together, the beauty of my natural hair colour, and so on… Not all of these people were stupid. Not all of them were lying. Their comments were genuine, and when I took the time to notice them and really consider them, I realised that my low self-esteem and negative self-talk were unwarranted. I still struggle, particularly when it comes to my looks where my initial reaction is still to think why are they looking at me? What’s wrong?, but I am more aware of it, more able to gently reframe my thoughts, and more able to accept that I am worthy of the kindness being showed to me.
But, compliments aren’t all about our physical appearance and nor should they be. We are multi-faceted beings who are so much more than our bodies. Putting all our self-esteem into a transient, ever-changing thing such as looks is only ever going to lead to disappointment. So, I challenge you to start noticing all the ways in which people pay you a compliment: they could tell you that you look beautiful, or they could spend their time with you. They could listen to you intently, or they could praise your work. Start being open to the ways in which people show you consideration and affection.
And then start to believe that you actually deserve it. Accept compliments with dignity, and don’t deflect them away. People’s words are meaningful, and people’s attention is special, and they wouldn’t give them to you if they didn’t think you were worth it. There is a distinction between flattery and genuine compliments but trust your discernment and you will see that most people are coming from their hearts. Allow these compliments to nourish your soul. Let them fuel you as you pursue your dreams. Realise that you have so much to offer, and are a source of light and joy in other people’s lives.
Believe it, accept it, and in turn spread your own compliments like flower petals everywhere you go. When we allow this love to flow in and out of us in equal measure, the world will start to become a much happier place to exist.