(Maybe take two. They’re small).

It has been my observation (and the observation of others… multiple others) that many women can’t. I see it all the time, especially in my work with teenage girls. Tell any given 16 year-old girl that her hair looks nice or she played a great game of softball or that her piece in the art show was beautiful and you’ll most likely get a response back that deflects that compliment (at best) or downright redirects the compliment into something “wrong” with her or why she’s not good enough (at worst).

And it’s not just teenagers who are guilty of this behavior.  Comedy Central’s Amy Schumer created a video that takes this behavior in women to extremes and it went viral – it’s been viewed over 1 million times since it was released in May of 2013. The societal parody depicts a group of girlfriends responding with self-loathing remarks each time they are complimented by one another. The compliments range from comments about appearance and weight to things like work promotions and pregnancy. But the scathing comments that each woman remarks back about herself drive home the point to an absurd length: women cannot take compliments.

(Warning: the video is not even remotely politically correct, censored, or safe-for-work. If you offend easily, you probably shouldn’t watch it. But it is funny because it is extreme. And it is so extreme because this is SUCH a predominant behavior among otherwise healthy functioning women. We need the wakeup call, ladies.)

Why do we do this??

I am as guilty of this behavior as most. It’s something I noticed in myself several years ago and I wondered, at that time, “why?” Why couldn’t I gracefully accept that someone might think my hair looked nice? Or that I did something deserving of praise? Why did I find it so hard to just say “thank you”? And actually mean it??

Little_Miss_VainFor women especially, the act of accepting a compliment is a societal double-edged sword. We’re brought up believing that to think we are pretty, smart, talented, and/or special means we are vain. It’s okay to BE all those things, but to actually believe and admit that we are indicates a level of vanity that precludes us from being humble. Which we are also expected to be. So when someone notices something positive about us and compliments us on that, it’s easier to deflect that compliment than it is to own it by simply saying “thank you!”

Renee Eglen, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, sums it up more succinctly: “Believe in yourself, but never admit it out loud, lest you make another woman who doesn’t feel good about herself feel bad. If you’re raised to think it’s arrogant to ever say something positive about yourself, it makes it hard to accept a compliment.” It’s the idea of “notice me – but don’t feel threatened by me; I’m really nothing special anyway.” And why should we assume that if we own our positive attributes that another woman would be threatened by that?

Owning the power of “thank you!”

We need to start somewhere. As women, we need to let our behavior be seen as a guide to girls, younger women, and just generally women everywhere. We need to model a new societal standard. One that says it’s okay to be pretty and smart and talented and special and it’s okay to believe in ourselves. One very simple way we can do that is to stop the deflection.

photoThe next time someone compliments you, take a brief moment to appreciate that compliment, understand that the person offering the compliment is doing so from a place of kindness, then apply that kindness to yourself: look them in the eye, smile, and say “thank you.” And mean it.

The act of a compliment is a two-way exchange: there is a person who gives and a person who receives. When the person who receives the compliment deflects the compliment or takes the compliment and turns it into something negative about themselves, this essentially voids the intention of the compliment giver. Looking at this from another perspective – if we were the compliment giver, is this how we would want someone to receive our kindness? Of course not! When we reach out to another in kindness, we would like that kindness to be received with gratitude. Or at very least, RECEIVED and not deflected.

We need to break the cycle, ladies.

Not only do we need to break it for our own sake and our own sense of self, but we need to break it because there are other women watching us. Young women. Children. Our daughters. Our nieces. Our neighbors. We need to be the positive role models that some of us lacked growing up. Young girls need to see the pretty, smart, talented, and special women in their lives embracing their power and owning that they are, in fact, pretty, smart, talented, and special. Why? Because they need permission to embrace that in themselves as well. It reminds me of a quote that holds a lot of personal power for me, by Marianne Williamson:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

So, ladies, get out there and own your power. Liberate yourself from fear. And liberate others.

thank you

Trust me, some day they’ll thank you for it.

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