I keep thinking about compliments and our reactions to them. I’ve been having a hard time accepting compliments recently (well, actually, ever) without some twinge of discomfort, whether I’m aware of the discomfort or not. For a while I thought compliments themselves made me feel bad about myself (which makes sooo much sense), but then I realized that it was just my particular brand of Crazy making sure that my knee-jerk reaction to a positive thought or comment would always be a “yeah, but”. Crazy paved that road a little too well, y’all; I’m STILL dealing with it. I’ll look in the mirror and think, “Oooh, look at your skin! It’s behaving so well! How nice,” only for my brain to go “yeah, but YOUR NOSE IS GETTING WEIRD. PROBABLY AN AGING THING.” In other words, my default is not to accept a compliment, but to let it fly right by so that Crazy has room to work.
I read a lot on the internet about how to talk and think about sensitive issues: race, religion, sexuality, body image, class differences, different abilities, illness and wellness, etc. Sometimes I hit a pocket of the internet that saddens and freaks me out, but mostly I hope I’ve learned some really good and inspiring things, things that improve my understanding and open my mind to other ways of seeing the world and the people in it. I once read somewhere (and I can’t remember where now, of course) a question on a blog about “appropriate” compliments: how do you give one without risking offense?
For example, saying “Oooh, you’ve lost weight! You look amazing, and I’m so jealous” to someone who might be coping with a private illness that resulted in the weight loss has the potential to wound deeply where the compliment-giver meant only to praise. Or what if the recipient is proud of her weight loss, but she struggles with a person in her life who constantly expresses jealousy? That little jokey “I’m so jealous!” tag-on could feel like more than a joke. The blogger responded with the suggestion to make sure your compliment is 1) for the benefit of the recipient, and not the giver and 2) aimed at what someone DOES, not what someone IS. Congratulate someone on a successful project at work, thank her for some help she’d provided, mention how much you love how she accessorized her uniform, or praise her for her skills at Taboo, rather than blurting out “you’re so tall!” or “I wish I had your shiny hair”.
Well, I thought this suggestion was pretty genius. I still think it is; who wouldn’t want to be praised for her accomplishments? But in the last few months, when I’ve been having to work harder to get through the Crazy, I decided it would be best to take it one step farther: no compliments at all. I found myself loading any compliments or comments directed at me with meanings I’m sure the giver never intended. Were they comparing me with themselves? What weren’t they saying about me? Were they silently judging me? How dare they invade my privacy by noticing me! (Sweets, no one is as obsessed with you as you are. They’re all too busy obsessing over themselves.) Over the course of several months I stopped wearing certain shoes to work, because I knew I’d have to fend off multiple comments about them throughout the day. I gradually decreased the amount of makeup I wore to my bare minimum, because I felt like when I tried to mix up my routine or experiment with a new color, all I’d hear all day long was “oooh, you got a date tonight?” I stopped curling my hair occasionally, because I didn’t want to have to respond to “Are you growing your hair out?” over and over again. The comments were all positive, but I was feeling cornered, trapped, and exposed every time one of them came up. I repeated outfits and wrapped up in scarves, because I was terrified someone would comment on my changing figure. I thought I’d just feel easier about life if no one ever talked to me about anything I was or did ever again. I guess we’d all just talk about the weather.
I announced my brilliant No Compliments Manifesto to my therapist, ending with a comment about how it all tied back to my dislike of cat-calling, because a cat-call is a comment about what someone IS (booby, thin, pretty, bootylicious, etc.), not what she DOES (getting off the train, going to the grocery store, etc.), and waited for my therapist to praise my progressiveness and respect for personal pivacy. Instead, she said “Isn’t it interesting that over the last few months you’ve tried to make yourself invisible? I think we should talk about that instead.”
She was right. I was building up an anonymous online identity (well, anonymous except to my Facebook friends. Sorry about all the boobs in your newsfeeds, fellas), carefully removing any personal information that got a little too specific. I was struggling with a changing body: I have new muscles in some places and new curves in others. I was dealing with getting older and job ennui and loneliness. I didn’t want to be seen, because it would expose me to potential evaluation and judgment, so I tried to move through my daily life completely unnoticed. No wonder I was trapped in my own head.
* * * * *
Clearly, there’s middle ground. We don’t have to limit ourselves to discussing the weather. We also don’t have to scrutinize each other’s bodies and outfits and hair and nails and every little detail. I’m going to have to let some of my defenses down to get to that middle ground. I don’t want to feel (Crazily) bothered by compliments from, say, my fellow dancers. We cheer and praise and whistle and applaud for each other; we honor each other’s accomplishments, and it feels good to be on both sides of that give-and-take. I want to be in a place where I accept compliments, and where I can THANK my friends, fellow dancers, or co-workers for their generosity. Look, a compliment does mean that someone has noticed something about you. Yes, you have drawn attention. It does NOT necessarily mean that someone has analyzed, evaluated, and judged you. When I compliment my fellow dancers on their openness in their dance, or my friends on their haircut or on how nice they look, yes, I’m noticing something about them physically, but I’m not honoring just that physical thing. I’m responding to something in their spirit, aura, mood, energy, soul, call it what you will, that has revealed itself. I’m responding to a joy, a brightness, an openness, a loveliness about them as whole people that has attracted my attention, and not responding just to them as bodies.
Our bodies are wonderful things—this summer’s Olympics and Paralympics are proof of that. Every hug, every laugh, every smile is proof. Our bodies are also the vessels that hold our joy, our laughter, our smiles, our loves, our courage, our tenacity, our strengths. We shouldn’t honor one without honoring the other.
Also, your friends love you.