At the beginning of the series, I addressed the idea that the final layer of the way we perceive ourselves is a product of how others perceive us. Although the focus of the series technically is building routines around grooming and health to maintain your own self-image, it would be unfair to ignore what I consider to be an integral part in building your self-esteem: the way that people respond to us.
The way we interact with the people around us will greatly impact how those individuals will interpret our attitudes and appearances. In addition to being able to influence others perceptions of ourselves, we also maintain the ability to encourage or dissuade the way that people express those interpretations. Simply put, our ability to graciously accept compliments, and to positively disregard negative comments, can tailor the way that people interact with us. For the sake of neatness, I’m labeling this as part of the “health” aspect of building your self-esteem, though unlike the rest of the articles, it does fall squarely into the psychological field rather than the physical.
In addition, this is the part of the series that is going to take the most practice to implement into your life, and I would recommend that you reach out to good friends who can give you feedback on your current attitude and behavior to form a baseline so that you can know what needs to be changed. You can follow up with your friends periodically to see if they note any changes, or to help direct you in certain situations where you aren’t sure how to proceed.
Humble, Prideful, and Arrogant: finding the balance to create your baseline.
Think of behavioral traits as a sliding scale. On the low end of the scale, you have what I like to call a “depressed” trait—a trait with a negative connotation. Since we’re talking about self-esteem, let’s create an example and call the depressed trait, “Depreciation.” On the high end of the scale, we have what I like to call a “manic” trait: something that goes so far passed what we would consider positive that it becomes a separate, negative, characteristic. Somewhere in the middle, we have a safe range, and your reactions to certain situations should slide up and down the scale within that safe range as it suits. For our example, we have the safe ranges of humility and pride as shown below:
This same scale can be applied to a vast number of traits: uncertainty vs. confidence vs. aggression; non-comittal vs. steadfast vs. obstinate; dismissive vs. gracious, vs. self-indulgent; etc.
When interacting with other people, we want to make sure that we’re staying somewhere in the green. This will ensure that our actions and reactions will stay as positive in the eyes of others as possible, and lets the people around us know what behavior is appropriate or inappropriate to continue while we’re around. To bring it back to the purpose of the series: we want to make sure that we are keeping ourselves open to complimentary remarks made by others, which will allow us to lay the exterior shell of our body image.
How to Accept Compliments
Returning to the example bar above, let’s say that someone pays you a compliment. It can be for anything that you’ve accomplished, really, but for the sake of neatness, let’s say that someone has complimented you on your appearance.
Immediately, two things are happening: the first is your internal, emotional reaction to the compliment. Do you agree? Do you disagree? Do you feel proud? Ashamed? Happy with yourself, or disappointed? The second thing that’s happening is your physical/vocal reaction. The first definitely influences the second, but it’s the second that is going to have the most permanent outcome on your relationship with the individual complimenting you. We’re going to focus on the external response first:
If you aren’t used to receiving compliments, responding to them can be overwhelming. How do you thank someone if you don’t particularly agree with them? How do you thank someone if you do, but you don’t want to sound like you’re bragging? The answer is actually to keep your response simple and positive (but not overbearing). The idea is to be gracious, and to show the person that you appreciate what they’ve said, regardless of what’s happening internally.
If you’ve been complimented by a stranger in passing, a smile and a quick, “Hey, thanks!” is really all you need. This shows that you’re willing to engage with the person, that you’re open to the environment around you, and that you’re a positive individual.
Ironically, accepting compliments from strangers is often times a lot easier than accepting them from friends and family. Strangers don’t carry the baggage of friendship, and if a stranger isn’t impressed by you in some way, he’s probably just going to ignore you as he goes about his business. Friends, loved ones, family members, all carry social obligations, however, and it can be difficult taking compliments to heart when you’re worrying about whether or not they’re sincere.
Again, simplicity is best. A smile and a thank you really can’t go amiss. If you’ve been complimented on your outfit, you can add something about where you’ve bought it, or what drew you to buy it (“Thanks; I love butterflies, so when I saw a scarf with a butterfly pattern, I couldn’t resist.”). Again, the positive reaction shows that you’re willing to engage, that you’re okay with accepting compliments.
This is, of course, where it gets tricky. Your immediate, internal reaction to the compliment can occasionally put a negative spin on your ability to be gracious about the compliment you’ve been given. This is especially true when you disagree with someone, or if you tend to have a hard time believing that the compliment you’ve been given is sincere.
If you find yourself in that situation, as we all occasionally do, try to fall back onto etiquette and simplicity: assume that the person is being sincere. If you disagree with the compliment, it doesn’t matter whether or not they have anterior motives for complimenting you, so assume they’re being sincere, and that they genuinely admire whatever you’ve been complimented on. Try not to argue with the person, correct them, or undermine the compliment. Stay away from phrases like, “Thanks, but…” If you can’t think of anything to say after, “Thank you,” then stop there. Again, a very simple, “Thanks, I appreciate that,” really can’t go amiss.
On the other hand, a manic reaction can equally dissuade people from paying you repeated compliments. There’s a fine line between an anecdotal response and dragging a person along on a full length reenactment of whatever brought you to that moment in time. Sometimes, “That dress looks good on you,” is a passing remark, rather than an invitation to talk about specifically about you and your dress. People like to know that they can play as equal a role in the conversation as the person they’re speaking to. They like to know that they’re going to get a chance to tell their own stories and receive their own compliments; if your response to every compliment that you receive is to respond at length about how you’re so very proud of yourself, or how you really struggled to accomplish something, people will generally get bored of conversing with you relatively quickly. Again, the way that you can negate this is to keep your responses simple and polite; if the person telling you that you look great in your dress wants to know where you got it, or how you did that cool thing to your hair, he or she will generally follow up the compliment with a question prompting you to explain.
Once you’ve established that the person is genuinely interested in furthering the topic of your dress or your hair, of course, all is fair in love and war, and you’re welcome to chat away about your experiences guilt free—but make sure that you return the favour by listening to the person you’re speaking to, that you ask questions, and give them the opportunity to talk about themselves.
What Happens When You’re In the Red
Whether you disagree entirely or agree wholeheartedly, expressing a depressed or manic reaction to a compliment can substantially affect the likelihood of receiving another compliment from the same person a second or third time.
A depressed reaction, (“Thanks, but not really.” Or “Well compared to so-and-so…”) immediately communicates to the person complimenting you that he or she has wasted breath and time. People rarely compliment other people unless they have something to compliment them on, and on the off chance that someone has struggled to find something nice to say about you, a response that dismisses their comment immediately negates all desire to go out of their way to form a positive connection with you. Meanwhile, repeatedly expressing your disagreement or doubt in the validity of compliments given by individuals who wish to pay you sincere admiration is basically, repeatedly, telling the person complimenting you that his or her opinion doesn’t matter in the slightest. After a couple of times of being disagreed with, people simply won’t bother communicating with you anymore. And why should they? There are a lot of people that they can compliment who won’t argue with them about whether or not their opinion of them is correct.
Manic reactions to compliments are just as tedious as depressed reactions. If you make a habit of turning every compliment that you receive into The Story of You and Your Accomplishments, people are going to get bored of talking to you. They’ll see their compliments as “just another thing to blow up his/her already enormous ego,” and either avoid giving you compliments all together, or very begrudgingly bestow them on you while engaging as little as possible in the following conversation.
Rejecting a Negative Comment
Knowing how to accept compliments is important, but understanding how to respond to negative comments or back-handed compliments is important, too. Just like responding appropriately to a compliment, your reaction can either encourage or discourage negative remarks. The goal is obviously to dissuade in this instance, but the method doesn’t differ substantially. The old “I’m the rubber, you’re the glue,” nursery rhyme doesn’t exactly apply in these cases, but there’s definitely an adult adaptation that can come in handy if someone’s decided to make you his or her own personal target.
Again, your internal and external reactions are going to differ greatly at times. We all have our tender spots, and our ability to disassociate from negative comments is going to be directly related to how closely the comment hit our areas of low self-esteem. It takes a lot of hard work to feel emotionally stable when you feel like you’ve been insulted, or when your feelings have been hurt by careless comments, but knowing how to handle them with grace externally can at least negate the frequency of the comments themselves until you’re internally stable enough to deal with them when they come your way.
It’s difficult to continue to pick at someone who maintains a positive outward appearance. We all have our ways of dealing with conflict and with standing up for ourselves, and sticking to what we’re comfortable with isn’t necessarily in the wrong, but if you find that your methods really aren’t working, it’s very easy to become frustrated and to let the hurtful comments of a few break down our framework and foundation. It’s difficult for me to anticipate what would be hurtful to the majority of people that wouldn’t be directly insulting, and it’s difficult for me to give advice without having specific scenarios, but what I can say with certainty is that the personality traits we have work on a sliding bar for a reason. If someone is trying to bring you down purposefully, tailoring your response so that it’s closer to the manic side of the spectrum to balance them out is completely acceptable. If someone has said something to accidentally hurt your feelings, however, a more gentle approach, like redirecting the topic, or even simply stating, “I wish you hadn’t worded that statement that way,” can be effective, too.
From a spiritual perspective, grace is the ability to move passed the oversights and missteps of others. Thus, part of being gracious when interacting with others is the ability to do just that. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t acknowledge when someone has hurt your feelings, but rather that you should be able to explain to them why what was said had an impact on you, and then to follow that up with the wiliness to trust that they will refrain from making similar comments in the future. Call it taking the high road if you want to, but remember that you need to maintain a balance in the expression of yourself. Don’t be aggressive or a bully, but also do make sure that you are speaking up and letting people know when they’ve upset you. Knowledge is power, and knowing that you’re willing to call someone out when they’ve upset you will keep the malicious from picking on you, and the careless from unknowingly hurting your feelings by repeating their actions.
Using Compliments Appropriately
Remember that the idea isn’t that we should be dependent on hearing the compliments that people give us, but rather that we should be using the compliments we receive as a reinforcement for the positive self-image that we are building and maintaining. The difference is that if you focus on the former (the reception of compliments) without engaging in the latter, you’re essentially collecting tiles without putting them on the walls. You have them, and you know they’re there, but you don’t get to enjoy them, because you aren’t using them. If you follow up with the latter, however, you’re not only hearing the compliments that you receive, but accepting them, and making them a part of yourself. By putting the tiles on the walls, you’re making them a part of the building; you get to look at yourself and enjoy the idea that people see positive things about you, and you get to take those positive images with you.
It’s easiest to do this when you’ve worked hard to maintain your appearance. Even though it might feel like you’re focusing on superficial things like your hair and nails, ultimately our views of ourselves are founded as much on the remarks that people make about us as they are on the way we see ourselves. Giving ourselves something to be proud of, and working on aspects of our appearances might not suddenly turn us into movie stars, but what it does give us is the foundation and framework—the ability—to accept the compliments that people give us. Someone noticing that your skin has a healthy glow, or that your hair looks particularly well managed is an event that can immediately fortified with the knowledge that you look good because you worked to look good. For those of us who have a hard time accepting compliments that we feel we haven’t earned, the knowledge that you’ve put effort into taking care of yourself is sometimes the difference between dismissing a compliment and graciously, and sincerely, accepting.
Creating a ritualistic routine, either solo or with your Dom(me) as you take care of each aspect of your appearance is a good way to find a mental safe place; it can take you back to the core of who you are, to help you discover what you’re most proud of, and to build your foundation on that. You may find, after all, that you have no interest in taking care of your nails to the degree I’ve covered in the series, but that an advanced skin routine in the evening is a cathartic end to your day; you may likewise find that, because you keep your hair short, you’re not as interested in its upkeep as you are in the upkeep of your nails. You can tailor each of these things to your own personal preferences, and you can use the routines as the physical counterpoint to your mental self-worth exercises as you develop the foundation and framework for developing a healthy sense of self-esteem and a positive body image.
Until next time,