The routine was the same each time: I would knock on the open door and peer in to see if my counselor was there. If she was sitting at her desk, she would come around to the chair near the door so she could sit and face me. We would start the therapy session.
But a few weeks into our sessions, I noticed something new: each time I would sit down for our session, she would compliment me on something different. One week it was my skirt, another week it was my hair, another week my earrings.
I started going to counseling because I wanted to to manage my stress. I figured that my problem mostly had to do with the fact that I’d moved to a new city — the usual challenges like learning how to get everywhere, make new friends, and sustain a long distance relationship. I had also moved so that I could get my Master’s degree, something that came with its own set of stress-inducing responsibilities.
But my counselor was good at picking up on a couple of other things. I was dealing with depression — something I had only briefly addressed during undergrad a few years earlier with another counselor.
She also noticed that a certain kind of language made me uncomfortable when coming from other people — if I got positive praise, I didn’t know what to do with it.
As the youngest kid, I got all the attention I could want growing up. My college friends knew me as the extroverted one who craved attention from strangers, even if it was just a fleeting interaction at a party. I didn’t need a ton of outside reinforcement: I felt smart, beautiful, and self-assured.
But grad school was a trying time. I often thought about giving up and coming back home — but I was afraid I would feel like a failure. As a first generation kid, I would also be the first person from my immediate family to get a graduate degree. I didn’t want to let my family down.
For the first time in a long time, I didn’t want attention from anyone. My depression pulled me into the darkest corners, and convinced me to stay there. I became so sure that I was of little value to anyone. In addition to doing well in class, I wanted to fix everything in my family. Each day I woke up feeling like I was so far behind — like undergrad was a strange dream, and this was reality.
I just wanted to keep my head down and work hard.
So my counselor challenged me a little.
She made me accept compliments during each session with a simple thank you and some eye contact.
The first few times, I felt myself physically shrinking, my shoulders inching forward a little as if to hide myself. In everyday interactions, when someone complimented me, I would divert their attention. I would say a quick “thanks,” then point out something I liked in their outfit or ask them a question about their day. I felt like I was just trying to be humble, but I was actually denying myself a chance to accept kind words — and most importantly, to agree with them.
I didn’t feel attractive or smart or accomplished, so I refused to accept praise from others.
If you have trouble accepting outside praise because your inner critic is so loud, I’ve been there. You’re not alone. It can be so hard to quiet all the voices clamoring to make themselves heard — the voices that have so much to say about our shortcomings and flaws. It’s even harder to do when social media makes it so easy to compare ourselves to others.
But there’s power in accepting kind words, and taking just a couple of minutes to recognize your worth. You deserve to accept compliments freely.
Here’s what I mean by that: Don’t feel like you need to change the subject, or deflect or shrink in on yourself. Say an earnest thank you, and let yourself soak in those kind words. As someone still dealing with anxiety and depression, I know that some days this is easier said than done.
This isn’t an attack on anyone’s way of reacting to compliments – we are all different. It’s just a reminder that you’re not alone if you’ve been in dark places where you can’t seem to recognize your own self-worth. When someone else points out the little ways you’re amazing, you should give yourself permission to feel good about it.
I don’t know you but I imagine you have so many great qualities. And I know for a fact that each and every one of those deserves praise.
Here’s my compliment to you: you’re important. No thanks needed.