How Not to Take a Compliment

by ceeangi

Receiving praise isn’t the hard part. It’s the acceptance of praise that’s difficult.

I hate the hyperbole of defining tracts of time in our lives as being the “most pivotal”, so I won’t. But I do think that we live our lives at two speeds—spinning in a rut or with our tires squealing and our backend fishtailing as we pull out of it.

I spun in that rut for longer than I intended to, writing about baseball, watching baseball, and dating. These three vices yielded me with similar disappointments: embarrassment, reclusiveness, and often shouting about the shortcomings of men in both my bedroom and on 40-man rosters. In one swoop, I got rid of all three of these things, and with a wide open calendar and zero fallback plans, I was filled by a fervor to restructure everything around me.

For the better part of last year, I worked on turning my apartment, a below-market rate two bedroom into something livable. I don’t like summing up life and activities into simple metaphors, but the great apartment renovation of 2014 is my Rocky montage of taking myself from a shitty place (physically, mentally, quite literally because the toilet backed up my first week there) into a new one with 1,000-thread count linens and Eames chairs.

I am not Bob-Villa handy, but what I lack in raw carpentry skills, I make up for in a lack of patience and an enthusiasm for seeing my visions realized quickly, even if that means MacGuvyering some projects to expedite the deadline. I patched the plaster walls, which I learned is more difficult than the instructions on the back of packaging want you to believe, but with a ladder and a “well, that looks good enough!” attitude anything is possible.

There’s new flooring in the kitchen, except for under the refrigerator because I ran out of tiles and they were discontinued. I hung behemoth five foot shelves over the sink and they’ve yet to come crashing down, but I have one cabinet door that no longer opens because wet varnish apparently doubles as a super-bonding adhesive.

Instead of drafting for my day job, I used CAD to achieve optimal space planning for all of the solid wood furniture that I purchased from real designers and vintage stores. If asked to make a list of my greatest accomplishments in 2014, purging my life of all particle board is my proudest, followed closely by refusing to let a guy who dumped me via text message use my snow shovel when his car got stuck in the alley behind my apartment.

The free time led me back to painting on canvas, my sink has the acrylic stains to prove it, and my hallway has a Chicago-centric photo wall of framed landscapes, escalator mazes, pigeons eating rice on a manhole cover, and a black and white photo of a lady waiting on a train that taken at Union Station circa 2014, even though it’s passable as 1940s film noir.
There were tears just once in this entire process. While trying to build the frame of a European slat bed, my hand slipped, which forced a chunk of wood the size of a golf pencil to become imbedded in the palm of my hand. I fell off of exactly one ladder, but if anyone had been there, I would have contended that I meant to step violently off of the ladder and hit my face on the refrigerator, because home improvement gurus cannot be perceived as incapable of doing their craft three feet in the air.

With the Lawrence Peabody chairs and an oversized mid-century hutch that holds albums and liquor as the piece de resistance, I’m mostly finished. At dinner recently, a friend was boasting about the apartment improvements, telling her husband that I had done all of this work myself and that she loved the cozy finished product.

Instead of saying “thank you,” I reflexively dissected the apartment’s flaws. I told them that it doesn’t have a dishwasher and that I have to walk down two flights of stairs to do my laundry. And eight months ago on a Saturday night, the people upstairs had a party and it got very loud. The dog sitter once heard the same couple having a domestic dispute and wondered if she should call the police!

Speaking of dogs, the downstairs neighbors have a Pitbull that attacked my dog, and there’s someone (no, I can’t figure out who) smoking pot in this building and it comes through the vents in the middle of the night.

The bedroom has three windows, but now that they’ve built that school in the corner, it doesn’t get as much light as it used to. I frown when I think about the bathtub too, the cast iron needs to be refinished, but that requires a professional or wearing one of those respirator masks, and I don’t want to get lightheaded rom the fumes.

There was a rash of theft recently too, and someone stole my packages. Then I tell them the box had dog food and tampons in it, and that’s what the thief stole from me. Don’t bother coming over if it snows, because the super rarely clears the snow and they don’t put out salt.

In business meetings, if I’m congratulated for completing a project on time (and on budget, an even bigger feat), I diplomatically stop the praise from boiling over and assert that it was a team effort that wouldn’t have been possible without the help of every single person in the office, praising everyone from the CEO down to the coffee cart, even if the truth is that I did the great work on my own.

I don’t even realize I’m doing this most of the time, but sometimes it’s so asinine, I catch myself in the act. A coworker thanked me for making her a cappuccino this week, and instead of just saying “you’re welcome,” I told her it was no big deal, that the milk was going to expire and just needed to be used up (it wasn’t) and that the reason it tasted so good is that the beans were that great. They could have been Folgers for all I knew, but I simply could not let the perception that I was doing something kind be construed as praise-worthy. I am not a latte hero.

Sometimes people will say they miss my writing. This happened at a bar recently, when I encountered several friends I gained over the years of baseball writing. And for every kind word, I retorted that the landscape wouldn’t miss me, that if there was any quality to my work it was because of talented editors, and that I was grateful that they took the time to read anything at all because, “Sometimes I forget how to hyphenate compound modifiers correctly.”

I can’t believe I said that either, but I swear that I did.

This is a debilitating issue that leaves me incredulously disappointed at my own ineptitude, which is compounded by feeling like a colossal disappointment for making the compliment giver dance for no reason and regret they ever said anything nice in the first place. I turned to self-help articles on this topic, but they all spew the same advice—express gratitude, share the credit (probably not with strangers or janitors, as I’m wont to do), use appropriate body language (which doesn’t mean biting your lower lip or rolling your eyes as I often do), and follow appropriate etiquette, like not singing along with “Happy Birthday” when it’s your birthday.

All of this advice seems simple until you’re standing on the receiving end. The first step, I’m finding, is to recognize that compliments should not be swatted like buzzing flies, but allowed to permeate just long enough to let their weight settle. The second, of course, is to disable the reflex that makes one believe that they do not deserve accolades for a job well done, or worse, that one does not deserve good things at all. The easy part is expanding my repertoire of humble acceptance, stocking up on syrupy and folksy one liners that match my Southern accent like, “Golly! I can’t believe you noticed!”, “Goodness, I am so grateful that you appreciate me”, and “Gosh, this is unexpected. That’s a really lovely thing to say.”

And maybe eventually I’ll move from a pull-string responses into genuine acceptance. But, I’m not going to be very good at that.