"You're so sweet, I look terrible today."
"Half the time I'm up there I'm just trying to remember the words."
"I'm awful! You're the one who's doing great work!"
"Oh, I don't know…"
Do you ever catch yourself trying to argue someone out of paying you a compliment?
I noticed this tic for the first time when I taught college writing classes and praised my students for their work. I didn't even have to say they had done anything particularly well: The phrase "I can tell you worked hard on this" or "You seem very passionate about this subject" was enough to make them fidget, squirm, and do their best to escape the terrifying act of receiving praise.
Teachers spend a lot of time trying to keep their students from tricking them — whether they're puffing up an insubstantial paper with wide margins and filler words or outright plagiarizing — but no matter how much teachers fear students' trickery, the scariest prospect of all, from a student's perspective, seems to be a teacher who ends up believing something the student didn't even set out to convince them of. What if someone reads your work and decides you're capable, insightful, ready to share your convictions with the world? What is most frightening about this prospect — that they're wrong, or that they're right?
We humans tend to see ourselves as a species hobbled by greed and idle self-congratulation. This is true of all of us in one way or another, but it's a tendency that can also coexist, somewhat perplexingly, with another tendency: the one that makes us all but refuse to accept compliments, and in fact to advocate passionately for our own awfulness whenever someone dares to challenge it.
This isn't a tendency I can trace to any particular demographic. It isn't just scared college students. It isn't just millennials. It isn't just writers. It isn't just women, although women, in my experience, do seem to exhibit this trait more often — perhaps because American women learn early, and learn well, that the only thing more unattractive than having power is wanting it.
Women do it more, but we all do it, some of us constantly. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, this behavior can manifest in near-constant apologies for the simple act of existing. I caught myself doing this only at the moment when my entire life seemed to have become one long self-deprecating monologue with occasional breaks for breathing and eating. If I arrived at someone's house a couple of minutes late, I would launch into a prepared speech about how I had a terrible sense of direction, or had no idea how to organize my time. If someone told me I seemed to be working hard on something I would immediately explain to them that I actually wasn't. And if someone had the gall to praise my writing, I always had plenty of counter-arguments ready, the enduring refrain always something like: I wanted it to be different, I wanted it to be better.
This state of constant apology is, more than anything, a means of self-protection — as Lena Dunham's character explains, albeit accidentally, in an episode of Girls.
"You judge everyone, and yet you ask them not to judge you," her soon-to-be-ex-roommate tells her.
"That is because nobody could ever hate me as much as I hate myself, okay?" she replies. "So any mean thing someone's gonna think of to say about me, I've already said to me, about me, probably in the last half hour."
This self-protection works for as long as no one dares to challenge your basic premise that you are awful. Placing yourself in a submissive position in every aspect of life, from social situations to professional goals, means you can never be a threat to anyone, least of all to yourself. If you don't stand tall, no one can ever cut you down. If you don't have faith in your own ideas, no one can ever wound it.
Pushing past the compulsive anxiety, this starting value of self-loathing, is a lifelong pursuit; we wake up every morning searching for new ways to believe in ourselves, not least of all because doing so gives us the bravery and generosity we need to believe in and trust each other. This work can seem daunting. It seems daunting because it is. But we can also reroute our thoughts, and allow ourselves to reach previously unimaginable heights of bravery and self-acceptance, simply by allowing ourselves to become conscious of this ambient self-deprecation, and realizing that it isn't the only way to live.
Starting is easy. It's also maddening: You must hear how often you've been insulting yourself, even when your only audience is you. When you make a wrong turn, don't chastise yourself for being a terrible driver. When you get confused as someone tries to explain a complicated concept to you, don't explain your confusion by describing your stupidity. When you're working on something you care about, don't reassure people that it will all probably come to nothing, anyway. Open yourself to the momentary vulnerability that comes when you don't shield yourself with the direst possible self-assessment. See if you can stand it. You can.
Of course, there's still the problem of figuring out how to cope when someone compliments you. Start by simply refusing to give in to the urge to convince them they're wrong. It might be harder than you think. It will rise up in you, an almost physical impulse, like the need to turn down a burner under a pot that's about to boil over: It feels like a pressure you have to diminish, a problem you need to correct. It's not. You are experiencing the discomfort that comes when you accept the frightening and radical possibility that you may just be capable of doing what you are trying to do, of being who you want to be.
And, if you don't know what to say, follow the advice I gave my students, and then started giving myself: Just say "Thank you."