"How old are you?" she asked.
I told her.
"What? No way," she chirped. "You look ten years younger than that."
Okay, I thought. What's she trying to pull?
Having low self-esteem makes it hard to accept compliments. Nothing nice that anyone might say about us seems true—so we suspect whomever says such things of ignorance ("She doesn't know the real me"), mockery ("It's a joke, right?"), manipulation ("He's just saying that so I'll do what he wants") or of perpetrating experiments in social engineering meant to trick us into smiling, strutting—"Yes, now that you mention it, I am quite fabulous"—and acting like the single demographic we loathe more than we loathe ourselves: silly, self-adoring narcissists.
Praised—for likable qualities, hard-earned accomplishments, or natural gifts—do you hang your head not just in disbelief but also in shame and dread that if you signal even the faintest acceptance, you'll be mistaken for some prancing, pompous, selfie-obsessed mini-dictator?
When this happens, we're responding reflexively, time after time, to those long-ago slaps and rebukes in which we were warned: "Don't forget your place" and asked, in anger, "Who the hell do you think you are?"
When we deflect praise, it's often out of fear.
Most people would be perplexed to see "praise" and "fear" appearing in the same sentence, much less in a cause-and-effect context. But we who struggle with low self-esteem are tragically driven by fear—of judgment, punishment, failure, and of being revealed as the terrible monsters we think we are. Even the slightest compliment—"Nice shirt!"—challenges our entrenched beliefs about ourselves, and any challenge triggers our fear. Rather than accept, absorb or own the praise, we lock into defensive mode as if to shout: No, no—I'm not all that!
But it's a matter of perspective and degree. We're all "egotistical" because we're living animals and all living animals must think of themselves first and foremost in order to survive. How far we let this instinct go—how much we praise ourselves and accept praise from others—is our own choice. Humility is a virtue. But self-abasement—manifested in our refusal to accept praise—is not humility. It's another example of what I call "negative narcissism"—an active, almost violent, force of will which we apply against our fellow human beings: against their positive words and positive feelings, however fleeting, about us.
But what if we could detach from this violence? What if, upon being praised, we could set aside our seemingly overpowering urge to deflect, reject, conflict, contradict, resist, react and attack? What if we could imagine each compliment coming our way as a little wavelet at the beach—the kind that comes and goes constantly, washing gently around our feet. These wavelets need not knock us down or send us flailing in survival mode. We feel them. In their moment, they are warm, cold, whooshing, frothy, tingly. We appreciate their ebb and flow. Once they pass, we're still standing, blessed with happy memories.
The best way to manage praise—and yes, for us who struggle with low self-esteem, it is a matter of management—is a two-step process. First, accept the praise placidly, gratefully, trusting that it's neither a debate nor a trick; it's just someone offering an opinion which happens to be about you. Then, with a butterfly's lightness, return the gift by sincerely praising your praiser: Thank you! How lovely of you to say so! I wish I could sing as beautifully as you do!
That's the fun part.