I can’t seem to take compliments and I think it’s affecting my life. I think I’m so used to people telling everyone around them what they want to hear instead of the truth that I just don’t know if anyone means anything they say, as a whole, let alone to me.
It’s affecting my dating life. Men say, you know, the usual crap on a date to me, like that my eyes are beautiful, lovely etc. And yet I find myself ghosted by men on such a regular basis that now guilty until proven innocent is my tactic.
I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, career-wise, with my life and I have written for my college paper and loved it and I get such wonderful compliments from friends but I can’t seem to allow myself to trust any of them, wondering are they just saying it because it’s what I clearly want to hear.
I’ve never been the most talented or smart or pretty girl in any room or in my immediate friend groups. I learnt that quickly in life, and I also think that’s helped me in life so far – I’ve calmed my expectations for myself and am very happy with the little things I have achieved. But I want to be able to trust the kind things people say to my face without worrying that’s it just something to say.
My daughter worries about wolves. If she has a nightmare we calm her, and tell her we’ll protect her, all the time knowing both that we have given her this fear through fairy tales, where wolves play a far greater role than they ever will again (until of course, she is forced to hunt them for meat in the smouldering remains of Britain 2060), and also that wolves are not wolves. Wolves for her are the unknown, and they lie – they pretend to be grandmas in order to eat children. Their teeth are sharp. As a child, at midnight, sweating through your pyjamas and unable to articulate the existential fear of being, it is much easier to cry wolf. And this shorthand doesn’t go away as we get older – the thing we focus our anxieties on is often only a shadow of, or a mask for, the thing itself.
You worry that compliments are, ‘Something to say when you have nothing else to say to me.’ First, I haven’t met you, so can’t accurately judge your eyes, but I would put £15 on the fact that they are lovely. £20. Because: eyes are nice. It is rare to see a person with horrible eyes. Beyond infection, and complicated struggles with false lashes perhaps, I struggle even to imagine what un-lovely eyes would look like. So, that’s eyes done. Tick. That compliment can be filed comfortably as truth. But… it doesn’t matter? The content of the ‘kind things people say to your face’ is steam, it only settles for a second, disappears in a breeze – what matters is that they’re saying it at all.
Taking a compliment is a trickier skill than it first appears. Partly because of twenty-odd years of being told you’re not good enough, in languages you didn’t even realise you understood. But also because, to hear something positive about yourself requires listening to the story behind that compliment. A story that is as much about forging a connection between you and the compliment-giver as it is about the shape of your eyes. Are your pieces for the college paper the most insightful, poetic, shocking and moving things that have been written since the birth of the printing press? It’s possible, but unlikely. We already have one Piers Morgan. Does that mean you should give up? No. Does the fact your friends say they enjoyed them mean they were lying? Also no. It means they probably enjoyed them, and they definitely want to encourage you to write more, because they like you.
They are complimenting you because in that moment, they feel a positive thing, and want to share it. Which is no small thing, in times of boredom, fear and chilled sandwiches masquerading as lunch. There is no objectively pretty girl, there is simply another person that appreciates the wild curve of her mouth, for a minute, or a second. You don’t have to be amazing to be worthy of love, or an award-winning writer to be worthy of employment – you just have to work quietly and be good to people.
It is hard to think about truth, especially when the chasm is so wide between real life, with its flaws and filth, and the perfect life we’ve learned to project. So we pick at the scab – we seek out proof of our awfulness, ignoring evidence to the contrary. ‘Did her eye twitch when she complimented my hair?’ whispers your inner bully, who later hears a lover saying you smell like caramel, but edits out the last two words. One unfortunate side effect of this is that, when someone is mean to us, we fall into them, grateful that they’re finally telling us the dark truths we feel inside. I can totally see how those ghosting boys have left you feeling as though you can’t let your guard down, because, obviously, love is a lie. But when you question compliments even from friends you know won’t disappear tomorrow, you’re not searching for truth, you’re actively pushing them away. Because you’re protecting your fragile self, to avoid it getting damaged.
You have erected a precarious wall of suspicion around your body and talents, and in there, while you might feel safe, it’s not just the fickle boys that have stopped returning your calls. By choosing not to listen when people try to connect, you’re ghosting yourself, stopping relationships in their tracks, pretending you don’t exist. K – what if the thing you’re scared of is your own vulnerability, your potential to succeed? What if you are the wolf?