[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
"Amazing job!" said a woman I did not know, "I can't believe you did that! They should be draping you in ribbons!" she cracked open a can of watermelon flavored cactus water, "is this good?" she asked, and I said "sure," but I meant, "not really." We were standing at the finish line of a race I recently finished, me in my Grand Canyon tourist sweatshirt and her in trendy, mom-jean overalls.
"I really can't believe you won," she said again, "my son is still out there, he probably has an hour left." I didn't know how to react to her praise, so I shrugged, looked away, and said "thank you," by which I meant, please stop. I dislike excessive attention, which might be surprising given that I've written about my life in great detail for many years now. But writing is different, and getting written compliments is different, too. This woman was looking in my eyes, telling me that I was amazing and an inspiration and congratulations on a job well done and it was nice and all, but I wanted her to stop.
Years ago, I wrote about my inability to accept compliments, how they made me uncomfortable because I didn't believe them, and if a compliment, even a genuine one, is in conflict with how you perceive yourself, then of course it will make you uncomfortable. If someone tells you that you're beautiful but you don't believe that you are, their compliment might feel like a lie. I disliked this particular woman's praise because it felt flippant and over the top. I don't perform well because I'm amazing, I perform well because I work really damn hard. And I couldn't say it to her, but I had plenty left in the tank at the end of that race. My effort was not at 100 because I was using the race to train for another race. But how unlikeable is that? I couldn't very well say, "thanks, but I wasn't trying my hardest." So, I just said thank you and diverted the conversation back to the cactus water and her house in Newport Beach and how nobody would believe that she lives six miles from the ocean and is still in Newport proper, but it's all worth it because she has a big backyard and lives only a few minutes from the airport.
Another reason I dislike attention is that it can be good, but it can also be bad. Serial murderers and narcissists and politicians receive excessive attention and look what good it does them. Every famous person to ever exist has had their life and personality dissected a million different ways, and it all just seems so exhausting. When people look at you or praise you, you're expected to say something in return, and sometimes the most honest thing to say is, "I don't know why you're all looking at me like that. This morning I stepped in cat puke and spilled coffee on my crotch and locked myself out of my home by accident."
It isn't cute to be too humble though, or to not take a genuine compliment when one happens to come your way. My favorite way to receive a compliment is to look someone dead in the eyes, smile, say thank you, and leave it at that. Sometimes, the compliment is more about them than it is about you. But here's the rub; it also isn't cute to be braggadocious or smug or to walk around with an inflated sense of self-importance, and that's the thing I'm most hyper-aware of. If the entire world constantly tells you how great you are, you might start to believe it. And if the entire world suddenly thinks you're a bag of shit, you might start to believe that too. It's easier to have a sense of self when your self isn't on display or subject to the scrutiny of other people.
It's been a while since I was a kid, but my parents always taught me to be nice, to treat others the way I would like to be treated; to say please and thank you and to help someone if they need it. Sometimes I still feel like a kid who's pretending to know important things, like how to earn money and take care of a home and maintain functioning relationships and understand the difference between thank-you-please-stop and just, thank you.