Someone recently pointed out to me—with the best of intentions—that I have an impressive ability to deflect compliments. I was a little surprised to realize this is true, because my accumulated emergency room bills bear mute testimony to my limited capability as a defensive fighter in the sparring ring (in fact I now habitually refer to my oft-blackened left eye as my “blocking eye”). But boy, you should see me ward off positive feedback. If you would like to hit me with your fist, the odds are very much in favor of you succeeding. If you want to say something nice to me? Forget it. I’m untouchable.
The last time I accepted a compliment gracefully must have been two or three years ago, when I was jogging on a trail by the lake downtown. I came up behind a man pushing a baby in one of those three-wheeled racing strollers which are so exquisitely machined they can stop and turn on a dime. As I moved a few feet to the man’s left and began to pass him, he chose that exact moment to stop on a dime, and pivot the stroller (and the baby) around, directly into my path.
If he’d caught me in mid-stride I’d have been doomed, but my right foot landed just as I saw the front wheel of the stroller swing straight at me like the boom of a jibing yacht. My eyes locked on to the wickedly flashing chrome spokes, and somehow—this still impresses me—I managed to leap up and forward, pulling both my feet high enough to clear the wheel, the stroller frame, and the bemused baby within. I landed with a heavy crunch in the trail’s caliche, but I stayed on my feet. I kept running, wanting to avoid a tedious “You almost knocked me down/You almost ran over my baby” discussion, when behind me I heard the man yell, “That was awesome!”
“Thank you!” I called back over my shoulder, because it was. For one of the few times in my life, I honestly felt I deserved some applause. The whole thing must have looked like a scene out of National Velvet.
Normally though, I’m less accommodating about praise, and I evade it even more skillfully than I jump over strollers. Lately I’ve had an unusual amount of practice at dodging compliments. I don’t know how many of you have ever found yourselves suddenly, unexpectedly, popular, but as I brace for the publication of my first book (Smile at Strangers, available for pre-order now from Houghton Mifflin!), I’m receiving compliments more often than I used to, and swatting them away in panic as if they were ferocious, deadly hornets. I don’t mean to sound like I’m constantly barraged with plaudits; still, it happens, and it never fails to spook me: Complete strangers tell me they like me writing, and I look at them as if they’re crazy.
I’m even more flustered by the admiration of people I know. It’s strange, but when you’re in your forties, and people you’ve known for ages suddenly start telling you how much they admire your work, it’s hard to respond appropriately. After all, given that they know you so well, they have presumably not been unaware that you harbor the capacity to awe. Yet you cannot help but notice that your awe-inspiring qualities—or your friends’ perception of them, anyway—have heretofore been a minimal factor in your relationship.
Until one day you discover that, apparently, you’ve always been awesome.
That’s not a reality I can accept without holding it at arm’s length for some time. So I tend to slide out from under admiration (not very gracefully), and set it gently aside like a giftwrapped package that happens to be ticking loudly. This tendency is, I’m fully aware, churlish and unhealthy, and I’m trying to stop it. But changing the way we react to other people’s good opinion of us means sorting through our own self-perceptions. And unless we have just executed some impressive act of derring-do that also happens to save a baby from harm, this can be a rather painful endeavor.
I think we are all, from birth, aware of our own awesomeness. But most of us learn early in life not to let that awareness show. We’re trained to hide our awesomeness under a bushel, which is why it’s so weird when people begin exclaiming over it.
It’s as though you’ve had this really close friend all your life—let’s call him Jeffrey. Jeffrey is an amazing guy; he’s smart and funny and admirable in lots of ways. Jeffrey goes everywhere with you, and when you were young you introduced him to everyone you met, assuming they would appreciate his sterling qualities. A lot of them did. Your kindergarten teacher loved him. But as you got older, people were less inclined to notice Jeffrey. They became downright hostile to him when you were in your twenties. And by the time you hit middle age, no one seemed to see him at all. He had become invisible to everyone but you. Your friends would nod politely when you referred to Jeffrey, but they never mentioned his name, or asked about him. If he spoke up, they didn’t hear it.
Slowly, you stopped talking about Jeffrey to your friends and family, simply because of the cognitive dissonance that ensued when you did. You probably spent less time with him, as he became an entirely private companion, almost an indulgence. You may even have started to wonder if he’d been an imaginary friend all along, a sign that you’d hadn’t really grown up.
But then, one day (maybe around the time you signed a book deal), you started hearing, “Wow, your friend Jeffrey is the coolest!” “He’s so funny!” “I’ve always loved Jeffrey! He’s such a great guy.” And you say, “Thank you; it’s nice of you to say so.” But in the back of your mind you’re thinking, “Wait a minute—Jeffrey’s real?”
You don’t want to appear ungrateful to your friends just because they’ve waited until now to express their appreciation of Jeffrey. You can’t expect people to walk around extoling his virtues day in and day out. And even you will admit that Jeffrey was kind of a pain in the ass back when he was planning his career in standup comedy. Honestly, your friends had every right to tune him out. After all, how much of their awesomeness do you declaim on a daily basis?
You don’t want to look egotistical either. So, ironically, just as everyone else starts singing Jeffrey’s praises, you start pointing out his flaws. Yeah, Jeffrey’s OK, you tell his admirers coolly. But he’s no genius; he’s on a lucky streak, is all.
This knee-jerk contrariness, of course, makes you sound like an unappreciative oaf.
Changing my response to compliments won’t be easy, but fortunately it’s not quite the impossible task that it appears. I know this because of the one area of my life where I am comfortable receiving positive feedback (apart from those rare moments of baby-leaping). And that’s when I’m wearing a karate uniform.
In the modern world, being a martial artist is a bit like having a secret identity. People look at you differently when they find out you’re a black belt, even if they only know you from the library or the PTA. Even your close friends, if they happen to see you in a white uniform and a black belt, regard you in a new light. Those two simple items of apparel make something about you visible that was invisible before. They form a frame, inside of which your awesome friend Jeffrey can be seen by everyone, as plain as day.
And what’s truly wonderful is that when I put on my gi, Jeffrey becomes visible to me, too. It’s like magic: when I wear my gi, I can see him clearly, and I have no doubts about his existence. That’s in part because I’ve done some pretty awesome things in that uniform; broken boards and scored the occasional sparring point. But those things didn’t happen merely because I put the uniform on. They happened because Jeffrey really is amazing, and when he and I work together, amazing things happen.
Martial artists spend a lot of time acknowledging one another’s intrinsic worth—our silent, invisible Jeffreys. One way we do this by bowing. A bow is our way of saying, “I can see that you’re a badass right now, and that you have the potential to become even more of one.” Bowing honors the whole person, even the parts that aren’t manifest in daily life. It expresses respect for what you know about the other person, and what you may never have guessed (always a good thing to consider, especially before you spar with someone for the first time).
Bowing differs from everyday compliments in that, when a fellow martial artist bows to you, you always bow back. Courtesy is always mutual. There are many layers of hierarchy in the martial arts, but the bow is (to my Western mind, anyway) deeply democratic. Everyone bows to everyone, regardless of rank. It’s a mark of respect without gradation. In a karate uniform, everyone is awesome, period. Everyone merits real respect. Everyone’s invisible Jeffrey is standing front and center.
This is not to imply that bowing is a mindless echo of whatever gracious remark the other person has tossed your way (“I love your haircut!” “Thanks; you’re dress is fabulous!”). Bowing in karate is supposed to be mindful. When you bow, you allow yourself a moment to fully consider the person in front of you, and all they represent. This, I have learned in the years since I first put on a gi, is a very important habit to cultivate, outside the dojo as well as in. For one thing, all that bowing makes you aware that most of us probably should spend a lot more time declaiming one another’s awesomeness.
For me, the lesson of bowing also delineates a simple path for accepting compliments: Be mindful of the person bestowing them. It’s easy to fixate, as I have in the past, on the compliment’s effect on me, on my reaction to it, on the discomfort I feel about it. That’s a far more self-centered and egotistical response than it would be to simply say, “Yeah, I’m the greatest! Thanks for agreeing!” That at least would be honest. Squirming away from praise bespeaks a mean sort of pride in our own smallness.
I’m lucky that I have regular opportunities to put on my gi and remind myself that my friend Jeffrey is still here. I’m lucky that people I know—and people I don’t know—are also recognizing him. And while I can’t very well wear my gi everywhere I go (believe me, I would if I could), I can try to be mindful when people take the trouble to compliment me. Everyone can do that.
And everyone can stay in touch with their own Jeffrey. You might not need a gi to bring him into focus, but admit it: you’re probably not as close as you used to be, are you? You really ought to hang out more. You should introduce him to other people too. Because he’s awesome. And no matter how much trouble other people have seeing Jeffrey—even if you can’t see him very clearly at times—never doubt that he’s there, ready to leap over a stroller or write a book or put his fist through a board. Just ask your kindergarten teacher.