“I’ve met people who are embattled and dismissive, but when you get to know them, you find that they’re vulnerable—that hauteur or standoffishness is because they’re pedaling furiously underneath.” ~Matthew Macfadyen
It was impossible to miss the dismissive hand gesture and distasteful look on her face in response to my comment.
“You ooze empathy,” I had said in all sincerity to my therapist.
“And what’s it like if I blow off or disregard that compliment?” she countered. Then, as usual, she waited.
“Ah, it feels terrible,” I sputtered as the lights of insight began to flicker. I was acutely aware of an unpleasant feeling spreading throughout my chest and stomach. I sensed I had just deeply hurt someone’s feelings.
That experience hung in the air for several moments, providing plenty of time to push the boundaries of awareness.
Was I really so unaware and quick to disregard compliments? Was that the terrible feeling others experienced when I didn’t acknowledge or subconsciously snubbed what they offered in the way of a compliment or kind word? Was that what it felt like to be on the receiving end of dismissiveness?
Leaving that session, I began the usual reflection of mulling over all that had transpired and the feedback I’d received. Growing up with minimal encouragement, I was beginning to see it was taking an enormous amount of time for me to recognize that compliments from others were genuine. I tended to be skeptical and often did not actually hear them.
I hadn’t realized compliments could be accepted at face value and didn’t always come laden with hidden agendas and ulterior motives. I hadn’t thought that compliments were given as a result of merely wanting to offer appreciation. Something great was noticed—something great was acknowledged. Period.
So where did such a suspicious nature come from?
As a kid, I didn’t readily trust the motive behind a well-spoken piece of praise, as it often was a double-edged sword for me. I’d receive a compliment from my mom, but it quickly turned into a way for her to talk about how wonderful she was and how the great parts of her trumped mine by leaps and bounds.
I recall an experience when I was feeling great about interacting with student leaders. I started to share my feeling of pride with my mom and got out a few sentences before she interrupted. The topic changed to the ways she worked with her students and influenced them. The message I had internalized: sharing doesn’t mean you will receive validation or compliments for what you share.
After excelling academically, my dad dismissed my master’s degree as “Mickey Mouse garbage.” He rarely acknowledged positive experiences with more than a, “Hmmmmm” or “Oh.” The message I had internalized: sharing doesn’t mean there’s and understanding or appreciation for what you share.
Without a lot of experiences that offered encouragement, acceptance, or recognition, I lacked a backdrop on which to deal with compliments. My strengths and talents were unacknowledged, and I hadn’t learn to appreciate them. I tended to mistrust sincerity and downplayed positive input.
With the assistance of an attuned therapist, I started on a journey of learning to trust what was offered to me rather than dismissing it. With a delicate offering of insight, I was able to repair my automatic deflect button and understand others were genuinely recognizing and affirming my strengths when they offered compliments.
Here are several ways that helped me repair dismissiveness after I became much more aware of my tendency to deflect positivity.
1. Pay attention to the positive.
I started to observe anything good around me, challenging myself to see and focus on what was positive instead of indulging our natural negativity bias (the tendency to focus more on the negative, even when the good outweighs the bad).
I looked for examples of encouraging feedback and genuine compliments that came my way or that were given to others. I kept a gratitude journal, reminding myself of what I appreciated each day. I was training and rewiring my brain to truly see and focus on positivity.
2. Recognize when my old conditioning is resurfacing and how this may affect someone offering a compliment.
I consciously challenged myself to believe other people had only good intentions instead of projecting feelings from my childhood experiences with my parents. I challenged any inner suspicious dialogue that came along. And I remembered how good it would make others feel if I allowed myself to feel good when they praised me instead of dismissing what they’d said.
3. Receive and acknowledge compliments.
I practiced listening more carefully when I received compliments and risked absorbing and feeling delighted by them, allowing warmth, pride, and happiness to settle internally. I watched for them and I became less inclined to snub what I heard. I practiced offering an appreciative and gracious “Thank you” instead of allowing my mind to doubt, dispute, deflect, or dismiss the positive feedback.
A wonderful by-product of working against dismissiveness is that I am more naturally positive and appreciative of others. I spontaneously offer more heartfelt and earnest appreciation, thanks, and compliments to others. I actively look for ways to do that in my everyday interactions and work to express empathy.
Just recently, having watched a mom interact positively with her young boys in the local park, I risked offering a compliment. “Excuse me. I just wanted to let you know I noticed how wonderfully you interacted with your sons and how happy they seem.”
The woman was delighted to receive the feedback said how pleasant it was that someone noticed. She then turned to her boys and shared with them what had happened. All four of us felt encouraged!
I am grateful that I am now much more able to hear, believe, and absorb positive feedback. I make a deliberate effort to relish positivity, and I feel a lot more appreciative of myself and life as a result.
About Jan Bates
Jan Bates is a retired educator who worked in university residence halls and in the public school system as a teacher. She participates in a variety of volunteer roles and sees them as opportunities for building interpersonal skills. She remains deeply appreciative of the radical influence of a skilled AEDP therapist in her life.