My first foray into not accepting compliments was rather formal. I was taking an intensive Japanese language course in Yokohama for ten months in my early 20s. It was my dream "job": studying a language for 8 hours a day; nights were spent "practicing" what we had learned in class at local karaoke joints. It was fantastic. I connected with a group of awesome women in my program and we soon called ourselves bijinkai ("the beautiful women's group" in Japanese).
Our classes were small. There was one instructor for six students. There was nowhere to run nor hide if you hadn't done the homework. I remember one particular class where we had to basically deflect compliments. It went something like this:
"Oh, Kyla your Japanese is so good!"
"Oh no, not at all. It needs more work for sure."
"Great job deflecting, Kyla."
Was it weird that I was getting complimented on deflecting compliments?
At a lunch with a bunch of girlfriends today, one of my friends asked the rest of us, "Does anyone here actually think that they are amazing?" We looked at each other with nervous curiosity. One by one, we shook our heads. Later over dessert, we talked about how we all deflect compliments. One friend said, "I don't take compliments very well." Another said, "I don't want to be that person who is seen as bragging or boasting." I nodded. It made sense.
We then talked about a close related "cousin" of deflecting compliments, saying sorry.
Why were women more prone to the S word than men? I knew the research: men are more likely to be seen as competent, women are more likely to be seen as arrogant if they speak their opinions. Women are more likely to silence their opinions if they are outnumbered by men. Men are more likely to ask for a raise and a higher number at that than women. Women will only apply for a job when they meet 100% of the criteria whereas men go ahead and apply when they only meet 60%. And women apologise more than their male counterparts. This last one was a kicker for me, as I started noticing it increasingly when hanging out with women.
So is it the way we were raised? Is it what is expected of us in society? Are we just harder on ourselves? Are we programmed to say "sorry" for every little thing that is not even our fault? And if so, why?
I even noticed the S word plague amongst my female students. They were sorry for being bad at English, they were sorry that I didn't hear them knocking on my door, and they were sorry for crying in my office. The latter, I have definitely apologised for too so I get it.
What worried me about my female students and women I found myself interacting with is that they were all really amazing and talented, but in their "sorries" they were negating and even stamping out their inner awesomeness.
So how do we change this? I saw a FB meme once that said something along the lines of "Replace SORRY with THANK YOU FOR..." It could be "Thank you for your patience while I think of this word in English," or "Thank you for not judging me while I ugly cry." Oh and that next compliment you get? Say "Thank you" too and only "Thank you."
On the walk home from lunch, my girlfriend was telling me that I did a good job with something or other earlier and I immediately deflected and probably would have made my former Japanese instructor proud, but then my girlfriend said this, "You have to take credit. If you don't, then you are implicitly saying for the next time something like this happens that you don't deserve the credit even though you did the work."
Whoa. Thank you, girlfriend.
But really, when you see a woman you know who is apologising/deflecting, touch her on the arm, and call her out. You may just remind her of what she is really sorry for: her inner awesomeness. And perhaps by doing so, we can all start a mini revolution turning HUMILITY into GRATITUDE!
*This blog post is dedicated to the bijinkai and countless other amazing women who have reminded me of my inner awesomeness.*