This month, I was in a cabaret. So much fun! And in the aftermath of our two performances, I was both blessed and challenged with many personal compliments. They were wonderful, but hearing them felt weirdly uncomfortable. Though they were tremendously affirming, they unsettled me.
And because listening is my word of focus this year, I got curious: what’s going on with that?
The challenge of compliments is to listen to hear.
I can listen to compliments. I can even graciously accept them and affirm the person for being so kind (“How wonderful to hear you say that–that makes me feel so good inside.”). I can usually accept that the person handing out the compliment means it. I can certainly glow in the moment, bask in the stardust. But oh boy, it’s really really really hard to accept that a compliment is actually TRUE.
Listen to it. Take it in. Hear it. Accept it.
When I googled the difference between listening and hearing, the distinction everyone seems to make is that hearing is involuntary, what our ears allow us to take in when there is sound; listening requires paying attention. And of course that is one of the definitions of what hearing means. But I am a lover of words and a manipulator of them. Like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty:
“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
― Through the Looking Glass
So when I use “hear,” in “I want to listen to hear,” I mean “I have listened, I have taken in your words and feel like I understand their meaning.” Some urban dictionary labeled this as an old person’s hippie speak.* If I hear someone, I’m honoring the speaker’s (or writer’s) honesty and intention and courage in speaking (or writing) their truth. I used to think it automatically meant that I accepted the truth of the opinion, but I’ve changed my mind.
Acceptance is a different step. Sadly, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, I often leap into accepting criticism, but when it comes to compliments, I’m like an immovable object. “Don’t believe everything you hear!” I learned that in my crib I think. But doesn’t it hurt not to believe anything? And if I choose, why am I choosing to believe the negative over the positive?
Again, WHY? Am I scared?
I wrote about vulnerability a long time ago. That post talks about the fear of how others perceive you. I think what I’m talking about here, though, is a fear of how I perceive myself. Famously, Marianne Williamson said it better:
Our Deepest Fear**
By Marianne Williamson
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.
We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us;
It’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we’re liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
Williamson’s poem doesn’t tell us why we are afraid to shine; she simply labels it powerfully and universally. But as she underlines the call to action to accept our glories, I figured out something. It’s pressure to show up and shine. To be “on” all the time takes a lot of energy. A lot of work. Can’t I just be a dim lightbulb and move around in the shadows, enjoyed in a very casual way, but not much to remark upon?
And so the truth comes out. I’m just too darn lazy to comfortably own compliments.
But it’s more than that of course. I have a big wall erected against believing my qualities are much to write home about. Some of that is deep-seeded training from my mother’s school of humility. Some of that is because I worry about getting so excited about this quality I have that I’ll become unbearable and boring, immediately negating any truth to the compliment by my acceptance of it.
You like this energy? Let me ramp it up even more! You like my smile? I’m gonna never stop smiling then. You think I’m warm-hearted–just hold still while I smother you with my affections.
With communication, if I accept I can impact others with my words, then the pressure is on to make sure those words are well thought-out, that they express the meaning and message I want them to. The responsibility is intense. “What if I screw up?” stops me in my tracks way too often. And that’s silly and annoying.
Because it’s impossible to control how people hear your words. Hearing is active. As humans, we bring our emotions and our prejudices to the action. And so I must be patient with myself, too, in my own ability to listen, hear, take in, accept.
We are just so complicated, we humans.
*Note: Which is I suppose is true, but I find myself incapable of saying “I grok you.”
**Note: This inspiring poem is taken from Marianne Williamson’s book A Return to Love.