Reader question: How to take compliments for your creative work

How can I learn to take compliments? I suck at this, I’m so bad I even look down upon people who compliment me. I’ve also even grilled people  who compliment me at my at exhibitions, “So what do you think is good about this?” Really. Is it only about self-critique or something else? Oh, yes, my parents were always like, “well, this is good, but you can do better,” at best. Otherwise they found reasons why what I did was not all that good after all…. A good friend, who is so not the type to give me any good advice, once said at a big exhibition I had, “Stop talking, just smile and say ‘Thank you’ politely,” which has been the best advice, but of course with me it only works some of the time.

I hear what you are saying. Sometimes it makes me squirm too to receive compliments and I find it hard to really accept them – to take them in, look at them up close and hold them. Instead I sometimes find they flutter up against me and fly away because I can’t really bear to sit with them.

But here are the four things I try:

Receive the intention rather than the compliment 

One thing I have found helps is focusing my attention on the intention that the compliment giver has, rather than how I feel about what they are saying. So rather than focusing on whether I agree with what they are saying or not (about me, or about my work) or how it makes me feel, I focus on really appreciating the kindness that sits beneath the action of giving the compliment.

I guess an analogy would be holiday celebrations and the way that if someone wishes me a happy or good something or other that I don’t happen to celebrate, I am not offended, but glad that they wish me well. If someone says ‘God bless you’ and comes from a faith I don’t follow, I’m not likely to say ‘no! I don’t want to be blessed, I don’t believe everything you believe – unbless me’, similarly if someone says ‘hey wow I love that painting you did’ and I think actually it’s a bit awkward looking and stiff I wont say ‘hey, take that back, I don’t agree with you’, I’ll say ‘oh thank you that’s very kind’. Or ‘oh, aren’t you lovely for saying so’, or ‘oh thank YOU and thanks for coming along tonight.. isn’t it a good crowd?’.

I figure that approaching a stranger to talk about their work is a little nerve wracking, and this person did that to make me feel better about my work or my day. Lots of people feel awkward giving compliments, whether in person or online, so when someone does this I often say ‘thank you for your kind words’ because I do feel like they are being kind by sharing these words with me. And that means one more person in the world choosing to have something encouraging come out of their mouth rather than a criticism or complaint in that moment. And that makes me happy.

Build up your compliment muscle

If you don’t like anything about your own work, or find it hard to see the good in your pieces, maybe you could practice with tiny compliments to yourself and build up your muscle for accepting them. See what compliments you would be happy to accept. Can you recognise that your work is consistent? Well planned? Delicate? Bold? Classic? Practice sitting with these ideas, so you have  a base of appreciation for your own work. It’s easier to accept praise if you already think you are doing a good job.

And if you want to accept some aspect of the compliment, try translating it in your head into something that works for you. Maybe ‘I love this piece’ becomes ‘I love that you show up month after month and work on your skills and were courageous enough to then share them with us here in this public space’. Which might be a compliment you could happily accept.

Find out what they liked

If you really are surprised by the compliment you could fire up your gentle curiosity and chat about it as if you don’t have a view either way but are interested to understand what they see. Maybe instead of ‘So what do you think is good about this?’ you could say ‘oh that’s interesting, that’s not one of the more popular pieces, what do you like about it?’ or ‘that piece doesn’t usually get such good feedback – what do you see in it that you like?’. But the intention is still the same, to understand better. It might steer the conversation away from you and your skills and on to technique, materials and colour choices – things you might find easier to talk about. You might then realise there was some aspect of your work that you hadn’t even noticed, or that you take for granted, it might help you see your own work through kinder eyes.

Know that their stuff is their stuff 

Just because you like my stuff doesn’t mean I owe you anything. (Bob Dylan)

Sometimes compliments feel loaded with something icky – like the compliment giver who says ‘gee I love that piece’ really means ‘you’re so much more amazing than I am!!’ or ‘gee I love that piece and I’m so jealous that you made something so gorgeous and now I feel really crap about myself’ or they mean ‘boy do I hate your normal stuff but finally, a piece I don’t mind!’ or ‘I better say something nice because I’ve ben taught to, so I’ll compliment something in a slightly patronising way without knowing it’ etc. In this case, and in all cases really, it can help to know that whatever they say has more to do with them than it does with you.

So yeah, basically just smile nicely and say thank you 🙂

4 thoughts on “Reader question: How to take compliments for your creative work”

  1. I knew you posted this a while back, but I finally read it last night. I have to practice asking nicely WHAT they like about a piece, I think. Nicely being the key. 🙂

    1. Or make scowling and frowning at them your special trademark. That could work too – people like an air of mystery and unpredictability around artists! 🙂

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