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What Do You Do With Compliments?

Last week, my friend and yoga teacher used some wonderful adjectives to describe me. We were in class, so all I could do was thank her. There was no chance for me to shrug her off, which I probably would have otherwise. In the meditation at the end of class, her kindness sunk in without judgment or dismissal.

How many times have you been told to “just take the compliment”? Our need to shrug them off is so strong that usually the person who is paying you the compliment has to tell you to shut up and take what he or she is saying. At least that’s how it is for me.

Think about the language I just used. Taking a compliment is merely putting up with what you’re being told. Compare this to accepting a compliment: you not only receive the words from the complimenter, you accept that the description may apply to you. Believing the compliment is exactly as it sounds — and it is really hard to do.

When someone pays you a compliment, they believe what they’re saying, otherwise they wouldn’t be saying it. (OK, this isn’t always true, but think about nice things people have said about you — I bet you’ll find most people have meant what they said.)

I cringe remembering all the times someone told me I was brave to face my illness head-on and I responded that I have no choice. I finally realize that I do have a choice. I could be hiding under the covers or complaining about how how bad I’ve got it.

Self-esteem suffers with the emotional ups and downs of any life-changing illness, which includes migraine and other headache disorders. When someone gives you a boost, believe it! I’m trying to.

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Too Much Information

Being a young married woman without children and no job makes party conversation pretty difficult. Add being a feminist and living in a new city to the mix and watch it bubble over. In the two years since I quit my job and my husband and I moved, I’ve had many different approaches to small talk.

At first I said that I was getting us settled into our new house and community, then was figuring out what career I wanted to do next. This held up for about six months, at which point I could say that I was waiting to get residency so I could take classes without paying out-of-state tuition. Then I could say that we had some travel planned, so I needed to wait until after that to enroll in classes.

In every conversation, I felt like I came across as a spoiled housewife who decorates her house, drinks lattes and travels on a whim. Not only that, I wasn’t doing very much of anything. While lying in bed, I read a lot of books and despaired over how disorganized the house was. I had nothing interesting and socially appropriate to talk about, and it seemed like everything I did say was about my husband, not me. Appearing as the current incarnation of a 50s housewife didn’t thrill me.

Trying to hide or deny major parts of my life was taxing and felt dishonest, so I went to the opposite extreme. All the pain, boredom and unhappiness was simply too much to keep to myself. Whenever a conversation steered toward me and my work, I found myself telling the gory details to strangers. One of these strangers was kind enough to see that there was good underneath all the desperation and self-centeredness. She has become a good friend, but everyone else was part of a transient relationship. I imagine I scared them all off.

I’ve gotten much better at tailoring the response. I try to dodge the question when I first meet someone. If I can’t, I’ll say I do some freelance writing. If I sense a connection with or lack of judgment from someone, I’ll say that I’m a reluctant housewife. This is always questioned, so I say that I haven’t been working because of health problems, but that I’m getting started on some health education/advocacy/activism work. If someone asks a direct question about the scar and lump on my chest, I’ll give an edited version of the story.

As I write this, it’s obvious that my responses have followed my changing self perception. When we first moved, I still thought I’d be cured soon and would be able to hold any sort of job I wanted to. After it became apparent that this wasn’t the case, I stammered out some excuse or gushed the details. My life was too much for me to sort out on my own then. The excuses lasted a lot longer than the gushing did. They got me through the greater part of a year until I figured out who I was and how to mesh my illness with the rest of life.

Pain dictates so much of what we do, how we think about ourselves and how we relate to others, that it seems like it dictates our lives. Letting the pain be in control for a while may ultimately help us live with it more easily. Some day you may look back on your behavior and cringe. I certainly do, but I don’t regret it.