I was standing backstage at the end of a Def Leppard concert (here's why I was there) when lead singer Joe Elliott walked by, dripping with sweat and clearly spent.
While I'm normally pretty shy, this time I couldn't help but say something. "Wow, that was awesome," I said. "You were great!"
He slowed and grimaced. "That's nice of you to say," he said. "But I was crap."
I felt bad, at first thinking that what I had intended as a compliment had actually made him feel worse. (Not that he needs praise from someone like me, of course.)
But then I realized I felt bad for another reason.
We give compliments because we want other people to feel better about themselves. Genuine recognition rewards effort and accomplishment and builds self-esteem and confidence.
The compliments we give are great for the person we praise, but they're also good for us. Complimenting others instantly makes us feel better about ourselves because we know we made a positive difference in another person's life.
In short, we praise another person because we want them to feel good--but we also praise them because it makes us feel good.
But not when that person doesn't accept our compliment.
So I felt bad. But then it hit me.
I have no room to talk, because I do what Joe did. And I do it all the time.
Plus, he had an excuse. I spoke to him less than a minute after he finished performing for 20,000 people. He holds himself to an extremely high standard, and when he feels he hasn't given his best, naturally he's disappointed. I caught him at the worst possible moment. He had every reason to respond the way he did.
Me? Rarely can I make the same excuse. No matter the setting or timing, I'm almost always bad at receiving compliments.
Wait. I'm not just bad. I'm terrible. I can't remember the last time I accepted a compliment without throwing in a "but."
Say someone compliments an article I wrote. I usually frown and say something like, "Thanks...but I wish I had told the central story differently." Say someone compliments me after a speaking engagement. I usually frown and say something like, "Thanks...but I didn't read the room as well as I should have."
I'm the king of the "Thanks...but."
And you may be too.
If you are, it's understandable. You have high standards. It's natural to be your own worst critic when you always want to do better; it's natural to focus on what you can improve rather than what you did well. So it's natural to critique yourself...but not in front of the person who just praised you, because when you do, you also ruin the moment for them.
That's why this is what I plan to start doing, and hopefully you will too.
When someone compliments me, I'll be gracious: I'll smile and say, "Thank you. I really appreciate it."
I will accept the moment for what it is: a chance to feel good about myself, and, more importantly, to let another person feel good about him or herself, too.
Praise is a gift that means as much to the giver as it does to the recipient--if we let it.
The next time you receive a compliment, just smile and say thanks. Bask in the appreciation and praise. Feel good about yourself for a moment or two. And let the other person feel good about him or herself.
You both deserve it.