Taking a compliment: what if the nice things people say to you are true?

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

How good are you at taking a compliment? Be honest, now: do you take them on board and ponder them until you genuinely understand what the person complimenting you means? Or do you tend to let them get filtered out through the hodgepodge of insecurities that you’ve accumulated over the years? I am rubbish at taking a compliment, but occasionally I get flashes of what the world might look like if I could properly take them on board.

The way I view the world isn’t really reality. It seems that way most of the time, because broadly things conform to my expectations: I put a chocolate bar on the counter at Tesco, the sales assistant rings it up and asks for money, I hand over my money, then I eat the chocolate. Everything happens as expected. What could be more real than that? But where situations involve human emotions, especially where it involves taking a compliment, what I perceive rarely matches what’s actually real.

Taking a compliment about my body is HARD

“God I love your soft tummy,” my partner told me. Probably for about the fiftieth time. I’d sent him a sext from the bedroom and he came running up the stairs to bury his face in my soft, talcum-powdered flesh, and make a noise that was halfway between a growl and a purr.

He’d always professed a deep love for my tummy, even though to me it’s just a part of my body and therefore something that I am contractually obliged to hate. I heard his words but they’d always bounced off me, until that night when he declared: “Soft tummies are the new Dad Bod.”

“What?” I asked him. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you know how you always fancy guys with a bit of meat on them…” he began.

“Not exclusively!” I shrieked in a panic, because if I’m completely honest with myself I fancy lots of different types of guy, and I could see my options for an MMF threesome rapidly narrowing if I didn’t keep that window well and truly open. “I super-fancy chubby guys, but I also super-fancy skinny guys or toned guys, it just depends on the guy.”

He sighs, wearily, and explains that he gets that. What he wanted to articulate was the comparison between guys with a bit of weight and my own soft tummy. “I just wanted to try and help you understand the way in which I love your tummy. It’s not in a patronising way, or in a ‘I love you so I love the whole of you’ way, it’s in a ‘I genuinely fucking love your soft tummy, it makes me want to fuck you’ kind of way. Like, you know, when we had that conversation about Dad Bods and you spent ages trying to persuade me that you found them genuinely hot, not just ‘I feel I should say this because it’s body-positive’ hot.”

He’s right – I had spent ages trying to articulate to him my ardent, drooling lust for the Dad Bod. And with that comparison I glimpsed – just for a second – through the keyhole into an alternative reality. A reality in which my body wasn’t just a vehicle for disappointing people, it was something people might actively want. Not something he would settle for, or something he could see potential in: something he’d actively fetishise in its current form.

You are your own worst critic

I know this probably sounds weird, especially to those of you who are blessed with self-confidence. But many of us (most, even?) still see reality through the filters of our own shyness, familiarity or even self-hatred. When you look in the mirror you’re not just looking at how your body looks now, you’re remembering how it looked yesterday, or two years ago, or when you were nineteen. You’re imposing the standards of other times (this is bigger, that is smaller, this is better, that is worse) and you’re also filtering it through things like modesty (I look good today but it’d be arrogant to say, so if someone says I look great I’ll deflect the compliment with some self-deprecation) and your own insecurities (My arse has always looked flat and it looks even flatter today – boo!).

This makes most of us absolutely awful at taking a compliment. We’ll never see the reality, because we will always be filtering it through a collection of insecurities and emotions that the vast majority of people simply won’t think to apply to us. Think about it: have you ever considered someone’s body in intense detail? Have you ever subjected another body to the kind of scrutiny you’d apply to your own? I bet two things:

  1. If you have, it’s almost certainly someone you fancied.
  2. Seeing as it’s someone you fancied, most of what you found under scrutiny probably gave you joy.

I’m not saying everything about someone else’s body will give you joy: shoutout to anyone who has ever been roped in to squeezing a particularly painful back zit or ‘having a look’ at a worrying bum rash. But by and large when we scrutinise other people’s bodies, we don’t apply the same filters as we do when we look at our own. We see something closer to an actual reality, albeit maybe one that is filtered through our own horn.

Chances are most of you know this stuff already, so I sound like a five-year-old trying to explain to an adult physicist how numbers work. Not-exactly-a-newsflash: we’re harsher on ourselves than we are on other people. But there have been a couple of moments recently where I got the same ‘looking through the keyhole’ feeling – where my partner said something nice about me and I realised that although I understood the concept of him loving me, fancying me, and generally wanting to get naked and smoosh all his hard bits into my soft, soft tummy – and it hit me like a tonne of bricks just how rare these moments are. The times when I don’t just rationally understand his compliment, but emotionally absorb it too.

I’d always thought ‘taking a compliment’ was about accepting it politely and moving on. But perhaps taking a compliment is really more about internalising it, and trying to understand it. Applying the empathy that I’d try to use if someone was talking about something other than terrible, horrible, me.

You’re not just saying this, are you? You actually mean it!

It’s the difference between knowing that the Spanish word for fire is ‘fuego’, and instinctively running when someone shouts it at the top of their lungs.

Taking a compliment feels lovely

I wish I could give the same feeling to all the people I’ve fancied before. The skinny guys I drooled over who couldn’t possibly believe that I would want to rip off their clothes and lick their hipbones. The women who were shorter or taller or fatter or thinner or differently-shaped than me who I envied for some quality of sexiness that I just happened to lack. The fat guys who rolled their eyes when I explained that I’d love to bury my face in their tummies too.

Some people, I’m sure, will be great at internalising compliments. But for most of us it’s hard to shake years of training in batting them away in the name of modesty or self-consciousness or because we simply can’t bring ourselves to believe them. We return compliments as if they’ve been served up as a trap – to ‘gotcha’ us into admitting that maybe we’re not ugly after all. So I guess this long ramble is just an excuse for a thought experiment, really. Ask yourself: what if the nice things people say to you are actually true?

I’ve seen through the keyhole now, to the land where compliments are real. I can’t guarantee I’ll visit regularly, but it’s a really lovely place to glimpse from time to time. My tummy, especially, looks awesome.

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