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Humility: Thinking of yourself less

| Thursday, April 16, 2015

I’m terrible at accepting compliments.

That’s the long and the short of it, to be honest. Every time I detect a compliment, it’s as if I am a naval submarine under attack. My body reacts accordingly, immediately entering into emergency avoidance procedure. It’s a no-holds barred “red alert,” a full-blown attempt to ward off the compliment as a nasty attacker.

If you’re reading this and thinking “Wow, that’s ridiculous,” trust me, it seems silly to me too as I write it down. While my description may seem fanciful, it really is the truth.

When I hear a compliment, it’s as if my brain goes into overdrive mode. It immediately starts to run through possible response maneuvers.

These maneuvers can take many forms. Sometimes, it’s a retort against that person, like “You must have gotten me mistaken with someone else,” as if I doubt their credibility.

Other times, it can be a cheapening maneuver like, “At least I got one thing right.” I’ll even try to use humor: “If someone like me can do it, just about anybody can.”

Deep down, I’d like to think I am grateful when someone shares a nice thought with me. But somehow, when I try to share those feelings, it doesn’t come out like it should. In reality, my gratitude comes out looking nothing like gratitude.

Instead, my gratitude ends up looking much more like rejection. Through my retorts, I cheapen and distort the compliment.

This fact has been brought to my attention on multiple occasions (more than I would care to admit) by those with whom I live. And, as much as I would like to think differently, you just can’t hide from those you see every day.

To be honest, at first I really didn’t understand what they were talking about. I thought they were just being silly.

But they would not stop challenging me. And eventually, I got tired of defending my responses. But then, slowly but surely, I started to realize that my consistent need to defend myself might possibly indicate the problem was not in their reactions, but with me.

My maneuvers had become so entrenched I could not even recognize I wasn’t capable of receiving their compliments. So the problem was not the compliments themselves, but with me as their recipient.

The problem, I realized, was rooted in my conception of humility. Humility, to me, meant rejecting the nice thoughts directed my way. Rejecting the compliment, I thought, was an easy way to show I was humble, to show I wasn’t looking for praise or adoration.

This made sense in my head. But I had others who were telling me that I was wrong. It wasn’t until I reread C.S. Lewis’s book “Mere Christianity” that things finally came into perspective.

In the book, Lewis wrote something that caught my eye: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

I realized that the giver of a compliment is someone thinking not of him or herself but of another. Furthermore, a compliment given to me is an affirmation of my mission. It as an affirmation that I am on on the right course, that I am living up to my unique creation as a son of God.

My problem was that I was thinking of myself more. I made each affirmation about me. I made it about the humility I could show, instead of appropriately recognizing and being grateful to the person who was doing the giving. This twisted the affirmation, cheapening and distorting it. This was a source of clear frustration and drew me away from relationships with others.

But of course, our call is to move toward relationships with others. After all, we are created in the image of a God who is perfect communion. I did not allow others to give me a gift, to make a claim on me, to appreciate me or to be in relationship with me. With my actions, I was effectively isolating myself and frustrating those who wanted to care for me.

How often do we do things like this? How often do we try to frame things on our own terms? How often do we try to control how others see us? How many times do we prevent others from really being in relationship with us?

Perhaps then, we should think of ourselves less and think of others more. We must allow others to accompany us, and we must gratefully receive the gift of their accompaniment. In that way, we will receive much more than compliments, but the gift of relationships that draw us into deeper communion with one another and with our God.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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