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Compliments: Can you give or accept them graciously?

 

Often in therapy patients speak of being unable to give or accept compliments easily and graciously. As a psychotherapist, rather than treat this as merely a sign of poor social skills, I latch onto it and explore it as a symbol of deeper emotional issues.

People who have difficulty with these tasks often struggle with several related issues.

At a basic level, they have low self-worth, so that at they do not believe a compliment when one is given to them: “I couldn’t possibly be as smart as they say I am.” These Submissive types of people, as I describe them in my book “Pack Leader Psychology,” tend to please and appease in relationships. They don’t want to feel “one-up” or more powerful than others, but instead strive to appear less powerful. Denying compliments or being self-deprecating is one way to do that.

Yet these people also subconsciously dislike this feeling of self-deprecation because they sense that it puts them in a weakened position.

These Submissive people have come to believe that relationships ought be manipulative. Perhaps their early attachments to parents or other caregivers were insecure and conditional. Perhaps these people, as children, had to attend to the emotional needs of their self-absorbed parents. They learned to prop up their parents emotionally, placing their own needs second. This taught them that compliments are false and manipulative — a method some people adopt to manage a relationship to earn approval and acceptance: “I’ll give you this compliment if you then like me or submit to me or don’t hurt me.”

Therefore, giving or accepting a compliment can be felt as a minor form of vulnerability. If a person has learned to be distrustful of relationships, being emotionally open can be a fear-provoking experience: “If I accept a compliment from this person, I’ll be in their emotional debt. That feels unsafe to me, so I’ll demure.”

In my experience, by becoming more self-accepting, a person can naturally become more comfortable with giving the gift of a compliment. A self-accepting person has strong self-worth so that she can disconnect the gift of a compliment from any neediness for approval.

She can freely give and receive compliments without feeling indebted.

A self-accepting person does not fear relationships, so can be fully present in conversations, stating what she is experiencing, and express real feelings. If I experience someone as, say, pleasant and helpful, I will share that with them, knowing that I am giving them a gift that will, likely, improve their day. But I am not doing this in hopes of receiving anything in return. It is a true gift — with no agenda or expectation of anything in return.

To get better at compliments, it often just takes some practice. Start with giving an insignificant compliment to a stranger — praise the waitress for her good service. Then move on to people who are closer to you and try to give a compliment to them regularly. Feel how those experiences resonate with you.

When someone gives you a compliment, merely smile and thank them as sincerely as you can. Don’t brush off the praise. Think of a compliment as a gift — would you take someone’s gift and throw it in the trash in front of them? That’s what you’re doing when you dismiss their praise. This behavior is not likely to strengthen the relationship!

I believe that dismissing compliments also sends a signal to others that you have low self-worth. To Dominators, this is a sign they can take advantage of you and your insecure weakness.

With practice, you can be better at the social art of giving compliments. In the process, you may also start to really hear how others experience you. I find that many people have been told repeatedly about a talent that they have, but they were so busy dismissing these compliments that they never really absorbed what others were saying.

Brushing off compliments also tells people you aren’t comfortable getting them, so they will likely stop. If you want more praise, don’t train people to quit giving it!

 

 

Best Baby Shower Gift Ever

Help new parents be better parents by giving them the book “The Science of Parenting,” by Margot Sunderland (DK Publishing, 2006, $16.95 paperback).  The title may be off-putting, but this book is beautifully designed, and is easy to read and understand.

Loaded with useful information and tips, it is based on the latest neuroscience on how parents can help raise happy, emotionally balanced children.

The book is based on the simple idea that parents are the key source for teaching children how to feel safe, especially in relationships — what in psychology we call “attachment.”  A securely attached child feels confident, relaxed, happy and is often more socially and intellectually intelligent. Insecurely attached children become anxious, depressed, angry, have difficulty learning, and often misbehave.

It gives solid evidence for exactly how to parent, including tips on handling tantrums, the co-sleeping debate, and when to use timeout (rarely!).

I very strongly recommend this book for any new parent or parents of toddlers or young children. I teach these ideas to parents in family therapy every day.

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Surprising Attributes of Great Leaders

This PsyBlog post on the surprising attributes of great leaders is not so surprising to Pack Leader Psychology readers.

Apparently, research has shown that humility is an important characteristic of successful leaders. Quoting from an Administrative Science Quarterly article:

“Overall, humble individuals accept that something is greater than the self. Humility is manifested in self-awareness, openness to feedback, appreciation of others, low self-focus, and pursuit of self-transcendence.

Humble people willingly seek accurate self-knowledge and accept their imperfections while remaining fully aware of their talents and abilities.

They appreciate others’ positive worth, strengths, and contributions and thus have no need for entitlement or dominance over others.” (Ou et al., 2014).

As I write in Pack Leader Psychology, insecure people with low self-worth may be Dominators, who attempt to exert control and power over others to manage their fears. A key character trait of Dominators is a lack of accountability for their behaviors. They have difficulty handling the shame of criticism, so they tend to lash out in anger and blame others. They rarely can apologize, take responsibility or admit fault. Dominators clearly lack humility, and are often labeled as “narcissistic” or “antisocial” or “bullies.”

But Pack Leaders are the opposite. They can be self-aware of both their faults and talents, without being boastful, as  Dominator would be, or self-deprecating, as a Submissive would be.

We need more balanced Pack Leaders as CEOs and politicians!

 

 

Happy Birthday, Reilly!

ReillyRiver1Reilly, the dog who was my muse for “Pack Leader Psychology,” celebrates her 10th birthday today. I have been so very, very fortunate to have this wise, old soul in my life.

However, I have some sad news to share. Reilly was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few weeks ago. Fortunately, she does not appear to be in pain and is doing fairly well. Anyone who has met her knows she is a force of nature and has tremendous strength of will. I’m hoping that will serve her now.

In honor of an authentic, emotionally balanced pack leader, I thought I’d share a bit from the introduction to “Pack Leader Psychology” about a few things Reilly taught me. (Of course, the entire book would not even be possible without her guidance.)

Reilly Tree JumpA growl instantly moved me from pack member to pack leader with my dog. Unfortunately, it was a bit more complicated for me to learn how to be a pack leader to the humans in my life. But without the lessons I learned from my dog, Reilly, I might never have transformed myself from a submissive, insecure, physically abused woman into the assertive “alpha” personality I am today.

How did I learn to claim my place in the human pack and stand up to those who wanted to dominate and control me? While I might have come to these insights on my own, it’s extremely unlikely. At the time that my second marriage was coming undone, I had the fabulous good fortune to adopt a smart, balanced dog by the name of Reilly. While it seems improbable, the spark for my life-changing insights was a German Shorthaired Pointer with a good Irish name.

My experiences living with and training Reilly taught me not just about dog behavior, but also about human behavior in ways that no self-help or psychology book ever had. What I would learn from her and because of her would rip blinders off my eyes that had blocked awareness of my behavior for more than 40 years. Reilly provided the code that unlocked my insight into why I had two failed marriages to alcoholic men, one an abuser; a meandering and unfulfilling career path; and distant relationships with family and friends.

Quite simply, Reilly’s lessons taught me how to assert myself and become a stronger person. Then I discovered that in the same way I had become a pack leader to my dog, I needed to become a pack leader with people. Once I learned that lesson, I also realized Reilly’s lessons gave me the keys to understanding the behavior of other people as well.

 Please keep Reilly in your hearts. I am so happy to have known her for more than 9 years. My life would not have been the same without her in it. Reilly laying portrait

Anger vs Indignation

Pardon a former writer’s semantic debate about two words: anger and indignation. As a psychologist now, I certainly deal with anger as an emotion in the therapy room. But I say we need to revive use of the word “indignation.” It has a depth of meaning that “anger” does not have.

Indignation is defined as “anger or annoyance at what is perceived to be unfair treatment.” Anger is defined as “a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure or hostility.” Notice that the sense of injustice or unfairness is part of the definition of “indignation.” Anger can be just “hostility,” which communicates primary aggression, while “indignation” communicates a responsive defense to aggression.

I hear many Submissives state: “I get angry too easily,” or “He just triggers me.” But instead of automatically blaming oneself for poorly controlled anger, perhaps one should flip the lens.

I prefer to look at emotions as self-protective warning signs about the behavior of others. If we feel indignant about someone else’s actions, maybe that is a big red flag from our intuition that we are being disrespected or treated unjustly.

Sure, some people flash to anger far too easily and over insignificant issues. These can be Dominators who attack or use the “fight” response when they are fearful of criticism or shame. Their anger is effective at warning others to back down. Some Submissives can also eventually attack when they are backed into a corner and feel they have no others options. When one is overly pleasing and appeasing most of the time, it leads to others being disrespectful, which eventually leads to a feeling of indignation.

So next time you blame yourself for getting angry too easily, take another look and consider whether you should instead respect and heed that feeling of indignation.