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Over the past two days, I have been complimented for my strength.
I know that those who adorned me with such kind words did so without ulterior motives. So, tell me, why is it so difficult for me to accept positive feedback? Why do I immediately regress and feel like a little girl who’s in trouble or danger?
The minute those positive words are uttered, bringing attention to the traumas I survived, I feel obligated to deflect the praise and relieve them of the discomfort that one of my stories may have caused.
I sometimes wonder if my difficulty stems from the exhaustive efforts I made to disconnect from my emotions and how I still struggle to reconnect to them in order to continue healing.
One glaring example of my mastery at disconnecting comes to my mind. About six months after the death of my son, Michael, I went to the dentist for my overdue cleaning. As I sat in the chair, the hygienist asked me how my baby was, having realized the last time I had been there I was pregnant. I didn’t miss a beat when I recounted the story, in the third person, about how I had undiagnosed eclampsia and went into seizures. I even explained how he suffered from asphyxiation and died a day later.
The story flowed from my lips like those of a reporter, conveying facts about something that happened to someone else.
Much to my surprise, when I looked up, she was crying. Having been only 23 at the time, I immediately became annoyed and could not understand why she was acting this way. In my mind, the loss was some form of punishment from the universe, something I deserved and dared not cry about. That wounded 23-year-old version of me secretly wished she could feel anything, but at the time, she just felt dead inside.
My rationale for equating punishment to that tragedy actually stemmed from my dysfunctional childhood and wounded inner child, who believed she was only worthy of pain and suffering, trusted no one, and was certain she was unworthy of good things.
Like a 1970’s ad for a Virginia Slim, that 23-year-old has come a long way, baby.
I am far from the young girl who sat in that dentist’s chair. However, despite my hard work, today, after someone complimented me for my strength, I immediately felt squeamish and embarrassed.
I wanted to minimize my pain. I wanted to disconnect from the discomfort again, one of my lifelong habits that, clearly, is extremely hard to break. Internally, I struggled to reconcile why I always resort to this behavior. I could not explain it, and being who I am, I needed answers. I suspected that I was not alone in my suffering from doxophobia, or the fear of receiving praise.
My quest confirmed this notion.
According to Robyn Brickle, MA, LMFT, of Brickle and Associates, “it can be very hard for a person with a history of trauma to internalize a compliment, even from someone they trust, because it comes from another world—a place they don’t understand—where someone sees something wonderful about them. This conflicts with the part of them that holds the internal view that they don’t matter, that they are worthless. It doesn’t seem possible that they could experience good feelings for themselves, because that doesn’t fit with the way they have learned to see themselves.”
Apparently, the inability to accept a compliment is frequently related to low self-esteem, and in my case, is a direct result of my childhood trauma.
In order to feel comfortable in my own skin and to gracefully accept a compliment instead of looking for an emergency exit, my discomfort reminded me I need to work harder on these three areas:
1. Practicing self-compassion.
Go Strengths describes self-compassion as “ the care and nurturing we offer ourselves when we make mistakes, embarrass ourselves, or come short of a goal we were hoping to achieve.”
Typically, survivors of trauma are preconditioned to resort to negative self-talk when they make a mistake. To practice compassion for ourselves, we must learn to stifle the negativity and foster acceptance for our whole self, both the good and the not-so-good parts. We are human, and as such, we are predisposed to make mistakes.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, the investment in self-compassion yields great dividends, including a decrease in anxiety and depression. In addition, practicing self-compassion regularly also increases one’s motivation and confidence, which in turn could result in the ability to accept a compliment with a little more ease.
I realized that I show compassion on a daily basis to the patients I work with, to my family and friends, and I need to treat myself as I treat others. When I start to feel unworthy, I am going to fill myself up with positivity, just as I would for anyone for whom I care.
2. Opening my heart.
Many of us who are suffering from trauma have a hard time with the concept of vulnerability. Opening our hearts to another person can sometimes make us feel naked and raw, but in order to heal our trauma and realize our own self-worth, we have to take a chance.
We can begin to do this by showing others love and appreciation every day. It sounds easier than it is, however. When you’ve had your love rejected or your vulnerability used against you, the thought of opening your heart can leave you feeling completely exposed.
I’ve learned that one of the easiest ways to open your heart is by showing gratitude to those you love and trust. By saying thank you and expressing your love to a “safe” person at first, your heart slowly starts to crack open, and the barriers begin to fall. By making this a daily practice, the effort decreases and your openness increases. That, my friends, is the moment when the healing begins. Opening your heart and keeping it open is a lifelong process.
For me—someone who quickly gets caught up in the moment—it’s imperative that I remind myself that there is no greater feeling than the ability to let love in and make this a priority.
3. Showing love to my inner child.
I know my inner child still yearns for unconditional love, for my behaviors as an adult were textbook examples of someone who desperately needed to do “inner child work.”
From my lack of self-esteem to poor emotional regulation to abusing alcohol and people-pleasing, the little girl within me needs to hear on a daily basis that she is okay and fully loved just the way she is. That damaged little girl, who raises a red flag when a compliment is rendered, needs to know that it is okay for her to trust.
I know now that the only way she will ever learn to trust, though, is through reprogramming. I need to reconnect with her by showing her unconditional love, by erasing the 40-year-old cassette tape of negativity that plays in her mind and recording new tracks.
As I worked with my spiritual healer, each week we would compose mantras, and I admit, I have gotten away from them. I need to resume reciting these mantras to that little girl. I need to build her up and nourish her confidence, as this too is part of my healing process.
One of my mantras was, “I am worthy! I am worthy of deep, unconditional love and respect.”
I have it written on a wooden heart that sits in my kitchen window as a daily reminder, but I realize now that this is not enough. I need to say these words aloud so my inner child hears them. I need to hold her, and squeeze her, and make her feel protected.
You see, in writing this, I have realized that my inability to accept a compliment is just a symptom of neglect, both past and present.
It reminded me that I cannot let life get in the way of practices that ultimately brought me here, to a better place—practices whose benefits I only recently began to experience. I have been through more than most, and I am still here to tell my story.
There’s tremendous pain in many of my stories, but there’s also victory, accomplishment, and knowledge gained. That calls for celebrating individually and with others.
And, at times, when a compliment makes me want to squirm, I need to reach out to the little girl within, squeeze her tight, surround her with love, and make her feel safe enough to sweetly utter the words thank you.
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