Squelching a Word of Love—to Keep from Being Hurt

By Keith Miller | February 9, 2010

Keith, not long ago a good friend, someone I like and respect, complimented me on some design work I’d done.  I knew he meant it and at one level I was very pleased—especially since we work in the same field and he’s very good at what he does.  But I was also, sort of… embarrassed, and felt like he could spot the defects and might just be buttering me up.  So I laughed and shook my head and said, “I was lucky they even accepted it!  I tossed it off in about thirty minutes from an idea I had in junior college.”  Actually, that wasn’t true.  I worked for days on that design.  My friend looked at me as if I’d hurt his feelings, nodded his head and walked off.  Why would I do that?  Have you had a similar experience?

Grapeleaves

Good question.  This is how I recorded my experience years ago in Habitation of Dragons: Squelching a Word of Love, page 118.

***

“That was a great job, Keith!”  The man who was speaking is a person whom I deeply respect and love.  I had just given a talk in our church, and he was enthusiastically and sincerely affirming me.

“Thanks, but I’m afraid I was too direct,” I replied.  “I was tired and felt a little hostile.”  He looked at me strangely, and I went into the educational wing to get ready for Sunday school.

While walking away, I realized what I had done.  I had very subtly and unintentionally devalued him as a person.  He was trying to tell me that I had done a good job, and he had really meant it.  But instead of thanking him for his affirmation, I had told him in effect, “Actually, you aren’t really very smart.  I heard some negative things about my talk that you didn’t hear.”  Although I had not said that, I saw that my negative reply had in some way rejected him and his kindness in complimenting me in the first place.

Thinking about what had happened; I realized how often I turn people off when they try to say something nice to me.  If I happened to make a high score on an exam in college, for instance, and someone said, “congratulations,” I might have laughed and come back with something cute like, “As much time as I spent studying for that one, an orangutan would have done well.”  I seemed to turn attention away from their attempts to affirm me, thinking somehow that I was being humble.

But now I am beginning to see that instead of humility, this inability to accept praise or affirmation is really an insidious form of pride and insecurity.  Further, it represents a completely thoughtless attitude toward the needs of the one trying to offer congratulations.  If a person is sincere with a compliment, he or she is going out on a limb to identify with me.  The person is reaching out to say, “I, too, feel as you do or appreciate life as you do.”  Or, “In some sense we are related or I would not have responded to what you said.”  But my reply of supposed humility has turned the attention away from the person giving the compliment and toward me and my cleverness.  I have devalued the offered love by joking or saying in effect, “No, we are not alike, because you misinterpreted my performance.” Or, “Your perception is faulty.”  Or, “If you are like me, you are really a dummy, because any dolt could have done what I have.”

My dear friend Bruce Larson finally confronted me one day about squelching a compliment by saying, “Keith, you are a good giver of affirmation, but you’re a stingy receiver!”  It was clear to me in that moment that with all my apparent willingness, as a Christian, to love other people, I fail to love them when I refuse to hear their attempts to love me.  I suppose I reject their love because I’m afraid it is unreal, and I cannot risk being hurt—in case they do not mean it—or sometimes I evidently want to appear humble, if they do mean it.  So I protect myself from being hurt or from looking proud by dismissing as insignificant any attempts people make to say affirming things to me.  Never before had I realized fully the negative, squelching effect of refusing to accept another’s kind word.

Since making these discoveries, I am going to try to look people in the eye and say simply and warmly, “Thank you,” if they try to say something positive to me.  At a deep level I know that anything worthwhile I have is from God.  And somehow, by letting people express positive feelings to me through a handshake and a few words, I think something is completed in the attempt to communicate the love of God in human terms.

“Words and magic were in the beginning one and the same thing, and even today words retain much of their magical power.  By words one of us can give to another the greatest happiness or bring about utter despair. . . . Words call forth emotions and are universally the means by which we influence our fellow creatures.  Therefore let us not despise the use of words. . . .”

Sigmund Freud

A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis[1]

Thank you, God, that You are willing to receive my stumbling and often half-sincere attempts to praise You.  Since You showed us in Christ that it is important for us to be able to receive, please give me the grace I need to do so.  I am grateful that You take these praises of mine seriously rather than rejecting me with a denial or a joke, which would leave me alone and sorry I tried.  Help me to learn how to love.  But, O Lord, give me the serenity to risk receiving from other people . . . love, which I fear may not be real.

It is hard to receive:

Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.”  Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.”  Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

John 13:8, 9


[1] Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (New York: Washington Square Press), 22.

2 comments | Add One

  1. Ann Kroeker - 02/13/2010 at 8:56 pm

    Growing up in a critical atmosphere, I entered early adulthood unused to earnest, specific, positive input. If someone said something complimentary, I was embarrassed, confused, and unsure how to respond. So I did many of the things you described because affirmation was so foreign and uncomfortable.

    Fortunately, a friend at church observed this tendency of mine to deflect sincere affirmations and told me the same thing you just explained. “Just say ‘thank you,’ Ann. Let the person show appreciation and say what they feel.”

    So I started to practice it, but it was so hard. I wanted to say, “Thank you, *but*….” Eventually I trained myself to just say a simple “thank you” with a grateful smile and leave it at that.

    Reading this is a reminder that I should share with my kids how to receive affirmation, so they don’t have to be told that they are a “stingy receiver!”

  2. Jessica Lyon - 02/15/2010 at 8:44 am

    Ann,

    This post hit home for me too. I still catching myself saying ‘Thank you, but…’ then ending with some joke about myself or poking fun at my abilities. It’s a terrible habit I’ve developed but am working to overcome. I have also felt that if someone compliments me, I should immediately compliment them back or give someone else the credit. Thank you Keith, for your encouragement and thank you Ann for your response. Henri Nouwen wrote something really profound on being a good receiver… I’ll have to find that again…

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