It happens all the time. Our family will be guests enjoying a Shabbos meal at the home of friends, and I or my wife will tell the hostess that one of the dishes, perhaps a dessert, looks delectable and is particularly delicious. The hostess will invariably respond, “Oh! It was so easy to make! Really, it was nothing! It looks so fancy, but it took like five minutes. It’s the simplest thing. I saw it in last week’s – (whichever magazine). I’ll give you the recipe after Shabbos!”
Whenever I have repeated this observation, the response is always a hearty laugh and agreement that that is indeed a common occurrence.
I have a suspicion that part of the motivation for this ubiquitous response stems from our inability to accept compliments well. How often does someone remark to others that their house is beautiful or their children are wonderful, and the recipient replies with a thank you followed by a reason why it/they are not quite as great as they seem. The same holds true when someone tells a friend that he/she looks great/beautiful.
A friend related that he was sitting next to an elderly, seasoned educator at a dinner. A woman who was a former student came over to the educator and, after exchanging pleasantries, remarked that he looked great. After she left, the educator turned to my colleague and quipped that he has noticed that there are three stages in life – youth, middle age, and “you look great!”
Why do we have such a hard time accepting compliments?
Vulnerability seems to be a big part of it. We are afraid that if our talents, possessions, or other gifts of our life are placed in the spotlight, it may become clear that we are undeserving of the praise or compliments. We may feel that we didn’t sufficiently earn the compliment or praise being directed at us. By pointing out the deficiencies or minimizing our accomplishments, we seek to deflect the praise, making us feel less vulnerable or exposed by the compliment.
Rabbi Yitzy Hurwitz was a dynamic and active rabbi in California when he was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 41. Since then, the disease has robbed him of virtually of all his physical abilities. Unable to speak or type, Rabbi Hurwitz uses his eyes to communicate with a computer, including writing a weekly Torah column. His continued will to live and to do the best with what he has is incredibly inspiring.
Mrs. Dina Hurwitz, Rabbi Hurwitz’ wife, has become an inspirational speaker. She captivates audiences by being real about the ongoing challenges and struggles she deals with on a daily basis because of her husband’s debilitating condition.
In one of her talks, Mrs. Hurwitz noted that Rabbi Akiva taught the mitzvah of V’ahavta L’rei’acha Kamocha (Love your friend as yourself) to a generation in which people appreciated themselves and had a healthy self-image. Rabbi Akiva instructed them to love others as much as they love themselves.
Our generation, however, struggles with a low self-image and lack of appreciation and recognition of our uniqueness. That’s why we are all trying to be everyone else, yearning to find that elusive life of perfection we think everyone else has.
We suffer from an inner critic, a little persistent voice within us, that we often don’t even notice, which tells us nasty and negative things about ourselves. Such negative self-talk can include things such as, “I’m not good at this, so I shouldn’t even try,” or harsher, “I can never do anything right!” Those internal messages limit our ability to believe in ourselves or our abilities. The meanest comments said are the ones we say to ourselves.
These negative messages are also at the root of “imposter syndrome,” a common feeling that people do not feel worthy of their accomplishments or of the image people have of them. They live in fear of being “exposed.”
Still, most of us try to be pleasant and say nice things to others. We compliment and praise our neighbors and friends and seek to make them feel good.
Mrs. Hurwitz suggested that to our generation Rabbi Akiva might have said that we should strive to love ourselves and demonstrate love for ourselves as much as we love and show our love for others. Today’s mandate is, V’ahavta lachem k’rei’acha – Love yourself as (you love) your friend.
It generally doesn’t seem to be humility when one minimizes or shrugs off a compliment. We need to appreciate the blessings we have and to recognize our internal worthiness. It’s wonderful to share an easy recipe but it’s not wonderful to shrug off how much we invest and strive to grow constantly. It’s not so easy to balance all the external and internal turmoil in our lives. Let’s appreciate our own efforts and learn to say a sincere thank you when we are complimented for our efforts.