An unexpected lesson: How I learned to receive praise

I arrived at Stanford with a list of goals to accomplish: learn the basics of coding, strengthen my management skills and spend more time swimming. I figured coding would be the most difficult, followed by that pesky butterfly stroke.

I never expected one of my biggest challenges would be learning to say “thank you” in response to a compliment.

In fact, I didn’t even know that I had a problem.

It was brought to my attention during a communications class at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. I was asked to give a brief speech to my fellow students. I thought I’d aced it — after all, I get paid to communicate stories. But one of the instructors pointed out that I ran offstage as soon as I’d uttered my last syllable. Instead of staying put to receive applause, I bolted back to the safety of my seat.

The speech was followed by an even more painful exercise. Our instructor made me stand still and say “thank you” while he presented me with a compliment. I was extremely uncomfortable, and struggled to look him in the eye. I counted seconds until I could return to my seat, unnoticed.

There were a million thoughts racing through my head: Why would someone who barely knew me give me a compliment? Why would I trust them? Why bother saying “thank you” when I knew in my heart of hearts that I was not worthy? Was it lunchtime yet?

Sure, I’d received compliments in the past. But my typical response was along the lines of “thank you, but I really can’t take credit for that because (insert excuse X, Y and Z)” or some variation of “I just got lucky.”

Turns out that’s pretty common, especially among women. Comedian Amy Schumer took note and wrote a brilliant parody skewering women’s inability to receive a compliment, even from their best friends.

But the problem with not saying “thank you” is that the more you resist the compliment, the less you believe in yourself. And if you can’t believe in yourself, what organization would put you in charge? What kind of executive presence can you maintain if you claim your success was a series of lucky coincidences?

Also, throwing a compliment back in someone’s lap is an unpleasant experience unto itself. It invalidates their observations and creates distance between someone who is trying to connect with you.

I visited my instructor during office hours to ask for advice on how to get better at accepting compliments. His advice was simple: stop self-deflating. Start focusing on what you do well and maximize yourself. Own your own space instead of trying to shrink it.

Sounds simple, right? I’d like to say I walked out of there in my superwoman pose, patting myself on the back for a successful journalism career but instead my mind drifted to the fact that I had missed swim practice over the weekend. Why did I suck so bad?

But his words have stuck with me. He is a paid professional communicator — just like me. He’s telling me that I have room to grow and he’s given me the tools to do it. It’s now my job to hold my head higher, to unfold my arms when speaking and say “thank you” when someone offers praise.

I never dreamed that I’d come to Stanford to learn to communicate, that this personal growth could be such a game changer. Believing that I belong here will carry me farther than any swim lesson, even though I’ve gotten a lot faster at butterfly. And if that sounds like I am complimenting myself, you’d be right.