Illustration by Shriya.

Illustration by Shriya.

Picture yourself walking down the hallway of your school in between classes. You’ve just given a presentation in your last class—a presentation you worked extremely hard on—and while you’re walking, one of your classmates approaches you and says: “Hey, you did a really great job.” What’s your initial reaction? Do you:

  • (A) Say “thank you” out loud, but think to yourself, What does this person want from me?
  • (B) Say something along the lines of, “Oh, not really. I messed up on this one part,” because you don’t want the person giving you the compliment to think you’re stuck-up.
  • (C) Let the compliment sink into your skin, warm up your heart, and validate all of the hard work you did to give the best presentation you could, then thank the person—genuinely—and move on with your day.

In a dream world, we’d all go with C, right? It sounds so easy on paper—accept kindness and give it in kind—but self-doubt, fear of how we’re perceived, and/or cynicism can easily lead any of us to end up in the A or B answer-zone. Maybe a reluctance to receive kindness is a residual effect of being taught to distrust strangers when we’re small, or maybe it’s the result of being burned by a “nice” person in the past, but it’s not terribly unusual for people (like maybe you and me) to gauge kindness with suspicion, even when it isn’t warranted. But C is where we all should be, because it represents a healthy sense of self and reminds us that we are surrounded by caring, loving people who recognize when we’re trying our best. C is the goal! Here are a few tips to help you get there.

Recognize Your Self-Worth

Accepting kindness means accepting that you are WORTHY of kindness—a notion that some of us struggle with. When you don’t believe that you deserve to be treated kindly, the brain does everything it can to figure out how to justify not accepting it from others, which is how it twists compliments and acts of kindness into opportunities to self-deprecate, or withdraw from others by assuming they have ulterior motives. When you say no to accepting kindness, you say yes to accepting a view of the world that is cruel and paranoid and disconnected.

All of those nasty self-doubts that swirl around your brain want you to reject kindness, because it allows them to grow ever stronger and dominate your worldview. According to Psychology Today, “Negative thinking slips into the brain under the radar of conscious awareness and becomes one of the strongest of habit patterns. People generate negative thoughts so automatically they are unaware that it is happening, that it is actually a choice they are making.”

In other words, if you’re constantly rejecting people’s compliments, your brain starts automatically coming up with excuses as to why you can’t possibly accept kindness, because that’s the pattern you’ve trained it to follow. When someone says something nice, self-doubt yells, They don’t mean it! They’re just being nice! You’re still a loser, and they probably feel sorry for you. When we let self-doubt run the show, kindness bounces off of us and we’re left feeling as if we’ll never be good enough. It sounds a bit corny, but when this sort of situation arises, you need to stand up to yourself, to those mean corners of your brain, and say, You know what? I deserve to be treated with kindness. I am a good person. I work hard. I try my best. So piss off, self-doubt, and let me live.

One of my favorite things to say to my friends is, “You are lovely, and you are loved.” It is also something I have to write on Post-It notes and stick around my own house when my own self-doubt gets too loud. You are lovely, and you are loved, and you deserve to be treated well. When someone wants to show you love, accept it, because you know that you are worth it—everyone is.

Take the Compliment

Just because someone shows you kindness, it doesn’t mean you owe them anything. Sometimes people are kind because they just want to be kind! Don’t feel as if you have to reciprocate or that kindness comes with strings attached.

I’m not saying that you need to respond positively to every “compliment” you receive. Certainly, there’s a difference between, “Your report was good,” or, “You have really cool style” (kindness) and catcalling (harassment). Understanding what kindness is—an act of selflessness designed to make the receiver feel good—helps to differentiate between those who are genuine and those who aren’t. If someone’s kindness comes tied to a sense of guilt or obligation, they probably aren’t being real with you. Real compliments come with no strings attached—the person giving them wants nothing from you.

It may take a little while at first, but you’ll recognize when a compliment is sincere, so please don’t go overboard trying to detect ulterior motives. Instead of immediately trying to argue with the compliment or spinning into paranoia, just take nice remarks at face value. This person believes that your work IS good. You DO have great style. You ARE really funny. So just say “thank you,” even if you don’t fully believe it. Getting there takes time. But being able to absorb a compliment—especially from someone you admire—is a step in the right direction, as it’s a reminder that someone else CAN and DOES see the wonderful things about you, even if you can’t see them yourself as often as you’d like.

If all else fails, do as the writer Mallory Ortberg says: “If you know how to do backflips, do so many of them that whoever is trying to compliment you can no longer see you against the horizon.”

Practice Being Kind to Others

Kindness comes in many forms, like making the time to spend quality time with someone, offering help and support, sending little notes of encouragement, or getting psyched when something good happens for someone else. As a shy person, I recognize how daunting this can be. I used to hold back on sending love and support to people because I was afraid it would come across as insincere (especially online). But once I started being real and sending good vibes to people, it became a natural and lovely thing in my life, often reciprocated or at the very least met with surprise and appreciation. And if you show that side of yourself often enough, people will start to realize that you’re not putting on a front, and that it’s just a part of who you are, and, in my experience, they’ll be more open and kind in return.

Competitiveness, plus the internet’s tendency to view genuine displays of positive emotion with a side-eye, can make it seem weird to put yourself out there without wearing a shield made of sarcasm or snark. You may worry that people will think you’re “fake” (you’re not) or “corny” (everyone is corny, sorry to break it to you, even the coolest people on earth have total cornball moments), but the point of practicing kindness is to place the good above the bad—after a while, you won’t care what an imagined audience thinks of how you run your life, because you’ll start to recognize how good it feels to receive kindness and give it in kind. The world is mean enough. The least we can do is learn how to be nice to ourselves and to one another.

Let kindness be a part of your everyday life. Accept it when it comes, and give it when you feel moved to do so. Eventually, it turns into a natural rhythm. And you’ll find that the positivity and warmth it generates will make you—and everyone around you—shine a little brighter. ♦