As aspiring writers, we are told to develop thick skins to handle criticism that is sure to come our way. For some, compliments are equally hard to accept. Here’s how to deal with that.
“Quotation is the highest compliment you can pay an author.”
― Samuel Johnson
If you are, like me, insecure about the quality of your work and feel like you are just muddling along, a compliment can hit you as hard as criticism would. Especially when you are new at something, you won’t likely expect you’ll be good at it right from the start. However, you cannot amount for a certain aptitude or even raw talent. Perhaps it’s experience and attitude that makes you good at what you do, even when you don’t expect to be.
I was caught off-guard myself not so long ago. Since a few months, I have been working for a new client, who provides me with continuous work and income (a luxury for any struggling freelancer, but particularly for our little household, that has known some very troubled times indeed). The actual work itself — technical editing — fits me like a glove. Though I really enjoy the work (an added bonus) I am still a ‘newbie’. The work requires extreme attention to detail, accuracy, word processing and content management skills, paired with a project manager’s helicopter view.
This seems exactly the kind of work I have prepared for my entire career. My experiences as a management assistant, information professional and a writing editor all seem to come together in this work, which entails a wide variety of technical editing services for a leading Dutch publisher.
But because the work, the procedures and the methods are still fairly new to me and I seem to be continually corrected , I feel I cannot measure up to the experienced freelancers who have long-standing relationships with the editing service (indeed, during my recruitment interview I have been assured they are in it for the long haul — as am I, of course) and have been doing the work for many, many years. Many of these freelancers have way more editing experience and applicable backgrounds, are more extensively schooled than I am, on an academic level even. And here I am with my practical schooling and experience I may very well think ‘ will get me by’, but may very well just not be up to standard nowadays.
Barely a month in, immersing myself in the extensive knowledge base of my new principal, familiarizing myself with work methods and ethics, I was asked to step in for a co-ordinating editor during her holiday leave. I would be managing the on-lines mailbox, which, as I was assured, practically ran itself. Freelancers communicated directly with the client’s contacts about various online publications (that the co-ordinating editor listed in an elaborate spreadsheet) and I was not expected to do that much. Just check daily if things were running smoothly, perhaps address a freelancer or two, maintain a weekly phone meeting with one of the client’s contacts. It sounded simple enough.
As it turned out, I worked almost full-time from nine to five — business hours, after all — applying all my troubleshooting skills. I had not expected it, but I was valued. I was given compliments. I was flustered.
Unaccustomed with validation or compliments for most of my career, I was having trouble taking the compliment at face value. Why was it so hard for me to accept I had done something right?
I blame the conditioning we all seem to endure by the influence of parents, family, peers and community. We are ‘programmed’ to respond in a certain way, that is acceptable by the collective: The Community. When you have been raised in a certain era, as I have, applauding yourself for a job well done is discouraged. When, in addition, you happen to be the focus of scrutiny as an only child, it’s not quite clear when exactly to shake off that conditioning and start living for yourself. I have been recognition hungry for a long time, and consequently disappointed for a long time as well. Society does not by nature reward excellence — if it is recognized at all.
Society does not encourage ‘being different’ in whatever way. Most importantly, society does not give compliments, as a rule. In this tiny country I live in, both my Husband and I were raised with the notion it is not acceptable to be anything else than ‘normal’ — the norm of which obviously being defined by the majority. Perhaps I am taking things to far, but I truly believe conditioning is the root of insecurity.
If you’re new at something, such as writing, you’re bound to be insecure. You crave the opinion of others and the confirmation you’re actually doing a good job or, better yet, are considered talented. You know you will be criticized and you mentally prepare for that. Enough criticism will cause a thick skin.
But how do you prepare for compliments and how do you handle them?
Compliments are best received with grace. Don’t make the mistake of making light of your accomplishment. Never say “It’s nothing”. Something that required this much time, effort and often even sweat and tears is not nothing. You have been pouring out your heart in your writing and somebody actually recognizes your accomplishment.
Learn how to say thank you sincerely. If someone particularly praises about your work, ask them specifically what they liked best. This is invaluable positive critique that will help you improve your writing. To this end, make a point of remembering the compliments you receive, perhaps even through a system. Examine who gave you the compliment, and why did it mean so much coming from this person? What is your relationship to this person? Note what they specifically liked about your work and make an effort to incorporate that in your future work. Make sure the compliment giver knows you appreciate them — that, in turn, is a compliment as well.
Let it motivate you to move onwards and upwards.
“Unpraised, I find it hard to start writing in the morning; but the dejection lasts only 30 minutes, and once I start I forget all about it. One should aim, seriously, at disregarding ups and downs; a compliment here, a silence there;[…] the central fact remains stable, which is the fact of my own pleasure in the art.”
― Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary
Among all the critiques you are going to endure, a true compliment is worth its weight in gold. Celebrate your compliments — you have deserved them!
This post was originally published on Medium in my publication Hearts in the Write Place on November 13, 2019.