After recently deciding to start my own automotive marketing and consulting business, I’ve been reaching out to friends in the industry to let them know what I’m doing and schedule meetings with potential clients.
During one of these meetings, only a couple of weeks ago, I had a prospective client look me in my eyes and say:
“I’ve talked to several people about you, Seth. You have a great reputation. Good for you. At the end of the day, that’s all a man has, isn’t it?”
Hearing him say this was jarring for me. He wouldn’t have been able to say those words if I wasn’t sober from drugs and alcohol.
Compliments contradict my own self-views
Most of my life, I’ve sat in similar business meetings and hoped that they couldn’t see the “real me.” I hoped that my nice clothes and business acumen would be enough to mask the insecure boy sitting at the table. I was terrified that I would be found out.
These feelings didn’t start for me after becoming addicted to drugs, or after entering recovery. They started when I was a child. I always had feelings of being less-than and I often thought to myself: “If my friends knew the real me, they wouldn’t like me.”
Compliments make me uncomfortable because they contradict my own self-views. I naturally seek to verify my perception of myself, even if it’s negative.
Receiving praise from others when we feel negative about ourselves causes discomfort because it conflicts with our existing belief system. If we believe we’re truly bad, hearing compliments about how we are good or have an excellent reputation is unsettling.
When someone compliments me, I immediately feel very uncomfortable and fear that they will soon find out that they were wrong, and I’m actually just a fraud. I’m only pretending to be a good person (since I don’t believe I actually am) and surely they will eventually realize that I’m not.
Start by complimenting yourself
Years ago, when I was deep within my addiction to heroin and trying to salvage my marriage and the outside perception of my life, I saw a therapist weekly. He was talented but expensive at $170 an hour, cash only – a level of treatment that’s not accessible to the majority of those suffering from addiction.
One day he asked me a very simple question: “What is something that you’re good at?”
A simple question, but one that I couldn’t answer. I thought about the unmanageability of my life and couldn’t see anything that I was good at.
Was I a good husband? No, definitely not. A good friend? I don’t think I had any. Was I good at my job? I didn’t really show up for it.
I was pretty good at lying to and manipulating my wife and mother, but I don’t think that’s the answer he was looking for.
With this therapist, I couldn’t escape him or deceive him, he was too good. My usual safe place was to withdraw and avoid, but that wasn’t possible. Our 50-minute sessions felt equivalent to stepping out of the shower without a towel and standing naked in the middle of my living room, with the windows open, during winter.
Thankfully, he let me off the hook after a few long seconds of silence.
“How about picking out shirts for yourself? You seem pretty good at that,” he said as he gestured towards my shirt.
“I guess I am pretty good at picking out shirts,” I agreed.
He instructed me for the next week to pause several times each day and tell myself that I’m good at picking out shirts. I did. And it worked for me. I was at a point in my life that was so dark, even believing that I was good at picking out my own shirts was enough to help me get through, even if for just one day–or fifteen minutes at a time.
Just say thank you
Whether you believe a compliment or it doesn’t match your self-views, accept it. Don’t criticize yourself.
After receiving that recent compliment on my reputation from a respected businessman, I looked at him with a smile and just said: “Thank you.”
Author’s note: This post was originally written for my Portland Press Herald column “Facing My Addiction”.
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