I have a hard time accepting compliments.
When I say I have a hard time, I mean I have a really, really hard time.
The topic came up in therapy on Thursday. My therapist gave me a compliment and I just started deflecting it in any way I could. I had just done the same to a friend earlier that day. I told my therapist about it, and of course she wanted to delve deeper into why I had so much trouble with them.
It’s not that I’m not used to receiving compliments. I’ve received them all of my life, for varying reasons. It was something else entirely.
As my therapist started questioning, I started thinking back and connecting the dots. I started remembering things I thought I had pushed down deep and far away. Things I did not want to remember.
So much was going on in my mind, and it must have shown on the outside. My therapist asked what was going on; my whole demeanor had changed. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to say all of the shit that was going on in my head. I wanted to feel, but I didn’t even know what to feel.
“My mother gets mad when people say nice things about me. She yells a lot.”
It’s something I dealt with my whole life. If it was something she couldn’t take credit for, or if it was something that took the attention off of her, my mother would get angry and I would end up in trouble. When someone would compliment my hair or my looks, my mother did what she could to make me ugly. When someone pointed out how smart I was, I was accused of thinking I was smarter and better than her, and I’d get knocked back into place.
As I sat there, muddling through the shit going on in my head, I started to dig my nail into the skin between my thumb and forefinger. I didn’t even realize I was doing it at first. After a few minutes, my therapist noticed and asked me to stop. But I couldn’t. I had the strongest urge to hurt. I needed to feel pain.
Eventually I pried my hands apart and sat on them, hoping it would stop the urge. I told my therapist that I needed to hurt. It was almost instinctive.
I sat there, awkwardly sitting on my hands, half listening to my therapist and half talking to myself in my head. I couldn’t focus. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to hurt something.
I tried to listen as my therapist talked about why I could have been needing to hurt. But nothing she said was making sense. I didn’t need to hurt because I felt like I deserved it. I needed to hurt because that’s what I associated with compliments. I needed to hurt because that’s what my mother did to me.
I finally found the strength to mutter out the words “mom hurts.” My therapist asked if I meant what I meant, that my mother hurt me, and I told her yes. I told her some of what happened. And then I started to cry, because I realized just how much the shit my mother had done had affected me.
Of all the things my mother had already taken away from me as a child, she took away the good words people had offered me. She took away any opportunity I had to take in others’ positivity. She turned what should have been happiness into pain.
Pain became a conditioned response. I experienced my mother’s narcissistic rage so often that I just automatically associated compliments and positive comments with the pain and hurt that she inflicted on me. Even in her absence, I am continuing the same response I’ve always had. Except now I am the one inflicting the pain.
I tried to pull myself back together and stop crying. I felt ashamed for crying over something I should have known better about. But I wasn’t crying entirely because of that. I was crying out of grief. Just when I thought my mother couldn’t take any more from me than she already had, she struck again.
I was crying for the little girl who couldn’t feel good about anything. I was crying for the little girl who had to shy away and not be noticed for fear that she would be hurt.
I was crying for me.