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Our deepest fears of gratitude — Why can we accept compliments?

Updated: Aug 7, 2022

Stacey (not her real name) set down with trepidation as she is about to hear some awful verdict that will change her life forever. It was a performance evaluation session, and we were prepared to discuss her performance in the past year and her objectives for the coming year.

Stacey worked for me for 5 years and have grown tremendously. She asked all the “stupid” questions because she wanted to understand and was not ashamed to explore. She took initiatives and clients loved her. Often insisting on expanding work with us if she will be the project manager. She was awesome. And I was ready to share it with her.

The structure of performance evaluation is of such that you need to provide good feedback as well as constructive criticism or ideas for improvements.

This time I decided to do it differently. I broke the rules and crafted a performance evaluation session full of positive feedback.

I started to review Stacey’s objectives for the past year and provide my assessment of the results. I was giving her a glowing praise and yet I noticed that she was growing anxious, and it was clear that she hardly paying attention to what I am saying.

I figured maybe I failed to complement well. So, I upgraded my terminology. Used words like “exceptional” and “remarkable” and “awesome” hoping she will hear me out. But these words seem to have create a counter effect and her facial expression demonstrated even greater anxiety bordering on being terrified.

I paused. It was strange.

“Is everything ok?” I asked, puzzled by this uncommon response to what otherwise will be a welcome praise.

“I would rather skip this section and go straight to what I did wrong” she replied.

“The more I hear positive feedback, the more I think that there is something even worse that I have done” she said. “Just get to the bad news” she demanded.

“Wow. I wasn’t expecting that” I responded. “Why do you think that there is a worse thing coming?”

“Because there always is. That is why you are showering me with all this praise to cushion the bad news. So just go ahead with the bad news” Stacey explained.

” Well, there are no bad news today” I declared. “Only good news. You were awesome and keep up the great work. How can I help you grow?”


“what’s wrong?” I asked.

“I am not sure what to say” Stacey answered.

“How about thank you?” I suggested.

“Is this for real?” she inquired.

“Why wouldn’t it be? Why would you think I will make it up?” I was puzzled.

She didn’t reply.

But she did tear up.

I reflected on that discussion for weeks afterwards. Stacey could not accept compliments. She was suspecting that my positive feedback was a mere insincere mask for some horrible news. In fact, I realized, none of my positive feedback penetrated the thick cynical skin she developed. She didn’t let the positive gratitude to refuel and strengthen her. Instead, she let it roll over her.

How sad.

Ignoring Gratitude But why?

As I started to investigate this phenomena and confronted people with the simple question of “what do you do with gratitude and positive feedback?” I realized that more people that are willing to admit are suffering from the same phenomena which I called the gratitude denial syndrome. They just hide their denial better than Stacey.

When confronted with positive feedback we tend to dismiss it and try to rush the conversation. We feel uncomfortable with positive words and do not know what to do with them. But why? For some people in interviewed the issue was simple; they didn’t trust the positive feedback. They felt that the providers of the positive feedback were not sincere. The compliments sounded to them either carrying a hidden agenda or alternatively being superficial and unauthentic. They therefore dismissed them as not real and not relevant.

In other cases, while they thought that the gratitude was sincere, the dismissal came from a different place. Old fashioned values that taught them not to brag or take credit publicly resulted with a quick dismissal and assigning the gratitude to other people, to the team, to mere luck. To any thing or anyone but the person who did the work and delivered.

During the interviews, some have argued that there is no harm in spreading the gratitude to others. They felt that it was a more courteous way to handle the situation. I beg to differ. If you want to share accomplishments with others, do so. It’s a noble act especially if they deserve it. But not at your expense.

Robbing yourself of positive feedback, gratitude, and compliments, is robing yourself from a critical nutrient needed for your energy. You need to renew your efforts and to do so you need gratitude as a fuel. We can not live off a diet of constructive criticism only. Living off “you are never good enough” is an awful way to live and will ultimately break you down. Your energy diet ought to include gratitude nutrients that will sooth the should and reenergize the spirit. Ignoring, denying, minimizing, relegating gratitude and positive feedback will damaging to your future accomplishments.

Overcoming the fear

We need to overcome the fear that if we will accept positive feedback something bad is waiting right around the corner. This is an example of the emotions Listening lens. It is authoring our story in a distort way leaving us on edge constantly and robbing us of the rejuvenating moments of pleasure following great accomplishments. The moments that are designed to refuel our energy.

Living with this fear is living in a distorted story. We need to re-author it and stop the vicious cycle of working hard — denying gratitude and focusing on the failures.

“…Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

Who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

You’re playing small does not serve the world.

There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” I was originally introduced to this quote as it was attributed to Nelson Mandela’s 1994 Inaugural Address. When I went back to the source, I discovered that he didn’t say it. (Despite all the pretty images on the internet that crafted gifs with the quote and his face next to it) But the original source is the book ‘A Return to Love’ (1992) by Marianne Williamson. I was a bit disappointed when I discovered a change in source but then I realized it didn’t make the quote any less powerful and inspiring.

For those of you who are ready to admit that you may be suffering from gratitude denial syndrome, here is my proposed path forward. Read this passage every so often. Reflect on it. Identify the beautiful, courageous, innovative, creative, powerful, caring person in you and live to bring these forces to life. And when someone give you a compliment or share a word of gratitude, pause, smile, say thank you and reflect. Let’s the gratitude sink in and refuel your energy. Take few moments to celebrate. Recognize that you made progress, you reached a milestone, you made an impact on someone. That is how you build your story.

Your story is authored through your actions and the gratitude expressed is not fake. It is a reflection oof the success and chapters writing of your story. Don’t deny or minimize this chapter. Write with pride (not arrogance) and let it be a stepping tone towards our next accomplishment.

Please share your thoughts as this is a book in progress process. what did you like? what is missing?

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