On the Receiving End of Kindness…

“One who knows how to show and to accept kindness will be a friend better than any possession.”  (Sophocles)

[As I wrote this post, I had the distinct impression that this might be a gender-specific issue.  So to any men who happen to read it, take what you will, and perhaps there will be something that you can relate to.  Accept that you are wise, and handsome, and remarkably accomplished….]

Attribution: Donna CameronEven if we don’t have the resources to give all that we would like to give, we always have the capacity to receive graciously.  It sounds so simple, but it can be surprisingly hard.  Think of the times someone tried to give you something and you demurred—perhaps because you didn’t think they could afford it, or you didn’t feel worthy, or it was simply your initial reaction to an awkward situation.  Maybe the gift wasn’t something you wanted; perhaps you didn’t want to feel indebted.  Or maybe you are among the cynical who wonder what’s the catch?

Did your refusal of their offer please them, or did it disappoint?  In retrospect, would a gracious thank-you have made both of you happier and immensely more comfortable?

Giving is such a pleasurable act.  Yet we often deny our friends and acquaintances—and even strangers—the joy and satisfaction of giving by being such terrible receivers.

And the gift doesn’t have to be something material.  How often do we devalue the gift of another’s words by refusing their compliments?  We deflect kind words about our appearance by saying, “No, I look terrible!  My hair needs cutting and I need to lose ten pounds, and look, I’ve lost a button on this shirt.”  Do you really think they complimented us just to hear us point out all our flaws?  I seriously doubt it.

How much better to respond with, “How nice of you to say so,” or “Thanks for your kind words, they make me feel great!”

In his book, Imperfect Alternatives, Dr. Dale Turner quotes a friend who chided him for brushing off a compliment: “When someone gives you a compliment in words, don’t disagree or minimize what he says, for words are gifts, too.  Accept them gratefully, even though you don’t think you deserve them….. A compliment is a gift not to be thrown away carelessly unless you want to hurt the giver.”

We also reject compliments on our achievements by down-playing them.  We say, “No, it really wasn’t anything special. Anybody could have done it.  I was lucky.” It’s as if we are saying, No, you dolt. Can’t you see I’m really an incompetent nincompoop?  It’s always great to share credit—that’s another form of kindness (not to mention decency)—but minimizing the overall accomplishment serves no one.

How much better to say, “Thank you, I’m really pleased with the result, too,” or “Yes! Don’t we have a fabulous team!?”

As I pose the question of why accepting compliments is something most of us aren’t very good at, I realize this is a much larger issue for women than for men. When was the last time you complimented a man on his new suit and he responded by saying that it makes his butt look big?  Doesn’t happen.

Most of the men I interact with know how to accept compliments about their work.  Hell, they expect kudos … and good for them for having those expectations.

A lot of women were raised with the direct or indirect instruction to hide their light under a bushel.  Our mothers told us to be modest.  Our teachers encouraged humility and restraint.  Somebody else kept mumbling that the meek will inherit the earth.

Let’s Reframe Our Response to Compliments

Perhaps if we reframe our response to gifts and compliments we can learn to receive them.  Instead of questioning whether we deserve them, or fearing that we will appear conceited, or that we are getting more than our share, let’s stop thinking about ourselves and think instead about the giver.  Think about the kindness we can extend to them by accepting their gift with grace.

Why don’t we all set an intention of receiving compliments graciously for the next 21 days and see how that feels.  No demurring.  No downplaying.  No false modesty.  And while we’re at it, let’s extend some compliments.  I don’t know anyone who couldn’t use a few.  Do you?

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” (Leo Buscaglia)

Extend Yourself

“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”  (Dalai Lama XIV)

Dr. Dale Turner

Dr. Dale Turner

Years ago, theologian, speaker, and extraordinarily kind man, Dr. Dale Turner, handed out little green cards with two simple words printed on them: “Extend Yourself.”  I have no religious background or education, nor any inclination toward such, but every time I heard Dr. Turner, he touched me to the core.  He also made me laugh—a fine combination.  I’ve carried that little card in my wallet and had those two words clipped beside my desk for nearly three decades.  It seems to me that the phrase “Extend Yourself” captures the essence of kindness.  It also highlights the difference between niceness and kindness.

Nice is something we can be without extending ourselves.  Nice is tipping the hat, holding the door, smiling at the cashier.  Nice may even be dropping a dollar in someone’s hand if we do so without looking the person in the eye and saying a genuinely caring word.  Kind is asking how we can help, offering our hand, jumping in without being asked, and engaging in conversation that goes beyond the superficial.  All of these actions have an element of risk—we might be rebuffed, ignored, or disrespected.

Nice generally doesn’t inconvenience us.  I can share my bounty with you because I have plenty.  Kind is when we share knowing that we may not have as much as we would like, and that’s okay.  We often go out of our way to extend ourselves or to be kind.


Extending ourselves is an act of generosity, whether material or relational.

Recently there was a story on NPR describing how the impulse to generosity seems to be hardwired in our brains.  In a study of children, researchers found that they smiled significantly more when they were giving treats away than when they received the treats themselves. But what the researchers found to be especially interesting was that the children smiled significantly more when they gave away their own treats than if they gave away an identical treat provided by the experimenter for the purpose of giving away.

I saw another story two days ago, about Calvin Olsen, a second grader in Las Vegas.  He told his parents that he had been given so much for Christmas he didn’t want anything for himself for his birthday.  Instead, he wanted “to give all my birthday presents to kids that need them.”  He asked for $25 gift cards for older kids and presents for the little kids.  Sixty people came to Calvin’s birthday party.  He collected over $600 in cash and gift cards for kids and teens in foster care, $100 of which was from his own savings.

That impulse to generosity that Calvin Olsen and the kids in the NPR study have seems to be an instinctive knowledge of the rightness of “extending yourself.”  Let’s hope as they grow older we don’t “help” them unlearn it.  Instead, let’s learn from them.

extend yourself