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Want to see a chickadee squirm? Give her a compliment.

Compliments make me uncomfortable. They make me worry about expectations and create performance anxiety. I’m always afraid that a compliment means I’ll be held to a standard I can’t maintain, a realistic fear when you’re a hypomanic rock star one moment and a depressed nothing the next. Not to suggest that anyone stop providing positive reinforcement, mind you, because I actually need that praise. I love getting good feedback on my work. It motivates me to keep trying, and makes me feel like the effort I put into whatever sparked a compliment was worthwhile. And I really put everything into everything I do.

My photo in a juried show - big deal.

At my core, I’m ruthlessly ambitious. I denied my competitive nature for years, but I’m actually so competitive that if I can’t be the best, I won’t try at all. I wouldn’t be finishing up a PhD if I weren’t extremely ambitious. I want to be the best at what I do. I am the best at what I do. I know this, even if I don’t own up to it most of the time. It sounds like ultimate hubris, which I hate, and it doesn’t come across well either. My ego really isn’t that big; in fact, it’s rather withered. Therein lies the problem.

Depression kills my self-confidence and self-esteem. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, when I feel low, I can’t see my own value. It’s the single strongest example of cognitive bias that I recognize in myself; it’s completely irrational and I know it, even in the moment. But for someone who is bipolar, everything that feels good gets taken away, and often sooner rather than later. I hate being disappointed after I’ve gotten my hopes up. That’s completely normal, but I seem to have taken the coping mechanisms to an extreme. My strategy for years has been to expect nothing and detach from any sense of feeling good about anything.  If I have low expectations, I’m rarely disappointed, and sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised.

That strategy has actually come back to bite me: I submit papers believing that they’re just as likely to be rejected as accepted. The thing is, I’ve only had three rejections ever, and over fifty accepted papers and presentations. For non-academics, that’s incredibly exceptional performance. I’ll admit that much. My rational scientific mind really ought to recognize my 94% acceptance rate and adjust my beliefs accordingly, but I just can’t. Most of the time, I still assume that my work will be rejected.

Despite all of that, I’ve gotten a lot better at accepting praise. It’s partly because my advisor insisted that I should not say, “I tried” when people compliment my work. He made the point that it’s simply not true that anyone could generate the same results just by putting in the hours. To say as much would massively understate the care I put into my work. I did do more than just try. My work is great and I know it, at least when I’m not too depressed to believe it.

So now when people compliment my research, my writing, or any other little thing, I say “Thank you.” That’s usually all I can say. If I add anything more, I tend to screw it up. I don’t know what else I could do that would make me less uncomfortable, but it makes me happy that I can make the right response and (usually) mean it.

NB: this post inspired “A Development and Modesty” by Fractured Angel at The Mirth of Despair. Go check out her awesome!

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