By Alisa Tanaka, IATG ContributorJune 3, 2016
Whenever someone gives me a compliment or says anything positive, I generally brush it off, shaking my head and saying something along the lines of,
“It’s no big deal.”
Having my Japanese friends and family call me fluent? I would usually reply with, “No, that’s not true; I still have a ways to go.” My Japanese is good, but it’s not flawless. Hearing my girlfriends call me beautiful on one of the rare occasions that I wore a little black dress? I would shake my head, snort, and look at them like they had grown three heads. They were just trying to flatter me. Now, where was the nearest rock I could hide under?
You get the idea. Until recently, I chalked it up to my bilingual upbringing. Going back and forth between Japan and the States, I learned very quickly that a polite person was supposed to speak as though everything in the world was their fault, even if it wasn’t. Did you bump into someone? Say, “Oh, that’s perfectly all right,” and move on, even if they were barreling into you with no preconceived notion of peripheral vision.
This behavior got results, even in the States, so I internalized (and generalized) it even more. This wasn’t just what you had to do to be a good Japanese girl. You had to be accepted, and in order to be accepted, you had to be nice. Being nice meant speaking as if you’re to blame for everything on the planet.
This also meant not taking credit for your own accomplishments. Or so my thought process went.
I recently began volunteering at a local hostel as part of my efforts to keep busy during the job hunt. Part of my job is to assist in food preparation during the themed dinners the hostel holds twice a week, in addition to conversing with guests.
I showed up on my first day and got a quick tour of the building before helping to prepare vegetables for the hostel’s vegan Taco Tuesday dinner. As the dinner drew to a close, one resident leaned over so that she was in my line of vision, interrupting my conversation with another resident to simply say, “Thank you.”
In that instant, my brain went into autopilot. “I didn’t do anything, but you’re welcome,” I responded, as I watched her walk away.
In my mind, it was true; all I had done was chop vegetables and follow directions: take out salad dressings, put certain items into bowls and open cabinets. I hadn’t cooked the meal, so I couldn’t take credit for something the volunteer coordinator had done. I no longer remember the exact details of the conversation, but I do remember her saying something along the lines of, “You did do something. So you can take her thanks.”
I no longer remember the girl’s name, but her simple words struck me. Who was I effacing myself for? Why was I trying to look good for a person I had never met before that one night, someone I would probably never see again?
It was a few days after the incident that I reflected back on what I had done. I could have easily chosen to spend my time elsewhere, doing other things (like looking for a job). Yet, I had set aside my paperwork, navigated my way into downtown, and spent a Tuesday night helping to prepare a meal for people I didn’t know instead of spending it with my family.
This girl had been grateful enough to verbalize it, yet I tried to look good in front of her when I should have taken the credit. I had shown up. I had followed directions. I had helped prepare a meal when other people my age were probably heading home from work or watching Netflix on their days off.
That acknowledgement felt pretty good, too.
Yes, appearances are important, but appearances aren’t nearly as important as your own sense of self-confidence. We are social animals; acceptance was something we had to master in order to survive in the time of our ancestors. Some would argue that it stands true even today.
Taking credit for the things you’ve done and the compliments you receive helps to build your confidence. Autopilot or not, people chose to say kind things to you when they could have just as easily chosen not to. Let’s face it, sometimes we are our worst critics.
Chances are that the people who give you compliments or urge you to take credit for the things you’ve done can see you far more objectively than you can see yourself. You may not think what you do or say has an impact on someone else, but it does. I didn’t think that my showing up at a hostel for 4 hours on a Tuesday night and chopping vegetables was worth remarking on, but someone else did.
Someone else could see what I had done far more objectively than I could have. Those acknowledgements feel good. Let yourself celebrate what you’ve done, whether it’s walking out of university with a degree or chopping vegetables for a meal intended for a group of strangers.
Today’s the day for self-praise. Give yourself some credit, throw a compliment your own way, and take responsibility for the badass things you’ve done in life. You deserve it.
Alisa Tanaka graduated from Lewis & Clark College with a B.A. in Communications in 2012. When she’s not writing herblog, she can be found reading, volunteering, dreaming of traveling the world, trying to master the 5 languages she speaks, or playing with her puppy.