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Squinting longer at the writing wasn’t helping. All of the words were ones I recognized, and the whole thing was only three short sentences. Yet, I couldn’t face that line and a half of text on my computer screen because the words were praising me.

I was scared. I felt like someone trying very hard never to look directly into the sun. I wanted to protect myself from some horrible fate like burnt eyes. I let that thought distract me and quickly googled what happens when people stare at the sun. If you look straight up at it, soon tears will pour out of your eyes as they burn, swell, blister, and crack in succession. How could those three glowing sentences have that kind of power?

Still, I had to turn away. The words didn’t though. They stayed put—backlit and sturdy in bold black type. They were peering at me, but I was looking past them or maybe through them. It was like a stupid staring contest with the tenacious text winning. It was obstinately glaring at me as if to say, “what the hell is wrong with you?”

I shut the lid of my laptop, and the words disappeared. I left my office, walked upstairs, and went to sleep. When I woke up too early the next morning, I rolled back and forth in bed unsuccessfully pretending I was not awake. I kept thinking about those faceless teachers from Charlie Brown TV specials.

The dialogue for the adults in those cartoons never changed. They always said, “whah, whah, whah, whah, whah, whah,” and the Peanuts‘ character would just gaze blankly back at the grown-up unable to comprehend a word.

As a little kid, I could relate to the way that, no matter what the children asked or did, it always earned them the same response. What I didn’t understand, though, was why the adults were using nonsense words. My parents and caregivers were quite clear with me. They mostly said and I always heard, “you can’t, you can’t, you can’t, you can’t, you can’t.” Except, unlike Peppermint Patty or Sally, not only did I know what the adults said, I understood what they meant. They were telling me “no” because I was either bad, mean, or difficult or because I was not good, smart, or talented enough. It was that simple.

I suppose my capacity to absorb positive feedback is actually more like the Gary Larson comic strip about a dog and her owner. In it, there are just two cels with the same identical drawing of a man talking to his dog. One caption reads “what we say to dogs,” and the other says “what they hear.” The only word the dog understands is her name Ginger. All the other words are meaningless to her. I am slightly more fluent in human than Ginger, but my struggle with certain word combinations is not much better than hers.

I grew up with a very limited understanding of myself, and now I can’t translate phrases that don’t match up with that understanding. Part of my brain works normally. I can listen to, sort of acknowledge, honestly say thank you, and smile in response to flattery, but then I lose it. My abject fear of admiring statements provokes incredible mental gymnastics in my head. I compulsively start dissecting the interaction for metamessages, twisting and distorting the phrases looking for ways to justify and explain away the well-intentioned and gracious words. This means my brain cannot fully accept positive recognition and internalizing it would take some kind of monumental gestalt shift in my psyche.

Nevertheless, the three short sentences were haunting me. My normal tactics were not working. Usually, I employ “interpretive techniques” like these: that person said ____ because she feels sorry for me and is worried about my low self-esteem; this person told me I was ____ because he thinks I am decent and doesn’t want to hurt my feelings; those people didn’t notice all my mistakes because they were distracted with more important things; these people sugar-coated things for me to protect me from my inevitable embarrassment; and so on. I know. Now, you’re just dying to say something nice to me. Aren’t you?

The reason my typical strategies were failing me had to do with the context in which I came across these particular sentences. The person who wrote them did not think that I would be seeing the email, and this fact was tripping me up. The words were not for my benefit, but I think, they were still favorable and about me. I don’t have a contingency plan for what to do when someone says something good about me if those statements aren’t about shielding me from my true awfulness or about the other person’s ulterior motives. In this case, neither of those factors seemed to be at play.

When I went back to try to focus on what was said in that email and concluded that I was totally unprepared and unarmed against this type of assessment of me, I knew I was lost. In truth, I have felt lost a number of times over the last 5 weeks. I feel as though I am bobbing along in some sort of surreal ocean where everything seems impossibly foreign or unrecognizable, and equally inaccessible. It is like I am surrounded by a flat, monotone sea where there is absolutely nothing within my reach and there are no signs or landmarks to direct me home. 

I am assuming that keeping my head above the water is a smart way to exist in this unfamiliar place, but really I have no clue about how to navigate any of it. Maybe sinking below the surface and fully submerging myself in this alien environment would mean that I could learn to see the world differently or even better. Unfortunately, though, right now—with my recalcitrant fear of scorched eyes—it feels more like I am flailing about like a blind fool who will never find her way.

That said, I am attempting to abide by the 5 day rule. It is similar to the 5 second rule, which applies to food dropped on the floor. In parenting land, if you pick up the food within 5 seconds, it is still deemed edible. I have adapted this concept and applied it to compliments. In my anti-positivity world, if someone says something flattering about me and I can still recall it 5 days later, then maybe it was palatable and I should accept it.

Today, I can only recollect one of the three sentences; it said “wow.” Shockingly, I am not particularly optimistic about what I will be able to retain in the future. But, when I consider that even dogs are capable of understanding and learning three letter words, I can almost imagine myself 3 days from now remembering that positive sentence as something someone once said about me.