Being Humble and Grateful but Not Self-Effacing

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I recently watched Shonda Rhimes’s acceptance speech for the 2014 Hollywood Reporter Sherry Lansing Award for leadership.   As I listened, I thought, “This is what it looks like be truly humble and deeply grateful without being self-effacing.”  It seems that too often, people fall on one end of a spectrum: they either believe their success is due all to their own work and talents, denying the role of luck, resources, and others’ help, or they deny their talents and hard work and say their success was all due to luck, given resources, and other’s help—completely unable to accept a compliment or their badassery*.  But in this speech, Ms. Rhimes shows us what it looks like to embrace both our talents and the role of other forces.

Ms. Rhimes recognizes how great and successful she is, saying: “I want to pause for a beat here to say that I don’t say these things to be self-deprecating and humble. I am not a self-deprecating, humble person. I think I’m pretty fantastic.”  And then she acknowledges that her ability to succeed was made possible by the incredible courage, sacrifices, and hard work of many, many people before her.  As a gifted writer and story-teller, she provides history and context in a way that moves the heart.  You feel the multitude of people that Ms. Rhimes knows she is indebted to and her corresponding humility and gratitude.  There is no way to summarize the story she tells and maintain the power and impact of it; you’ll need to watch/read it for yourself.  (It’s just a bit over 8 minutes long, perfect for a work break.)  But I will share the final sentences, to give you a sense of her attitude:

I am beyond honored and proud to receive [this award]. Because this? Was a group effort.

Thank you to all the women in this room. Thank you to all the women who never made it to this room.

And thank you to all the women who will hopefully fill a room 100 times this size when we are all gone.

You are all an inspiration.


* Badassery:

  1. (noun) the practice of knowing one’s own accomplishments and gifts, accepting one’s own accomplishments and gifts and celebrating one’s own accomplishments and gifts; 2. (noun) the practice of living life with swagger: SWAGGER (noun or verb) a state of being that involves loving oneself, waking up “like this” and not giving a crap what anyone else thinks about you.  Term first coined by William Shakespeare. (From Year of Yes, page 196)

Badassery, I’m discovering, is a new level of confidence—in both yourself and those around you.  I now feel like I can see so many amazing things about myself and the people around me.  It’s as if before, by hiding and worrying and being unhappy, I was not looking at the people around me and seeing how truly gifted and amazing they are.  There was certainly nothing in me that could have been positive and uplifting or inspiring to them.  Not when I was so busy hiding and trying to be smaller and a nothing.

I’ve started to think we are like mirrors.  What you are gets reflected back to you.  What you see in yourself, you may see in others, and what others see in you, they may see in themselves.  (Year of Yes, page 201)


This reminds me of something a mentor told me when I was reticent to accept a compliment or strut my stuff: Shining your (my) light gives other people permission to shine their light.



Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes.  I learned about this speech while reading Ms. Rhimes’s book, which covers many big issues in an entertaining, funny, easy-to-read, and also tough, raise-the-bar, hold yourself accountable way.  I appreciate how Ms. Rhimes explains her personal evolution: from agreeing to say “yes” to invitations, to saying “yes” to living more healthfully, not hiding any more, claiming her greatness, and saying “yes” to saying “no,” “that is not going to work for me.”

Below is an excerpt on learning to accept compliments.  I share it because it mirrors my own progress on this front, and because many people I know –including me– need regular reminders to accept compliments without discounting them.  (Just last week, an infection required me to wear glasses rather than contacts.  When people told me the glasses looked really nice/cute and asked if they were new, I said thank you, but then let insecurities usurp my gratitude and good manners: “Thank you.  No, they’re old and I actually don’t like them; I don’t think they look good.”  Argh!)

I also support the shift in perspective Ms. Rhimes offers.  When clients are stuck, unable to change their behavior because it is grounded in long-held beliefs about what is proper/improper conduct, showing them how other people may see, think, feel, and respond to the conduct can finally get them unstuck.  Many people have been trained since childhood that accepting a compliment (by simply saying “Thank you,”) is arrogant.  They can’t do it.  It wouldn’t be polite.  But when you suggest that actually, denying or down-playing the compliment is rude and insults the compliment-giver?  A light bulb goes off.  Now they can change their behavior without feeling like they are violating social mores.

From Year of Yes, pages 193-94:

As the weeks roll by, this part—thank you, smile, shut up—gets easier.  It takes some practice but I slowly start to get better at it.

Thank you, smile, shut up.

And what happens is, when I give myself permission to just hear the compliments and not apologize for the compliments or brush them off or negate the compliments?

I start to appreciate the compliments.

The compliments means something to me.

More important?  The fact that someone paused to take the time to give me a compliment means something to me.

No on is obligated to compliment you.

They do it out of kindness.

They do it because they want to.

They do it because they believe the compliment they are offering.

So when you negate someone’s compliment, you are telling them they are wrong.  You’re telling them they wasted their time.  You are questioning their taste and judgment.

You are insulting them.

If someone wants to compliment you, let them.  [Emphasis added.]


Images borrowed from The Hollywood Reporter

Alexandra Marchosky
Alexandra Marchosky
I coach individuals and organizations to do and be better by more fully living their values.
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