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And why it's so important to learn to accept and appreciate praise.

February 05, 2016

At the Producers Guild Awards last month, Shonda Rhimes began her acceptance speech for the Norman Lear Award for Achievement in Television by deadpanning, "I’m going to be totally honest with you, I completely deserve this.”

She was kidding, and she wasn’t. That night the mega-talent behind some of prime-time’s buzziest shows went on to deliver a powerful message about diversity on TV. (“It’s not trailblazing to write the world as it actually is," she told the room full of industry influencers.) But she managed to do it while simultaneously owning her success in a way that we rarely get to see.

From her memoir, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person ($25; amazon.com), we know that Rhimes wasn’t born with such “badassery,” as she would call it. She has worked hard to learn to appreciate praise without negating it, or laughing it off, as if it were a big, fat joke. That struggle, Rhimes points out, is one that a lot of women share. When faced with a compliment, many of us duck our heads, embarrassed, when all that’s really necessary is a “thank you” and a smile.

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Here, Health’s contributing psychology editor, Gail Saltz, MD, explains some of the possible reasons for this ingrained habit—and why it’s so important to start accepting praise with grace.

You’re highly attuned to others

Women are the more empathetic sex, says Dr. Saltz. We are more likely to put ourselves in another person’s shoes (be it a sister, friend, classmate or coworker) to imagine that person’s internal reaction to our own success—and whatever insecurity or jealousy or frustration it may bring up for them. It might be hard for you to bask in our own glory because you’re afraid of throwing others into your shadow, explains Dr. Saltz. But the bottom line? It’s never a good idea to make yourself smaller to make somebody else feel better.

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You don’t want to come off as conceited

So you downplay your achievements, and wave off the praise. You don’t want others to think that you think that you’re better than them. As a result, you're quick to second guess your confidence, says Dr. Saltz. You wonder, Am I acting confident or am I acting arrogant? But “knowing the difference for yourself, as a woman, is really important,” she says. Because there is a big difference between the healthy recognition, I accomplished this fantastic thing; and the egotistical fantasy, Everything I do is amazing because I’m me.

You’re afraid you don't deserve it

You might be suffering from the “extremely common” fear of being a fraud, says Dr. Saltz, which means that “every time you achieve [something], you are overcome by this feeling of, ‘That was a fluke.’” The underlying anxiety is that you don’t belong where you are, among your peers; and when you fall into that kind of negative thought trap, you brush off every victory as a lucky break before you allow yourself a moment enjoy it.

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The lesson

“Accomplishments feed self-esteem,” says Dr. Saltz. That’s why acknowledging your achievements—and accepting the praise that comes your way—can be so powerful. “What’s important is not necessarily what [others think of you], but what you know yourself,” she explains. So the next time someone tries to compliment you, go on and let them. Take the praise, and appreciate it for what it is: a reminder of that great thing you did that you really deserve to celebrate.

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