The Thank You Complex
When the generation before us tears us apart and blames us for the destruction of our planet, they’ll probably talk about how we were entitled. We thought everything was owed to us, we had no respect, no etiquette—they’ll claim that making high schoolers study family consumer science instead of the more proper home economics was the end of civilization.
Some of their points will be accurate, some will be outrageous, but I wonder if they’ll touch on real problems. I wonder if they’ll talk about the Thank You Complex.
My generation has grown to fear the thank you. It rests between our lips, wrestling with our tongue, falling into the cavity self doubt that can never be filled.
I think I fell victim to the Thank You Complex in middle school. Unlike the self-hating-prepubescent-girl archetype, I actually had a few spoonfuls of self confidence. I believed what my mother told me; I was smart, I was pretty, and I deserved to be complimented. When I was, I accepted them.
Although thank you traditionally is a sign of gratitude, by the time I was thirteen it had evolved into so much more. We had all seen the infamous Mean Girls scene where the culturally confused Cady takes on Regina George. When Cady responds to Regina calling her really pretty with a “thank you,” Regina lashes back, “So you think you’re really pretty.” It wasn’t appreciation, it was acceptance of the compliment, and accepting compliments wasn’t a good thing. It made you cocky, self absorbed, rude.
My parents might say we have no etiquette, but in reality we just have a kind that they are not familiar with. When one receives a compliment, the proper protocol is to deny it. While they brand us as entitled, the Thank You Complex proves we aren’t. My generation of women is not entitled to praise, to feel good about ourselves or accept we have value. The lines between self love and self obsession have been blurred through our instagram filters, shifted into the shadows through the newest layer of vignette. We leave our thank yous in the back of our throats, vomiting out denials: No, I’m not pretty. I’m fat. I’m ugly. I’m dumb, untalented, unwanted, undeserving.
I quickly learned that compliments were a piece of gum, something to chew over, blow apart, and never swallow. If I wanted to hear good things about myself, I’d have to act like they weren’t true. If a friend said my dress was nice, the polite thing to do was to claim I looked fat in it. If my sister noticed my makeup was in place, I’d have to go about how I couldn’t look good without it. No matter how well I wrote, spoke, or worked, I could never openly be proud of it. I lived my life fearing the name bitch, letting it chase me around until everything I valued about myself fell out of my pocket.
I had heard that I was worthless so many times from my own mouth I began to believe it. I stirred my teaspoons of self esteem into the norm and never saw them again.
Now when I look in the mirror I do feel inadequate. My thighs are too big, my teeth too crooked, my hair never shiny enough. The things I once prided myself in, my big blue eyes, undented nose or high cheekbones are ok, but they no longer feel beautiful. I never bring them up. When I put on makeup it’s not to play up my good features, it’s to conceal the flaws. That’s I’ve become, a series of inadequacies. I’m not just denying compliments to avoid looking vain, I actually don’t believe it when my friends tell me I’m pretty. I don’t think I’m deserving of it, and I’m not alone.
The Thank You Complex has plagued so many girls like me. We’ve compressed so many thank yous down our throats that we are afraid to speak up. A study from Columbia University found that in college classrooms, young women are much less likely to raise their hands. We are the children of the education system, to be seen and not heard. It’s not proper for us to think our words carry value. Even according to the study, which seeks to combat this problem, female college students “Express their ideas in a more hesitant, tentative, indirect, less assertive, or more polite manner.” It has become polite to deliver answers with: “I guess . . .,” “I was wondering if . . ., “”sort of,” “maybe,” “I may be wrong, but . . .”
Because why should we accept we are right? Just like compliments, we are conditioned not to believe our own thoughts. We’re emotional monks, abstaining from any praise or self worth. I’m constantly self deprecating. Even this whole post is putting my generation and myself down.
It’s not enough to recognize I feel small; I need to embrace that I should feel big. Even if saying thank you to a compliment makes me entitled, I have to give myself a chance to really believe it’s sincere. I have to thank myself for my attributes that contribute to this society, the pieces I donate to the world that no one else can, that in their own uniqueness have endless value. It’s great we are unsatisfied, that we are hungry to be better and stronger. But we should be grateful to ourselves for our drive, modesty, and individuality.
At the end of a piece we normally thank an audience. We depict being heard as a compliment, when in reality it is a right that too many women don’t think they deserve. But today I’m doing something different. I’m thanking myself. Thank you, Ariel for writing this piece. It may not be perfect, but it is good, and you are good because you put yourself out there and words on this page, and even if Regina George won’t like them, they’ll be condemned by the previous generation, or someone will confuse your confidence for conceitedness, they have value, just like you. Thank you for listening.