Why do we find it so hard to accept a compliment?

Have you ever noticed a tendency in yourself or others to feel uncomfortable in receiving a compliment? This can play out in different ways:

1. Assumed criticism: Someone tells you you look great and rather than receiving this as appreciation you think “Oh they must usually think I look terrible”.
2. Deflecting and denying: you’re told “that was a delicious meal” and you reply, “oh, it needed more salt”, or you are told: “I love what you’re wearing” and you reply: “what, this old thing?!”
3. Ping-pong deflection/denying: “I liked what you said in the team meeting today”….to which you reply “oh it was nothing, I thought you made some really good points though”. Or “you’re looking great” to which you really “oh I need to tone up, but you look really good”
4. Ping pong compliments: “You’re looking good today”, to which you reply “So are you, you look great”

Why do we do this?

  • a fear of appearing conceited. This can be deep rooted in childhood conditioning and cultural conditioning, with parents, school and religions telling us not to think we are special.
  • doubting the unconditional nature of the compliment: here we feel a desire to return the compliment out of a fear that the compliment was not freely given but was conditional and we will let down the other person if we do not keep to the agreement for mutual praise. This might be due to a dysfunctional child/parent relationship where the child learnt that any praise was given with the expectation the child would return it. We then have this a default autopilot response as an adult.
  • low self esteem, which results in believing we do not deserve the compliment. Or we feel shy and dislike having the spot light put on us so push it away.
  • fear of being seen to be proud, which might come from a belief it is more spiritual or honest to deny a compliment or early conditioning that told us not to think of ourselves as special or better than others or to show humility and being admonished if we showed signs of ‘pride’ which may just have been a healthy self-esteem.
  • being a perfectionist: in your own mind nothing you do can ever be good enough.
  • negative self-view: you feel you see your own faults and failings better than the other so cannot accept their praise as you feel they do not really know your true limitations and if they did they would not offer the compliment.

Some years ago I was told to consider a compliment as a gift. When someone buys you a present your first response when they give it to you is rarely: “I don’t deserve this, please take it back” or throw it out of the door! We would consider that rude! Why then do we do this with the gift of a compliment? By denying the compliment you reject the generosity of the one who gave the compliment. In addition, by rejecting a compliment you reinforce your own negative self-view and possibly make the one who gave the compliment doubt themselves or their own abilities.

If you say in response to “that was a lovely meal”, “it needed more salt”, then you are saying they do not know how to tell good food from bad. Or if you say in response to being praised for running a good time in your marathon: “I could have been faster, I wasn’t in the top 10” you tell the person they do not know how to appreciate real achievement, and if they also run and are never in the top 10 you are telling them they are a failure so they may go away from giving you the compliment feeling worse about themselves.

One aspect of this tendency is connected to what is called ‘negativity bias’. Our brains are designed to keep us safe and alive, and as such we are programmed to notice danger rather than dwell on pleasure. Enjoyable experiences are described as being like teflon, they slip off with barely a notice. Unpleasant experiences are said to be like velcro, they stick in our mind, we think over them and how to deal with them. When we listen to a compliment from this place of the negativity bias it tends to be brushed aside and forgotten. Whereas if someone insulted us we would be thinking about it all day, or for days, or for weeks!



How to accept a compliment

How then do we accept a compliment. Firstly notice how it feels in your body as you receive the compliment. If there is a feeling of awkwardness, a contracting from the compliment, a tightening up caused by anxiety about how to reply from fear of seeming proud, then own that as being your response. Rather than trying to get rid of the uncomfortable feelings by deflecting or rejecting the compliment, breathe into the sense of discomfort, acknowledge to yourself “I’m finding this hard to accept….but it’s ok, so do many other people” and then take a few deep breaths into  where you are feeling the discomfort. You might even rest a hand on your forearm to give a sense of reassurance as you do this process or on your belly or chest if that can be done in a way that does not make it too obvious. Any form of contact will give you a sense of reassurance. This is your internal work and does not need to impact on the person who has given the compliment.

The four keys to taking in a compliment.

Below is a summary of the information in the video above. He makes a key point, which is the in order to take in a compliment you have to let people love you or show that they appreciate you or are interested in you. This process is about facilitating that:

1. Respect the person giving you the compliment: Recognise that people are taking a risk in saying what they appreciate about you and are putting themselves out by saying something they have seen in you they like. Connect with a feeling of gratitude and respect for them as you hear the compliment.
2. Accept the compliment: Simply say: “Thank you”.
3. Praise the compliment: You may wish to acknowledge the appreciation by saying something in praise of the compliment, such as: “Thank you, that means a lot to me to hear that”, or “Thank you, that’s kind of you to say that”.
4. Returning the compliment if it is appropriate: this is not to be done as a default response to a compliment, but you may feel something you wish to say in response. The example in the video is where someone says: “I’m really enjoying this conversation with you” and you respond with “Thank you, that’s really good to hear.  I’m really enjoying talking with you as well.”

There’s no need for anything more. Simply acknowledge what they have said and show you have received it, in the same way you would if they had given you a present. The most simple way to do this is to say “thank you” and be with that. At first this might feel so hard to do you won’t be able to say anything more. In time, you may like to use step 3 and/or 4.

The video below is for people learning English or for who it is not their first language. He makes some interesting points abut intonation and how to have a raising tone when saying “thank you’ so iy is not a flat tone throughout, but there is a raising tone on the ‘thank’ and a falling tone on the ‘you’. This shows appreciation and warmth in the reply rather than a flat tone which might imply indifference or reticence.



Once you feel comfortable with this you may want to develop it further. One response I learnt a while back was to respond by asking, “what was it you liked about it”. So if someone says “I really enjoyed what you shared in the circle tonight” rather than deflecting it by saying “Oh but you were really interesting too”, or “Oh it was nothing, I didn’t really express my self that clearly” one can say: “Thank you. That means a lot to hear. What was it you enjoyed?” giving them an opportunity to share a little more, and you an opportunity to receive some clear feedback on how this person enjoyed your contribution. But to start with this might feel too awkward or bring the focus too much onto yourself, so starting with a simple “thank you” is enough.

If the person seems to be waiting for you to compliment them in return, there’s no need, for if they were truly giving an unconditional compliment they will be happy you have received it. If they gave it expecting a compliment in return, by not giving one you make them conscious of how they were using a compliment as a way of fishing for affirmation.  But if you truly feel there is something you enjoyed about their contribution to the discussion, then you can give that as your own compliment to them.

Daily Practice

You could also have a daily practice of being more conscious of the positive in your life. This is generally done by keeping a gratitude diary, and spending five minutes at the end of the day writing down anything you feel grateful for and fully remembering it. Remember the teflon/velcro analogy for positive/negative experiences? It takes around five minutes of consciously remembering a positive experience for it to fully register. Using this time at the end of the day to remember these experiences then sets a foundation for your state of mind as you go to sleep and wake up. You might incorporate into this practice consciously remembering any compliments you have received and taking time to take them in fully.

Giving Compliments

As you begin to receive compliments fully you might like to make it a practice to give compliments consciously. I’ll sometimes say to someone on the tube or in a que or who is serving me at a counter or till that I like something about them – their nail varnish, the clothes they are wearing etc. And people often brighten with a smile and say thank you. It’s started some interesting conversations as well! But if you feel too self-conscious to do this with strangers, notice if you do it with friends or family and if there is a way you can give a compliment without feeling you need anything back in return, simply as a way of appreciating them. As you get this flavour of giving a compliment out of a genuine appreciation of the other person you might find it easier to receive one.

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