Why is it so hard to accept compliments?

Tell me I’m not the only one…

Today, I was meeting with another professional for the purpose of networking. He told me that he had looked at my website and complimented me on the design and material. Instead of politely and humbly thanking him for his compliment and positive feedback, I noticed myself rolling my eyes and responding with, “Thanks, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing when I put it together!”

Not only did I not accept the compliment graciously, I know I did not sound the most professional either. It was like my rational brain went offline when I was paid a compliment. Why and how did this happen?

Granted, my response was the truth – I don’t have a clue about web design. I set up my entire website using a tutorial that came with the template for the site. I’ve never written code – I barely understand what code is. And yet, I’ve received more compliments on my website that I somewhat blindly put together than I have on anything else I’ve ever produced or written.

Acknowledging in writing not only the fact that I’ve received compliments on my site, but that I’ve received multiple compliments, is making my palms sweaty. I should be elated that the hours I spent in numerous coffee shops around the city drowning my anxiety and frustration with technology in copious amounts of caffeine and sugary pastries paid off and that people are impressed.

So, why does my keyboard wear a glisten of sweat as I type? Why do I feel like the Bashful from Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs sharing that I’ve received compliments with the world?

I asked a couple of friends if they have difficulty accepting compliments, and their responses resonated with me.

Friend #1 said: “Yes! Specifically in person. It makes me uncomfortable and I can’t make eye contact. I love getting them in writing though. And if I had to guess, I’d say it’s because I didn’t grow up in a family that ever really praised you to your face in that way. So I just don’t know how to deal with it.”

Friend #2: “I would say no…when I was younger I did. But I’ve learned to say thank you and believe them. To be honest, I know I believe lies about myself inwardly so I equate receiving compliments from others as words of affirmation which has slowly become one of my love languages.”

I turned to various articles to see how they explained the difficulty of accepting compliments and here’s what I found:

  • Our openness to receiving compliments can reflect our self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. Dr. Guy Winch writes: “compliments can make people with low self-esteem feel uncomfortable because they contradict their own self-views.” This certainly fits my example of being complimented on my website – I view my site as the product of hours of frustration and feeling stupid. No wonder I can’t see it how others see it! I want to be more like my Friend #2, who has slowly learned to believe others’ good words to her that contradict her internal negative self-talk, that she’s come to identify as lies. Compliments can also make us feel pressured to live up to high expectations. According to Dr. Winch, if we have low self-esteem and self-trust, we may fear that we won’t be able to live up to the standard that the compliment implies, and we’ll disappoint the one who gave us the compliment. Thankfully, I don’t think my networking partner is expecting me to drop counseling to become a web designer anytime soon. But I’ve noticed when someone has complimented me on my listening skills, empathy, or even my outfit, I feel compelled to live up to that praise. They may think more highly of me in some area than I think of myself, and I want their perception to be my reality. Which leads me to…
  • We’re out of practice with accepting compliments because we don’t compliment ourselves! Blogger Rachel Yahne writes: “If we complimented ourselves more, we’d be more willing to take compliments from others. Not only would we be better equipped to react and accept compliments, we’d actually realize there are traits about us worthy of complimenting.”
  • We want to be humble. Author Amy Morin points out that, for some people, accepting compliments “can sometimes feel more like a superiority complex, rather than a graceful acknowledgment.” This could be a result of what we were taught about accepting praise in our families growing up. Or maybe a past experience when we were told we were bragging, and we’ve become hyperaware of how we handle our positive traits and accomplishments.

So besides working on my sense of self-esteem and considering how I was trained to respond to compliments growing up, how can I learn to and practice accepting compliments?

Dr. Winch cites a study in which researchers asked participants with low self-esteem to reframe a compliment given to them by their significant other “in abstract terms and discuss what it meant to them and what significance it had in their relationship.” As a result, participants were able to accept their partners’ compliments and feel more positively about themselves and their relationship.

So, here’s my attempt at reframing my networking partner’s compliment of my website, namely, the imagery used:

Networking partner’s attention was caught by the beautiful images of nature displayed on the homepage of my website, and therefore, was inspired to further explore the site and read about the services that I provide. This is significant to me because when I was choosing pictures for my website, I purposely selected images that conveyed beauty and growth, since that is what I want my practice to be about. So, what my networking partner’s compliment means to me is that I succeeded in choosing images that capture people’s attention because the pictures are beautiful, which inspires them to read on about my practice. What the compliment means about my relationship with this networking partner is that this networking partner “got” my website and may “get” me and what my practice is all about.

Morin points out that even if we feel awkward or uncomfortable accepting a compliment, our behavior does not have to appear awkward. She recommends a simple, “Thank you,” and resisting the urge to criticize yourself, while being sure to “share the limelight if someone assisted you in your success.”

I am a huge believer in the power of validation (see that blog post here: The Power of Validation). I’ve come to realize that when I refuse to accept another person’s compliment, I’m actually kind of invalidating their experience! My networking partner experienced my website as visually intriguing and informative. Am I going to invalidate his experience of my website by claiming it’s the product of stupidity? Am I going to invalidate my own experience – the hours of hard work and tears of frustration that went into the process of creating something that others have enjoyed and benefited from? Am I going to invalidate the gifts and resources the Lord has given me to communicate what it is I feel he has called me to communicate? I really don’t want to. Instead, I want to revel in others’ compliments of me – not because I want others’ opinions to define me or because I want to feel superior or better than anyone else, but because their compliments represent the knowledge and experience they have of interacting with me. Isn’t that what we all want anyway? For others to feel good when they’re interacting with us?

January 24 is National Compliment Day. Let this day be a day of posting uplifting and inspiring memes on social media and complimenting each other, but more than that – let it be a reminder to us that we are worthy of compliments and that it’s okay (and healthy!) to accept them.

 

https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/fun/compliment-day

Morin, A. (2016, June 20). 4 reasons compliments make you uncomfortable. Inc. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/compliments-make-you-cringe-science-explains-the-reasons-why.html

Winch, G. (2013, August 27). Why some people hate receiving compliments. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201308/why-some-people-hate-receiving-compliments

Yahne, R. (2016, June 21). The scary reason you can’t accept a compliment. Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/rachael-yahne/the-scary-reason-you-cant_b_10580720.html

About Abundant Life Counseling St. Louis

Julie Williamson is the Founder and Therapist of Abundant Life Counseling St. Louis LLC. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor, National Certified Counselor, and Registered Play Therapist. She enjoys working with adults and adolescents facing the challenges of depression, anxiety, relationships, spiritual struggles, and life transitions.