Do you struggle to accept compliments? When someone says something nice to you, do you wince, blurt out an awkward reply or swat the compliment away like it’s a fly that’s trying to land on you? You’re not alone. Many people have trouble receiving compliments. Even though we, as humans, really desire praise and positive feedback, when we finally get it, we have trouble accepting the very thing that we wanted!
Sometimes when I tell a client how far they’ve come, or that they did a good job completing a goal, they go into the “compliment overwhelm” zone where they do one of the things I described above. The most common answer is, “Oh, it was nothing!” which negates the compliment completely. Or another frequent reply is, “There were some parts I didn’t do well,” which adds an insult to yourself on top of the compliment. Some people instantly brush off the compliment and then immediately list a worry about a different topic, which stops them from connecting with the positive feeling the compliment should bring, and also makes the compliment-giver ask themselves, “Did they hear me?”
Sometimes, this response comes from our upbringing. I know I grew up thinking that I should always be humble and that I shouldn’t make other people feel bad by talking about my own accomplishments. Whether this was directly stated to me or not, it seemed to be the behavior the adults around me were demonstrating a lot of the time, so that’s what stuck. Some clients tell me that they were raised to think it’s obnoxious to talk about things you’ve done. When pressed, they will admit that they themselves don’t act obnoxious, so they’re not sure why they fear becoming this so much.
Over time, if we consistently deny ourselves the chance to feel proud of what we’ve done in life, out of a vague unexamined notion that we are making others unhappy, we might develop low self-esteem. Generally, I find that when people are genuinely feeling good about themselves, they are more positive, kind and generous to those around them. They aren’t actively trying to make other people feel bad. It’s usually the opposite!
As parents, it can be beneficial to our kids to model for them how to give and accept compliments in a healthy way. We can also watch how we speak about other peoples’ accomplishments in front of our kids, so that they learn that it’s OK to let other people feel proud of what they’ve done, too.
So, how do we start accepting compliments in a healthier way?
Count to three before you respond.
If you have a habit of swatting away compliments or negating them with self-deprecating talk, count to three mentally after you receive one. Let there be a short silence before you decide to say, “thank you.” The silence can be truly uncomfortable for some, but it will help you learn to respond in a more positive way. Sit with the feeling. Then, choose to respond.
Say “thank you” and then send a compliment back.
When someone gives you a compliment, generally they’re trying to give you a positive boost. Saying thank you acknowledges their positivity. Then you can decide, if you want, to add to the moment by sending a compliment back to the person who gave one to you. This increases the positive feelings for both people.
Connect with the feeling of success.
I have found that most of us don’t allow ourselves to connect with our successes very often, if at all. If you finish a task or a goal, sit with the feeling. Feel proud of yourself. Feel relieved it’s over. Really, really feel the feeling. Then, when someone compliments you, you’ve already felt the feeling and hearing it won’t feel as weird to you anymore.
Give yourself more praise, more often.
Part of the reason that compliments feel so uncomfortable is that most of us are battling our inner critics for most of the day. Our inner critics say so many negative things, that it can be confusing for us to hear the opposite coming from someone else. Lighten up a little on yourself! Tell yourself kinder, gentler things more of the time.
Practice gratitude on a daily basis.
Many scientific studies have shown that practicing gratitude is good for our brains and bodies. Feel grateful for little things throughout your day. Feel grateful for yourself and for the kindness of other people more often. Keep a gratitude or appreciation journal. Practice seeing the world with kindness and you will be better able to navigate receiving kindness.
Remind yourself: It’s just communication.
Compliments are just one way that humans communicate with each other. It’s really nothing to feel strange about when you look at it that way.
So, the next time someone tells you that you did a good job, don’t of argue with them about why that it isn’t true. Count to three, feel grateful and say thank you. Then, send some positivity back into the world and let yourself ride out the positive feeling a little longer.
Risa Williams (www.risawilliams.com) is a licensed psychotherapist, wellness writer, professor and a mom of two. Her book, “The Ultimate Anxiety Toolkit,” will be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in 2021. You can read more of her self-esteem tips on IG @risawilliamstherapy.