Why Is It So Hard To Take A Compliment?

Explore the psychology behind our instinctive behaviour of shutting down and denying compliments and learn how to accept and respond to future such praises with grace and gratitude.

We all seek acknowledgement, appreciation, and affirmation for our deeds, progress, and achievements. But when someone finally pays us a compliment, we act all weird. Watch this two-minute video by the Hollywood Beauty Detective, and you may find a mirror image of yourself—reacting the same uncomfortable way to compliments.

If you spend enough time listening to coffee shop conversations, you’d notice that all around us, compliments offered are swiftly shut down. We instinctively push away praises like sweeping crumbs off the table. We even take the opportunity to point out our flaws before someone else does or resort to making up something to compliment the other person back—when it all could have been a simple smile and “Thank you”.

Exposing Compliment-Denying Tactics

According to the authors of Happy Together: Using Positive Psychology to Build Love that Lasts, there are three common ways people respond to compliments without truly accepting them.

Compliment: “Hey, that’s a nice haircut!”

  • Deflecting: Brushing the compliment aside. (“You think? It’s really just a regular haircut. Nothing special.)
  • Reciprocating: Casting a compliment back immediately. (“Thanks, and I love how you styled your hair.”)
  • Discounting: Criticising yourself post-compliment. (“Thanks, but I wish the sides could be longer to cover my chubby face.”).
Scholarship Guide Why Is It So Hard to Take a Compliment? rain

Why Are We Such Wet Blankets?

“I shouldn’t boast too much.”

Some cultures stress the demonstration of humility and modesty more than others. In our upbringing, we may have been taught to put the needs of others above ours and that the act of enjoying admiration of oneself makes a proud, conceited person. As a result, we feel embarrassed and shame in receiving praises, and we do all we can to dismiss them or may even overcompensate by bringing our flaws into the spotlight—almost to say, “Hey look, I’m not as good as you think.”

“How do I know if the praise is sincere?”

The world has trained us to be cynical. We are taught to question facts, and in this case, the compliment-giver’s motive. We worry that they must be wanting something from us in return. Accepting the compliment may also imply that we should care about what they think, giving the compliment-giver power over us.

So we scramble to come up with a returning compliment because we feel like we owe them something and need to pay them back quickly. Even if it is a made-up one at the last minute that may sound insincere, we feel that it is probably okay to patronise an insincere compliment with another, thus snowballing a vicious cycle of superficial, phoney praises for one another.

“I don’t see myself that way, so it must not be true.”

Someone says to you, “Great job on that presentation today!” And you reply, “Really? I felt it was a train wreck!” And you meant it.

You may feel undeserving of the compliment because it does not correspond with how you feel about yourself. When we have deeper issues with our self-esteem and are unable to see the positive qualities in ourselves, we cannot fathom how others may see those qualities in us.

A Lose-Lose Outcome

By dismissing the compliments, we insult the compliment-giver by implying that they are liars or have poor judgement. We also deny ourselves the very thing that could make us feel good. We put a damper on the entire gratitude interaction, and in the end, no one wins. Why do we do this to ourselves?

Scholarship Guide Why Is It So Hard to Take a Compliment? Smile

Learn How to Accept a Compliment

A Simple “Thank You”

Accepting a compliment should not be stressful. Try the basic “Thank you” with a smile. If you must, you can add, “I appreciate it. It means a lot to me.” There is no need to say more or justify your gratitude.

Share How It Makes You Feel

Once you have mastered the basic thanks, you can try elaborating on how the compliment makes you feel. This offers the compliment-giver positive reinforcement to know that their effort is appreciated, and their words are a welcome lift to someone’s day, encouraging them to continue to be generous in praising others.

Keeping Tabs of The Nice Things You’ve Heard About Yourself

If you have a hard time receiving compliments because of self-doubts, write it down every time you receive one. In doing so, you give the compliment time to settle in, and you can bask in that warm feeling of a job well done. It is also a great way to remind yourself of the positive qualities that others see in you.

Silence Your Inner Critic & Give Honest Compliments

Stop trying to find faults and motives. Learn to trust others (in that they are genuine in their compliments) and trust yourself (to be capable of delivering what you have to show for). A great way to start is by giving sincere compliments to others the way you would love others to do the same to you. Knowing that compliments can come from a genuine place, you can then be more comfortable accepting them. 

Help Others Accept a Compliment

Wouldn’t it be nice if the other person could tell you a bit more about why they like your new haircut or why they think that your presentation was a success? The reasons and the specifics can help you understand why you deserve the kind words. As such, the next time someone tries to shut down a compliment you are giving them, you know how to convince them.

Let us all start the ball rolling and be a catalyst to a world of more genuine gratitude interactions!