Compliments: Why do we struggle to accept them? How to overcome it?

Have you ever received a compliment from someone and felt uncomfortable – like you don’t know how to respond or what to do? And you just end up either brushing it off or giving a shy and quiet “thank you”? You are definitely not alone. 

Of course, this does not apply to all people in the world. There are individuals who know how to accept compliments. They will reply with a confident “thank you” and own it. However, from my personal experience, about 9/10 of people don’t know how to accept a compliment. 

But why? Someone is praising us or saying something good about us and we don’t like hearing it? We tend to seek other people’s approval. We want to receive approval or praise from others, but when we do, we feel uncomfortable. Interesting, isn’t it? 

But before we dive into the reasons for not being able to accept compliments, let’s look at the typical behaviours that can be observed in a person, who doesn’t know how to take a compliment. Do any of these apply to you? 

  • You make a joke to diffuse an uncomfortable situation.
  • You immediately compliment the other person and give them all of the credit. You pretend that they did all of the work and should take all of the credit for it.
  • You change the subject without responding to the compliment.
  • You pretend like what you accomplished was “nothing”. That you were just doing what needed to be done. 
  • You start giving the other person reasons why you think you are not great or why the compliment is not true. 

If you have observed one or more of these behaviours in yourself, you are probably intrigued now. You are asking yourself the question: “Why do I do that?” 

5 reasons for your inability to accept a compliment.

These reasons are based on research and my conclusions that stem from different sources.

No. 1. Many people feel that being confident about yourself, your abilities and accepting compliments will be interpreted as arrogance. The sad reality is that often our society confuses self-assurance with arrogance. I think that it is one of the reasons why we attempt to be as modest as possible. We are afraid of being confident. We are scared that people will perceive it as arrogance and we will be disliked. 

No 2. Low self-esteem. A person with a low self esteem doesn’t think highly of themselves. They think that they are weak and pathetic or that they are not likeable. They have usually implanted this idea so deep in their brain that it is impossible for other people to change their mind. The only person who can do that is them. When a person with low self-esteem is complimented they will most likely think that the other person is lying. 

No 3. Cognitive Dissonance. Cognitive Dissonance is a mental discomfort. It occurs when there are thoughts, attitudes, values that are not compatible. For example, you love animals, but you are still eating their meat. You will most likely experience Cognitive Dissonance: you feel guilty eating meat (even though you love animals). Same with compliments. If you have a bad opinion about yourself and someone says something nice about you – there is incompatibility. 

No 4. High expectations. In general, expectations are unhealthy. They put pressure on you. As a result, you experience stress and it may lead to low self-esteem. Setting high expectations means that you will feel like you are never enough and you can always do better. 

This is one of the aspects of personal growth that I am working on a lot at the moment. People are giving me compliments on how good I am doing (in a professional and personal sense), but I constantly feel that I can do better. It is never enough and it stresses me out. I have slowly started to accept that I am doing more than enough. I am learning to live without expectations. 

No 5. Your upbringing. An environment where you haven’t received a lot of gratitude or praise. You have never felt good about yourself, because no one praised you or expected a lot from you. 

I can relate to this factor to an extent. Even though it was never as bad as it may be for some other people, I still felt it growing up. I was always told that I can do better. I felt a lot of pressure from my family regarding what kind of life I should live. I think that is why I was trained to think that no matter what you do, you can always do better or be better. 

The art of accepting a compliment. 

In most cases a simple “thank you” is the most appropriate response to a compliment. This simple answer won’t make you look like an arrogant person, trust me. However, replying to a compliment with “I know” could make you come across as a self-centred and arrogant person. 

But it is easier said than done. To be able to accept a compliment, you have to work on yourself first. Try to identify which of the factors mentioned previously might be the reason for you to feel uncomfortable when hearing a compliment. 

If you don’t want to come across as an arrogant person…

You have to recognise that accepting someone saying something good about you won’t look arrogant in any way. Especially if your reply is polite and respectful. I am working on a blog post about the difference between arrogance and confidence. You will be able to read more about it when it is published. 

If you have low self-esteem…

In this case, it is very straightforward – you have to work on your self-esteem. It can be done in different ways. It is another blog post I am working on at the moment. You will be able to read more about it when it is published. But one piece of advice that I want to give you now: never depend on other people to increase your self-esteem. You are automatically giving them the power to lower it too. Self-esteem has to be developed without any external influence. 

If it is an issue of Cognitive Dissonance…

Cognitive Dissonance is something that everyone experiences at some point in their lives (similar to anxiety symptoms). It is a discomfort that you feel when you are facing contradiction. It can be a contradiction in values, attitudes, thoughts. For example, in this case, you may be thinking low of yourself and when someone praises you, it is incompatible with your own opinion about yourself. Similar to the self-esteem point, you have to work on your self-confidence and self-esteem. If you have a positive opinion about yourself and you receive a compliment, there will be no contradiction anymore. 

If it is high expectations…

You may have set unreasonably high expectations for yourself of what kind of person you want to be or what you aspire to achieve. When someone compliments you, you are most likely thinking that it is not enough. That you could have done more or better. Expectations are unhealthy. They create pressure. People who live without expectations are happier because they don’t experience this pressure and are not disappointed if they fail or do worse than expected. 

If it is your upbringing…

Depending on different factors, in this case, I suggest seeking professional help. These are feelings or thoughts that have been rooted in you for basically your whole life and it means that it won’t be easy to resolve these by yourself. Talking to the person who caused these feelings may be useful, but that alone will not solve everything. It may even put you in a vulnerable position – they can negatively influence you as they did in your childhood. 

My final thoughts.

Learning to accept compliments is vital for having healthy relationships with other people and in order to grow your self-confidence. The first step in this process is to identify what is the cause of your inability to take a compliment. When you have worked on that, you will feel less or no discomfort and will be able to reply to your next compliment with a confident “thank you”!