Why Is Accepting A Compliment So Difficult?

Experts say it’s a self-esteem issue.

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When someone pays you a compliment, such as praising you for a job well done or acknowledging a unique talent you have, it's supposed to feel good, right? After all, Karen Donaldson, a certified confidence coach and communication and body language expert, says we all seek recognition and want to know we're appreciated. However, being on the receiving end of a compliment can feel downright uncomfortable for many. So, as a result, "we dismiss it, deny it, downplay it, change the subject altogether, or simply shut it down," Donaldson says.

According to Tess Brigham, a psychotherapist and certified life coach, low self-worth is a big reason why receiving a compliment can be challenging to accept and believe. "This is referred to as cognitive dissonance, which is the discomfort experienced when two thoughts or ideas or values are incompatible with each other, i.e., holding two distinct beliefs," she explains. "If you don't believe in yourself and your ability to do something when someone compliments or praises you, then it's impossible for you to accept the compliment or praise because you don't believe it to be true."

Thankfully, even if compliments make you cringe, there are things you can do to strengthen your receiving muscle and build up your self-worth. Donaldson says it is safe to shine, and learning how to accept a compliment with grace demonstrates self-confidence. Here’s how to start.

Own Your Value

“Our culture teaches young people, especially young women, to be modest and demure and that it's bad to be ‘full of yourself,’” Brigham says. “So when someone compliments you it can feel like you're making a ‘mistake’ by not deflecting or making up a reason why you really don't deserve any praise.”

To this, Donaldson’s advice is to let go of modesty and the fear of outshining others and know that accepting a compliment doesn’t make you come off as conceited. “There’s no need to downplay the great things that you do well or who you are,” she says. “It’s OK to be really good at something and know it. Be good. Be great. Be incredible. Own it.”

Don't Interrupt The Compliment

Donaldson also advises against brushing off a kind word as if it’s no big deal. A compliment, however small, she says, is a big deal, and it's important to acknowledge it and allow the person to express their gratitude towards you or what you've done without interrupting them by saying it was nothing. Instead, when someone is commending you, Donaldson recommends actively listening and receiving the praise.

Just Say Thank You

Sometimes, Donaldson says, the uncomfortable feeling that comes up when receiving praise isn't triggered by the comment itself but rather by not knowing how to best respond. The best approach, she says, is to keep it super simple with a "thank you" or “I appreciate it."

Beyond that, there's no need to share an excuse or deflect a compliment. Doing so can impact your sense of self-worth. "If every time someone compliments you, you make an excuse, that belief gets stronger and more powerful because it's your current reality,” Brigham says. “By stopping yourself from making an excuse or a reason why you don't deserve the praise, you're practicing not only how to receive praise, but also challenging your negative beliefs about yourself."

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Challenge Your Negative Thinking

"The most powerful voice is the voice inside your head, which means, if you're not loving and kind towards yourself, it doesn't matter what anyone else says to you," Brigham says. This is one of the biggest reasons why it can feel uncomfortable to receive a compliment for some people.

To remedy this, Brigham recommends becoming more aware of the negative things you say to yourself regularly and replacing them with words you'd speak to someone you love and care about. For instance, she shares, if you catch yourself thinking you're stupid for making a mistake, stop and think what you would say to a loved one in the same scenario and say that to yourself.

Practice Praising Yourself

Getting comfortable receiving compliments from other people begins with getting comfortable praising yourself. "Each time you do something you're proud of, take a moment and commend yourself on a job well-done," Brigham says. "It's really important to celebrate our wins for our sense of self and to help stay motivated and excited to take on new challenges."

See It As A Benefit For Both Parties

Lastly, it can also be helpful to look at the compliment from the giver’s perspective too. Donaldson points out that fully receiving praise is an opportunity for both you and the person paying you a compliment to feel good. "When someone expresses or receives gratitude, the happy hormones — serotonin and dopamine — are released," she explains. So you undermining the compliment or brushing it off as if it was nothing, robs you both of that joy.