Can You Accept a Compliment?

Praise can make us feel uneasy.

Posted Mar 21, 2016

You may want to receive a compliment from someone you value. But can you accept it? Praise, admiration, or appreciation may be difficult to embrace, regardless of how much you desire or seek it. Compliments may be deemed as insincere, they may not correspond with how you feel about yourself, you may dread the spotlight shining on you, or you may experience shame about your enjoyment in hearing something positive about yourself.

Your upbringing or culture, in addition, may influence the acceptance of admiration. Within the realm of your family and cultural values, modesty, for example, may be a virtue or mandate. The emotions we have learned to experience in modesty, which involve the comingling of interest-enjoyment with shame, are also found in shyness—a response similar to what is felt by children who, upon encountering a stranger, hide behind a caregiver while peering out with interest.[i] In this regard, shame is not felt as toxic. Instead it signals a diminishing of positive emotion that is felt as a bodily presence which one doesn't mind, and is akin to perceiving and accepting a limitation of oneself. At the perceptual level, it's accepting what is presented.[ii]

However, just because you receive a compliment, it may not be what you think. Some people compliment others because they believe it is what is expected or because they would like to receive a complement in return. Humans are motivated to savor and maximize positive emotions—to enjoy good feeling--and they do whatever will maintain it.[iii] Compliments can activate positive feelings and therefore they are a common social exchange. Yet praise can also be used defensively: The person praising you, or withholding praise, may be vulnerable and seeking power or control. If the evaluation of your self-esteem is in their hands, your wish for future compliments puts them on the upside of power.

Both shame and pride about competence, efficacy, or appearance become integrated into our personal identity and self-image, and help us define ourselves in relation to other people.[iv] Often people allude to their self-image as an ultimate judge regarding a compliment; that is, one’s low self-esteem may be blamed for the refusal to accept praise.  If you have a deflated sense of self-worth, you will be highly sensitive to criticism and slights because you are internally vulnerable. As well, you may be unable to accept a compliment. In 3 studies of people who doubted their value and resisted positive feedback from their romantic partners, researchers found that “abstract meaning manipulation;” namely, encouraging the participants to describe the meaning and significance of the compliments and reframe affirmations, enabled them to feel more positively about the compliments, about themselves, and about their relationships.[v] The authors of the study concluded that self-protective motives, such as concerns about acceptance, interfere with promoting the value of the partner and the relationship. Thus, increasing the internal security of people with low self-esteem enabled them to value their relationships and their partners more highly. Whether the effects remained beyond the indicated two week period is a matter for further study. Yet it is worth taking into account how you receive a compliment from a romantic partner, and possibly consider how you might reframe the affirmation as meaningful.

Nevertheless, the concept of self-esteem has been trivialized by misconceptions. The notion of promoting self-esteem, for example, has become a catchphrase in popular culture, along with the idea that superficial emotional support, such as praise and compliments, can augment the self-esteem of others. Child-rearing and educational systems are based on external evaluations of accomplishment and worth. Although children may feel more motivated to learn when they gain the approval of a parent or an admired teacher for performing well, generalized approval that ignores reality may be a deterrent; in fact, it may even promote unhealthy development in children. Providing positive reactions or praise to someone for trivial accomplishments (or for qualities that have little to do with their own efforts) can foster illusion, self-deception, and feelings of fraudulence.[vi]

In order to regulate your self-esteem, you may depend on external sources, such as gaining acceptance from those you love by seeking affirming remarks from them. However, an extreme reliance on external sources to make you feel good about yourself puts you in a very vulnerable position. Excessive reassurance-seeking, defined as the tendency to ask other people for reassurance of worth, unfortunately was found to be a specific vulnerability factor for depression.[vii] If this is the case, recognize your behavior as providing you with important information: It may indicate a need to take a look at your relationship with yourself.

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[i] Gary F. David, Ph.D., Personal communication May 2015.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Tomkins, S.S. (1962/1963). Affect Imagery Consciousness. New York, NY: Springer.

[iv] Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

[v] Marigold, D.; Holmes, J.; & Ross, M. (2007). More than words: reframing compliments from romantic partners fosters security in low self-esteem individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 232-248.

[vi] McWilliams, N. (1999) Psychoanalytic case formulation. New York: Guilford Press.

[vii] Joiner, T. & Metalsky, G. (2001). Excessive reassurance seeking: Delineating a risk factor involved in the development of symptoms. Psychological Science, 12, 371-380.