Why Can't You Accept a Compliment?

The pain of feeling like an imposter reflects an inability to trust others.

Posted Mar 09, 2018

Stockfour/Shutterstock
Source: Stockfour/Shutterstock

Do you find it hard to accept a compliment? Is your first reaction to think, "Wow, I didn’t realize they had such low standards!" "She’s only saying that to be nice," or "He can’t be paying proper attention"? 

A little modesty is a fine thing, but some of us have these self-deprecating reactions constantly. We find it difficult to acknowledge our professional success or our achievements at school, or we fret about our ability to hit the same heights the next time we’re tested. When this reaction forms a distressing, recurring pattern of thought, it embodies a type of imposter syndrome.

People who suffer from imposter syndrome are often given self-help advice by well-meaning friends or mentors. Talk to others around you, remember that everyone feels this way occasionally, keep a file of the thank-yous and compliments you receive. Try to resist perfectionism. These tips may be helpful, so long as you don’t start to feel inadequate about not being able to "fix" yourself.

But that can’t be the whole story. We also need to think collectively about what makes our schools and workplaces such fertile breeding grounds for imposter syndrome. Are there changes we could all make which would help everyone feel appropriate pride in their achievements?

For me, it helps to think about this question in terms of trust and distrust. People who struggle with imposter syndrome place too much trust in their own low opinion of their actions and achievements. Yet at the same time, they are too distrustful of other people’s good opinions, preferring to see these as evidence of false reassurance or poor judgement.

Weirdly, this means that there are some parallels between the thought patterns of people who suffer from imposter syndrome and the thinking which underlies conspiracy theorizing. Let me say right away that there are also crucial differences between the two. Imposter feelings turn inwards, whilst conspiracy theories target the outside world of government, big business, or both. Imposter feelings can be a real source of anxiety and distress; some conspiracy theorists also suffer in this way, but others seem to draw strength and energy from their worldview.

But what self-classifying "imposters" and conspiracy theorists have in common is a selective, heightened attitude of distrust in standard sources of information, which other people regard as reliable, along with a heightened trust in their own ability to judge what’s really going on. 

Someone who suffers from imposter syndrome distrusts the evaluations, exams, and professional feedback which label her a success. She explains all this away, seeing those who praise her as either gullible fools or well-meaning liars, who can’t or won’t acknowledge her "real’ inadequacies. This painful frame of mind and the guilt of "getting away with it' involves an inability to trust in the judgements of others, paradoxically combined with an over-confidence in her own low self-opinion.

For different reasons, and with a different focus, the conspiracy theorist also distrusts standard sources of information, including official statements and mass media, rejecting their picture of the world around us. All this is explained away as "just what they want you to think," the product of either blinkered ignorance or malicious lies. Conspiracy theorists distrust external sources, yet have an over-confidence in their own ability to discern the real truth about society.

So what does this analogy tell us about how to alleviate imposter syndrome? We know from painful experience that it is tough to talk conspiracy theorists out of their views by pointing to standard sources of information: that’s exactly what they question. Likewise, we should not be optimistic about getting self-classifying "imposters" to simply snap out of it, to take seriously the compliments and credit they are offered. Instead, we need to think about why people don’t trust standard sources of information, what draws them towards alternative explanations, whether everybody really does have access to the same evidence. Conspiracy theories will flourish where people see discrepancies between media reports and their own lives. Likewise, imposter feelings will flourish where people encounter praise or compliments that do not sit comfortably with their everyday experiences of being valued — or not — in school or the workplace.