Why Is It So Hard to Accept a Compliment?
Practicing how to receive praise can strengthen your relationships.
Posted Dec 04, 2018
Gratitude seems to be a popular buzzword these days, but nearly all of the focus is on the importance of expressing gratitude. This is certainly an important concept. However, for optimal relational well-being, it’s equally important to know how to receive gratitude.
Why do so many people have difficulty accepting gratitude? We have spoken about this question around the world and found that it resonates with individuals in every country that we have visited. We discovered that the majority of people tend to see gratitude as a scarce commodity. If they receive it, there won’t be enough to go around. We think part of the reason may be cultural, because we are often taught to be modest and not focus on ourselves.
Sadly, many people tend to shut down what we call the "dance of gratitude." When we shut down the dance, we are inadvertently preventing love and praise from entering our beings. It’s like closing the door on someone and stopping them from entering our home, and ultimately, our heart.
One of us (Suzie) has a tough time receiving gratitude. Just last night, after trying out a new recipe for curried lentils, James remarked how delicious the lentils were. Instead of graciously accepting his compliment, Suzie automatically retorted with: “Well, it didn’t taste as flavorful as I had hoped. Something was missing. Maybe I should have added something additional. Perhaps if I would have bought fresh curry powder it would have tasted better. Next time, I’ll go out and purchase fresh spices rather than using what I had in the cabinet.”
James immediately repeated his initial compliment, “Suzie, the lentils were delicious,” in an attempt to emphasize how much he liked them — and to remind her that he was expressing his thanks.
Suzie recently became aware that she doesn’t naturally accept gratitude well. And she has been working on receiving gratitude better for a while now. She has been getting better, but occasionally falters. She has to regularly remind herself how to respond. It takes practice.
Suzie is far from alone; many others have difficulty receiving praise. We have found that people typically respond to gratitude in one of three unhealthy ways:
When given compliments, many of us tend to deflect them, brushing them off like we might a crumb or a pesky fly. Perhaps we are communicating that there was really no ground for the other person’s gratitude in the first place.
Vulnerability appears to play a big part when it comes to the challenge of receiving compliments well. We are often afraid of showing our true colors, everything that makes us human, imperfections and all. Many of us are afraid to have the spotlight shine on ourselves solely for that reason. Additionally, if we open ourselves up to love and gratitude, we also risk opening ourselves up to everything else that can go with it, like pain and loss.
Another common way of responding to gratitude is reciprocation. Before the compliment even has time to land, the other person immediately launches into his or her own expression of gratitude. We refer to this as the “hot potato” response, because it reminds us of the popular childhood game in which the goal is to catch a ball and throw it back to someone as quickly as possible.
This type of response feels very transactional. We feel that if someone “pays” us a compliment we have to “pay” them back right away. Again, vulnerability comes into play here. It’s natural to feel vulnerable if we find ourselves in someone’s debt. If we aren’t comfortable with it, we may try to repay (or “hot potato”) the debt back as quickly as possible.
This is when we give all the reasons why a compliment can’t be received, and sometimes the reasons can be quite detailed. For example, when James complimented Suzie on the delicious curried lentils, she went into detail on all the reasons why the meal wasn’t as tasty as it could have been. Her complaints knocked the wind out of James’s sails, and could have caused him to not want to compliment her again. What started out as a positive interaction quickly morphed into a somewhat negative exchange.
Discounting is a popular and unhealthy habit. It’s as if the person receiving the compliment needs to come clean and mention all their problems first, before they are pointed out. Why can’t we just be open to receive without emphasizing the problems with the praise?
To help others learn how to create and practice healthy habits, we developed an Interaction Model in which we show people positive ways to receive gratitude and compliments well. The three steps are acceptance, amplify, and advance.
In brief, accept is when you simply accept, rather than deflect, by saying a genuine thank you while looking directly into the other person’s eyes. Amplify is when you savor the praise, take it in and let it permeate throughout your body. Advance is when you engage by asking questions and using the opportunity to connect.
For example, Suzie could have said to James, "What exactly about the meal did you enjoy?” James may have replied with how he enjoyed the curry spice, which reminded him of his trip to India years ago, when he camped out on a mountain top. This information would have propelled the light exchange into a deeper conversation and given them a chance to connect on a more meaningful level, ultimately strengthening their bond.
How do you typically respond to gratitude?
Do you receive praise well and accept, amplify, or advance? Or do you tend to deflect, reciprocate, or discount? Remember that receiving gratitude well is a skill that can be learned. Practicing the dance of gratitude will help you and your partner move more gracefully throughout life and increase your individual and relational happiness.
Pileggi Pawelski, S & Pawelski, J. (2018) Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcherPerigee.