Most people give compliments because they want to express genuine appreciation, validate your feelings or achievements, or strengthen a common bond. But if you’re like most people, you probably cringe and say something awkward in response.
According to the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, two-thirds of the time Americans respond to compliments by doing something other than accepting them. We use a few well-practiced strategies for deflection. For instance, if we’re told “Nice jacket!” we might:
a) shift the focus: “I just borrowed it from my brother”
b) question the compliment: “Do you really like it?”
c) completely downplay it all: “This ugly thing? It makes me look fat!”
Comedian Amy Schumer demonstrates all of these in an infamous skit about a group of women who keep denying their friends’ praise. But being self-deprecating in the face of praise is not limited to women’s social interactions. Compliments put both men and women in what researchers call “the politeness double-bind.” If you politely agree, your response can be interpreted as arrogance. If you deflect, you may seem modest. “It’s kind of an orchestrated dance,” says Anne Zell, a social psychologist at Augustana University.
We’re taught from a young age to be modest and humble, Zell says. We’re also taught that we must avoid external displays of pride or superiority. That’s why, when someone is boasting on your behalf, sometimes the socially appropriate response is to rebuff the attention. It’s all about convincing others that we’re not conceited or in competition with them.
“Compliments are in a large part a judgement base,” says Allison Shaw, a communication researcher from the University at Buffalo. “I see something, I evaluate it, and I tell you about that evaluation.” Many of us are uncomfortable with that kind of spotlight.
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A compliment implies that you’re being watched closely on your performance, outfit, or some other aspect of your behavior. You can expect to be evaluated when you’re at work or on a date, but getting a compliment that you don’t expect in that context—a comment from your coworker about your outfit, a catcall from a stranger on your way to get groceries, or a reference to your superior skills made by a friend—can feel like a violation of intimacy, Shaw says.
A compliment can also feel like it’s setting you up for really high expectations. You may reject praise if you’re afraid you won’t be able to live up to it. In one study, for example, researchers found that praise from relationship partners made people worried that they might end up disappointing their partner. Reframing the same compliments so they were more abstract helped reduce that insecurity.
“A lot of the time people who respond poorly to compliments have poor self-esteem,” says Guy Winch, a psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts. People try to verify their perceptions of themselves, whether positive or negative, he says. Psychologists demonstrated this mental confirmation process in a 2010 study of how college students chose their roommates. They found that students who ranked themselves pretty low on a self-attributes questionnaire showed a stronger preference for keeping their current roommate if the roommate also viewed them negatively, rather than if their roommate saw them positively.
In other words, it's hard to accept that someone else thinks of you positively and wants to compliment you when you feel negatively about yourself. Your immediate reaction is to deny or disbelieve them—the person who complimented you must have overlooked your mistakes, or they must not have been sincere.
But it's important to absorb compliments and recognize how beneficial they are for your confidence, Winch says. You can practice a default response—taking it in, saying “thank you,” and advancing the conversation—until you feel comfortable doing it automatically. “It’s really just tolerating the discomfort until compliments are something you’re more used to,” he says.
The longer-term solution, however, would be to try and remove the self-doubt that made you question the compliment in the first place, Winch says. If your old boss made you feel incompetent, but your new boss compliments your performance, and nominates you for an achievement award, it may be time to take a step back and reassess your abilities. Learning to accept a sincere compliment will be meaningful not only for you, but for the person who complimented you too, because it acknowledges you affected them in some way, Winch says. You may truly be more capable than you realize.
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