Why It Can Be Harder To Believe Compliments Than Insults

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Bettmann/Getty

“Hey, you look so pretty today!”

“Thanks! It’s because I’m wearing makeup. I’m actually covering a giant zit.”


“I loved the article you wrote about loving kids who are acting out.”

“Thanks! It took way longer than it should have, and I had a lot of guidance from my editor. Ugh, sometimes I’m such a slow writer.”

Why do I do this? Why do we do this? Why couldn’t I just leave it at “thanks”? I know I’m not the only one who downplays compliments like this. Many of us do, and women are especially prone to deflect, deny, and excuse well-intended praise. And, if we’re not careful, we’ll pass this implied insecurity right on to our kids. So, why do we do it, how can we stop, and how do we make sure our kids don’t fall into the same trap?

Low self-esteem can rear its ugly head.

The “why” of not being able to graciously accept a compliment is generally for one of two reasons: Either we’re suffering from low self-esteem and genuinely can’t understand why someone is complimenting us, or we’re afraid that accepting a compliment without refuting it could make us look arrogant.

Depending on where I am emotionally, either of these could be could be the issue for me. I go through phases where I convince myself I’m a giant loser and not deserving of anything good, that any good that has come to me must be a fluke, that I’m stupid or ugly or fat or uninteresting or weird. If I’m in this toxic headspace when someone compliments me, I am absolute shit at taking a compliment. I may even go so far as to assume the person giving the compliment could be suffering from poor judgment or they’re lying to me.

On the other hand, sometimes I’ll receive a compliment when I’m feeling pretty good about myself, and in those instances I’ll still deflect a compliment because I don’t want to be perceived as arrogant. All of this is just gross. I need to just learn to freaking say thank you.

The flipside of being unable to receive a compliment is that when it comes to criticism or insults, we often do the opposite—we internalize it as gospel truth. I don’t tend to take personally when someone I barely know criticizes me. Being a writer, I get a fair amount of “I didn’t read the article but based on the headline the writer is stupid” type criticism. I don’t even register this kind of feedback because (1) I’ve gotten used to it and (2) OMG people, read the freaking article.

But if someone whose opinion I care about criticizes me, I take it very personally. Too personally. I could dwell for weeks. When my writing partner criticizes my work (which is the entire point of being writing partners), I get very sweaty and insecure and heart race-y and ask myself “why do I even bother” trying to be a writer.

So many women do this. We’ve been conditioned for so long to be agreeable and humble that it makes accepting compliments incredibly difficult. We take criticism to heart and can’t absorb praise at all. And we’ve gotta knock it off — if not for our own sake, so that we don’t pass this insecure, self-flagellating behavior down to our kids.

We need to model giving and receiving praise for our kids.

A friend of mine has four girls and has been very intentional with how she instilled confidence in them. Knowing the disproportionate amount with which women tend to downplay their successes, my friend has always pushed her kids to work really hard but then take unapologetic ownership of—and pride in—the success that came from that hard work. So when her seventh grader won a ribbon at our regional science fair, she wasn’t shy to accept my congratulations and even added an “all that hard work paid off!”

I want this kid’s confidence, and I want it for my kids too.

I notice my friend is careful to phrase her compliments to her daughters in a way that feels genuine and focuses on the effort rather than the result. Turns out, she knows exactly what she’s doing. Psychologists say there’s a reason that some praise feels shallow. We often default to “I” statements when complimenting others. “I love that shirt!” or “I loved your presentation.” Or our praise is too generic to feel meaningful: “Awesome job!” “Great work!” These are nice things to say, but they’re vague. This kind of praise doesn’t stick.

If we want the receiver of our compliments to really feel the compliment—and if we want our kids to absorb the power of giving and getting meaningful praise—we need to shift our thinking a bit. We need to acknowledge rather than compliment. We need to exclude ourselves from the praise (don’t use “I”), and we need to be specific.

Saying, “That shirt looks great on you” makes a person feel better than announcing that you like their shirt. It’s a subtle but meaningful shift that removes your opinion from the spotlight. And, at work, telling someone exactly what you found helpful in their presentation goes a lot farther than “awesome job.” These are acknowledgments of a person’s personal taste or effort rather than a shallow, forgettable shoutout.

All of this holds true for kids too, but with kids we need to be careful to model how to receive a compliment. We can teach them what to say all we want, but if we don’t model the behavior, they’re not going to absorb the lesson. So, when someone compliments you, there are two very simple things to include in your response: Show appreciation for the compliment, and do it with eye contact. That’s it. Don’t add an excuse or downplay your achievement. “Thank you so much for saying so” with eye contact is perfect. Model this behavior for your kids too, so they learn by example.

For me, learning to accept a compliment has a lot to do with getting to a place where I’m okay with acknowledging an achievement or really any good thing about myself. It’s a self-esteem thing. But, what I’ve found is that, the more I practice receiving praise gracefully, the more genuine my confidence becomes. I’m not vocalizing the toxic chatter in my head, so the complimentary message has an easier time getting through. Fake it till you make it, right? But I’ll be modeling healthy compliment-accepting behavior for my kids so they hopefully never have to fake it in the first place.

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