Do Compliments Make You Cringe? Here's How To Fix That

 "Thanks. I am pretty cool."

"Thanks. I am pretty cool."

There’s something about receiving a compliment that makes me want to just...not? It seems a lot of us have the same reaction. Why is that?

Maybe some of us don’t believe we deserve praise because our personal expectations are so high, or maybe some wires got crossed in our brains after watching too much of self-effacing, female-led comedies. Shout out to my two moms, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. 

But given the amount of times I’ve heard other women deflect compliments, I know I’m not alone in thinking there's a deeper issue.

In 1990, sociolinguist Robert Herbert conducted a study focusing on “sex-based differences in compliment behavior.” His observations revealed that while 40 percent of men were able to accept compliments from other men, only 22 percent of women were able to do the same, when complimented by other women.

Having a difficult time with compliments is more than just harboring feelings of discomfort, or a gut instinct to say anything other than a simple “thank you.” When was the last time you explained away a compliment? Or turned right back around and complimented the complimenter?

According to Chicago-based clinical psychologist, Dr. Frances Tung, these are all tactics individuals use to deflect attention from themselves when receiving compliments.

“There are tons of reasons someone wouldn’t want to accept a compliment: high personal expectations, the enculturation of female modesty, or low self-esteem.” That last trait is one Tung cites as the leading culprit in many of her clients.

“Often this is caused by someone feeling that they just don’t deserve the praise.” That dissonance between external and internal self-perception can go so far as to cause the receiver to envision the complimenter having an ulterior motive. 

If self-esteem is your issue, Tung suggests first doing the difficult work of building an awareness of your internal thoughts. How do you talk to yourself throughout the day? Do you beat yourself up if you make a mistake? Are you unable to let failures go? Once you establish that awareness, you can start to build the tools you need to stop negative self-talk. Tactics like complimenting yourself or writing down, then revisiting, your successes.

Regardless of whether you identify with having low self-esteem, we often are our own harshest critics. It’s pretty common to find that your internal dialogue doesn’t quite match up with how you’re perceived by those around you. In order to begin to bridge that gap, Tung suggests “collecting evidence.”

You can do this by writing down compliments you’ve received that are particularly meaningful or that have been repeated to you more than once. By building up a physical arsenal of good vibes, you’re not only doing shifting your internal narrative to be more compassionate—your also matching it with the world you move through.

Tung explains that, “[we’re] sort of the worst at judging ourselves. We’re bad at seeing how we are in the world. That’s why it’s helpful to take in what other people say and incorporate that into your view of self.”

Often times, this condition arises in the office.  An unfortunate symptom of career-based imposter syndrome. An easy way to identify this, is if you tend to be able to accept compliments about everything other than your work. That’s something that takes time to shed as you grow more comfortable in your position.

One thing to remember is that compliments are often more about the giver than the receiver. If a colleague is going out of their way to compliment you, they are doing so because of the positive impact you've had on them or their work.

And like so many things, one of the best tactics is to simply fake it until you make it. “Even if you do feel uncomfortable, you don’t have to show it. Just say ‘thank you’ and let it lie," says Tung. That way, your internal narrative will just have to catch up with your behavior.

Words: Rachel Siemens
Photo: Daria Kobayashi Ritch