Why Receiving A Compliment Is So Hard

Woman holding up her hand to hide her face, trying to avoid receiving a compliment

Some people have a difficult time receiving a compliment.

Maybe they deflect, “Nawww, it’s no big deal, really.”

Sometimes they flip the compliment back on the other person, “No, you’re the real MVP.”

They minimize, “Just doing my job, ma’am.”

Then there’s self-deprecation (essentially wiping your ass with someone’s kind words). “Who me? No way. I’m terrible.”

They might even smack a compliment right out of the air on some, “No, I can’t take credit for that.”

People change topics, run away, sweep gratitude under the rug, and do all manner of baffling shit to avoid actually receiving a compliment. But why? It just doesn’t make any sense.

Reasons to Avoid Receiving a Compliment:

1. Fear of Vulnerability

Joy, love, and gratitude are super vulnerable. They can be downright terrifying. Certainly you know some people that are deeply committed to being negative, pessimistic, cynical, and complainy all the damn time, yes? As Virginia Satir once pointed out, “People prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.”

And, as it turns out, joy and love are some of the most uncertain things life has to offer! As soon as we have them, we may feel threatened, afraid, or insecure like we could lose them again at any moment. Especially if we were never given the opportunity to safely experience those things as kids. So fuck it, let’s push em away. Could be more stress than they’re worth, right?

2. Toxic Shame

Shame is a core belief, and people need to feel like their beliefs are accurate in order to feel safe. Echo chambers, confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance — there’s plenty to say about how desperately most folks wanna be right. Also, many of us needed shame as children in order to feel like our parents weren’t incompetent sociopaths.

So a covert commitment to suffering and self-loathing can run bone-deep without our knowledge or consent. And when someone challenges a firmly held belief that we’re some version of not lovable or not good enough, that shit gets real uncomfortable.

3. Unprocessed Grief

When you grow up in a compliment desert — starved for attention, affection, appreciation, and acceptance — being gifted such a generous expression of love and gratitude can actually be an acutely painful reminder of how completely fucked the barren emotional landscape of your childhood was. So, for some people, receiving a compliment could literally trigger a trauma response. Decidedly not a wonderful experience.

4. Trauma

If your understanding of love as a child was along the lines of something you earned by doing shit for other people (developmental trauma, bee tee dubs), receiving a compliment can feel like a debt or an obligation. So when someone just comes out of the blue with this expression of love, you may immediately suspect that you owe them something.

These are the folks who compulsively return a compliment of equal or greater value every time to stay out of the red. Trauma doesn’t usually come back as a memory — it shows up as a feeling. And oh boy do these feelings resemble factual information that we should act upon.

I could probably drum up a couple other good reasons, but this is a strong list. Feel free to tear out a sheet of paper and keep it going if you like.

Strategies for Receiving a Compliment:

If you’d like to stop cowering in an emotional bomb shelter and peel back the callouses that keep you from absorbing love, consider the following compliment receiving strategies. Decide which seems right for you. Maybe try a few out, mix em together, or make a new one. Have fun with it. 

When someone gives you a genuine compliment (and they aren’t a skazy politician or a meth head trying to talk you out of a few bucks), here are some things to try:

1. Embrace It

Smile. Place both hands on your heart. Plug your trap and just allow yourself to be loved. Let your nervous system, your brain, your heart, and your soul receive this evidence that you are lovable as you are without needing to earn it, prove it, justify it, or pay for it. Feel free to get misty-eyed or goose-bumpy.

At the most, you can say, “Wow. Thank you. I really appreciate that.”

Then just marinate in that sweet sweet emotion. It should feel like a hug. Embrace it. Enjoy it. That’s a gift with your name on it. And if someone gave you a gift, then you immediately handed them a hundred-dollar bill, you’d be stripping away their kindness and turning their generosity into a cold transaction so you can avert feeling vulnerable.

Don’t sweep that love in the trash.

2. Ask About It

Say “Aw, thanks. Do you mind if I ask what stood out to you about _______?”

You’re essentially putting the ball back in their court before you wipe your ass with it or put it on your Amex card. This may help you sidestep the awkwardness of allowing yourself to be appreciated, which might be completely foreign to you (picture Ricky Bobby, what do I do with my hands?).

It could also buy you some time to let the feeling sink into your soul before you dismiss it or some shit. Furthermore, this may result in enlarging the compliment — making it feel more real, more genuine, harder to ignore.

3. Agree With Them

Be like, “Thanks! I’m grateful you said that because I’ve been working at _______ for so long and I’m really proud of how far I’ve come with that. It feels great to know that other people appreciate this thing I’ve come to truly love about myself.”

That’s not arrogant or conceited; it’s honest and vulnerable. Remember, real humility is accurate self-appraisal. Not fancying yourself as better than or less than you actually are.

How I Get Down

Option #1 is my go-to. Or #1 with a side-order of #3. I’ve learned to put both hands right on my chest and breathe in the love like cool mountain air. Sometimes I nod my head in agreement or let out an “Mmmm” sound.

I reflect on the amount of courage it must’ve taken this person to say those words. I know they definitely didn’t have to say what they said, but they wanted to. When someone risks emotional exposure for me, I recognize it as the very currency of authentic human connection. And I’m tickled pink by the cocktail of love and bravery that we alone get to experience in that moment.

And despite my trauma, mistakes, struggles, and insecurities on any given day, I am indeed a good human being, worthy of any compliment someone feels compelled to share with me.

Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

4 thoughts on “Why Receiving A Compliment Is So Hard

  1. So beautiful, the way you express your experiences and teach really resonates with me. I hope I can one day afford your mentorship. Until then, I look forward to your sheparding through the wilderness of my journey. Grattitude.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I’m slowwwly working on putting together a workshop (doing it well is more important than just doing it for me, so no release date yet). But, if you’re subscribed to my blog, I’ll send you an email when I have a date. And if you can’t afford it, just reply to my email and pay what you can. I’d love to have you!

  2. I hadn’t realized until just now how uncomfy I get (freez-ish) when someone says that they appreciate me or something I’ve done. I usually respond with some justification for the compliment, give credit elsewhere, or just say, “my privilege” or “It’s nice you see it that way.” Yuck.

    I’m going to observe this more, and learn to say thank you with my hands on my heart and a pause, and try to take it in.

    Thank you so much.

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