You hand your friend the beautifully wrapped gift. In delight, your dear one excitedly strips off the bow and wrapping, lifts the box, and then says in a crestfallen voice, “I can’t wear wool; it makes me itch. Here, you can have it back.”

Can you imagine how deflated and hurt you would feel if this happened to you? Yet so many of us – including our clients – have tremendous difficulty receiving the verbal gift of a compliment, and we metaphorically hand it back to the giver. Clients may be particularly vulnerable to doing this, as they are likely to be coming for therapy because they are already troubled about something which keeps them from fully enjoying life – and the same issues with shame, guilt, self-esteem or other problems that propel them to therapy are also likely to be causing issues with receiving (and possibly giving) accolades. March 1st is World Compliment Day, so what better time than now to look into what gets in the way of your clients being able to fully accept positive comments – and also see how they can “metabolise” those compliments better. This post examines the ways we dismiss compliments, why we don’t accept them, and how we can receive them more fully.

How we dismiss our compliments

Mckay & Mckay (2018) suggest that compliment responses can be grouped into three types: accepting, deflecting, and rejecting. The worry for many people in fully accepting a compliment is that they will be regarded as conceited; outright denial, conversely, seems rude. So we often end up with a middle ground of deflecting that dilutes the praise and makes the “hot potato” of the accolade easier to handle. Here are some of the ways we devalue both ourselves and the compliment giver in our response.

Denying. We just plain disagree with the compliment:

  • Compliment: “You aced that talk; they were eating out of your hand!”
  • Response: “Yeah, right. It was so pathetic, I felt like throwing up.”

Arguing. We argue against deserving the accolade.

  • Compliment: “You aced that talk; they were eating out of your hand!”
  • Response: “Nah, I don’t think so. Did you see all those people in the fifth row leave after 10 minutes?”

Narrowing. We make a broader-based comment into a smaller, less inclusive one.

  • Compliment: “You look amazing today.”
    • Response: “This dress would make the Goodyear Blimp look thin.”

Putting oneself down. We insult ourselves in order to downplay the compliment:

  • Compliment: (Manager says at staff meeting): “John’s contributions have opened up a novel way of responding to customer queries that has doubled our volume of sales from phone enquiries”.
    • John’s response: “Well, I have to do something to make up for being so slow at writing up customer contact narratives”.

Attributing it to luck: We disavow our own hard work, saying it was “luck” that caused the result.

  • Compliment: “You have made phenomenal progress opening up new markets”.
    • Response: “I was just lucky to have been in the right place at the right time”.

Transferring credit to others. We do not accept our part in a good result, saying others did all the work.

  • Compliment: “You have made phenomenal progress opening up new markets”.
    • Response: “It was Sadie and George who did all the work”.

Ignoring. We either fail to recognise the compliment, or just ignore it.

  • Compliment: “Wow! What a performance! You’ll get great reviews”.
    • Response: “It was crazy backstage. Hey, let’s go eat at that Italian place”.

Fishing. We make the compliment giver work for it, seeking reassurance, even multiple times.

  • Compliment: “I love how you facilitated that class; getting all those specialists to work together so well was really a stroke of genius”.
    • Response: “Do you think so? Was I maybe too directive? Perhaps my material was not clear enough?”

De-valuing. We suggest that the thing being complimented isn’t really so fabulous.

  • Compliment: “Love those shoes; they are cool!”
    • Response: “These? I got them at the op-shop for five dollars!”

Questioning/assuming insincerity. We question the giver’s taste or motives, wondering if they really meant the nice thing they said.

  • Compliment: “Your designs are by far the best in the competition”.
    • Response: “Clearly you know nothing about design!” (while wondering what they really want in giving the compliment).

Why we have so much trouble in accepting the positive comments

What is it about compliments that makes them so tricky to receive? Giving them can be tough for some, too, but that is another “can of worms”: one that we shall open in future articles. Looking into the common presenting issues in therapy, we can see that the following list of barriers to compliment acceptance is not exhaustive:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Imposter Syndrome
  • Toxic shame and guilt
  • Anxiety, especially social anxiety disorder
  • Depression
  • Perfectionism
  • Issues with narcissism

Perhaps the client has recently lost a job or suffered a relational breakup. Maybe the person has chronic low self-esteem owing to a childhood of frequent criticism or the sacral wounding of not being deeply seen. Internalised toxic shame and guilt – not around having done an inadequate job but of being inadequate – cannot but rise to the surface in response to the mismatched cue of a compliment. One client coined the acronym “NGE” to explain the times he missed opportunities, failed to come to his own defence, or simply did not let in the goodness of life. NGE stood for “not good enough”: his understanding of himself that explained (to him) much that went awry in his life, including accepting compliments.

As we know from object relations therapy, our “relational template” or model of how to be in relationship, is formed early in life: certainly by age three. For clients where the “message” (usually implicit) up to that point has been that they are unworthy of anything good in life and deserving of no praise, the natural sequelae – even when they do enjoy successes – is that they will suffer from Imposter Syndrome: the sense that they are, at any given time, just “playing dress-up in mummy’s shoes” and they are going to be found out – now! – for the “fake” that they are. The “real” person, they know, is incompetent and worthless. The result is usually depression, and a concomitant inability to let in “the good stuff”.

The nature of abuse and domestic violence is that – for the abuse to work “effectively” – the abuser must isolate and devalue the partner or other abused person, eventually causing them to believe that they are so pathetic and hopeless that no one but the abuser would be willing to put up with them. As this tragic set of beliefs becomes inculcated ever more deeply in the person (usually a woman) living in a situation of domestic violence, the chasm between how she sees herself and how the compliment-giver sees her becomes too wide; the praise seems false and unrealistic and she cannot let it in.

The condition of anxiety, especially social anxiety disorder (SAD), works to ensure that the receiver of a compliment experiences even greater anxiety as a compliment is given. SAD is, after all, a condition of fearing judgment from others, especially publicly, and a compliment is a judgment, albeit a positive one. Similarly, those who suffer from chronic perfectionism may have had years of that introjected voice judging their efforts as always falling a bit short of the mark. How, then, to trust an external voice saying the opposite? It is too incongruent.

Finally, when we examine the pathology of narcissism, we can understand the difficulty of compliments. The definition of narcissism is “failure of relationship” – that is failure to be in right relationship with self; therefore inability to right-relate with others (H. Palmer, personal communication to author, 1998). The narcissist swings between seeing him/herself as perfection personified and the scum of the earth. There is no middle ground for right valuation: a necessary prerequisite for proper acceptance of a compliment.

Helping clients fully let in compliments

Secretly, most of us long to be well-thought of, and sincerely given praise can give us that boost to the day that puts a spring in our step. So how should compliments be received in order to be fully appreciated? What shall we advise the client to do when receiving one?

  1. Smile graciously, return eye contact, and say, “thank you.” As with giving the compliment, a smile shows appreciation and sincerity (laughter, of course, communicates the opposite).
  2. Add something relevant. A person complimented on her earrings can add more detail. “I got them at that shop by the waterfront; they have unique pieces there.”
  3. Don’t automatically compliment in return. Doing a “boomerang” compliment may seem insincere, as if the client is just trying to be polite, or even seeking approval. It de-values the original compliment (as well as the giver), and, in that it’s a “knee-jerk” reaction, makes the client’s compliment back to the giver more about the client than the supposed recipient.
  4. Share feelings. After the “thank you”, the client may wish to add, “I really appreciate that you noticed that” or “I feel so delighted to have all of our effort recognised”.
  5. Relax. For those who truly cringe at compliments, letting them in is easier if the body is relaxed and the client is smiling and making eye contact with the giver.
  6. Recognise one’s own contributions. Of course, Sadie and George (or whoever) should be acknowledged for their contribution, but that does not mean that the client should deny his or her own part in the success.
  7. Be honest and optimistic about the future. The client is not advised to point out weaknesses when given a compliment, but it’s ok to acknowledge future development that must take place, as in: “We’ve got a ways to go, but it’s great to see that we’re on the right track.”
  8. Ask a question. Just as a practical matter, when a compliment is received, it helps us to know what was good about what we did. So if the compliment giver says, “Congratulations on a great article!” the client can ask what, specifically, he liked about it.
  9. Practice giving compliments. Compliments get easier to receive when we are comfortable with appreciation being expressed between people. To get to that, the client can practice noticing, first, when someone has done something well, and then telling them. Ease of giving lends itself to ease of receiving accolades.

In summary, it’s true: giving and receiving compliments can be tricky and take some practice, but positive feedback is crucial for validating our sense of ourselves. So why not encourage your client to have a go? Challenge them that, on March 1st, they will find three people to compliment – genuinely – and join in creating the most positive day in the world!

References

  • Amodeo, J. (2017). Practical tips for metabolizing a compliment. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 12 February, 2019, from: Website.
  • Cuncic, A. (2018). How do you accept a compliment with SAD? Very Well Mind. Retrieved on 12 February, 2019, from: Website.
  • Griffin, T. (n.d.). How to take compliments. Wikihow.com. Retrieved on 12 February, 2019, from: Website.
  • McKay, B., & McKay, K. (2018). How to accept a compliment with class. Art of Manliness. Retrieved on 12 February, 2019, from: Website.
  • Palmer, H. (1998). Founder and director of the New Zealand Institute of Psychosynthesis, in remarks made during exploration of the root issues of narcissism.
  • Wax, D. (n.d.). How to take a compliment. Lifehack. Retrieved on 12 February, 2019, from: Website.
  • Whitmore, J. (2019). 8 ways to gracefully receive a compliment. Entrepreneur.com. Retrieved on 12 February, 2019, from: Website.