Compliments are supposed to show someone that you have noticed their efforts, they build us up and make us feel good, “ooh, I love your shoes!” Or “great work on that presentation!” Except for when they don’t.
I think I doubted the validity of compliments from early on as my mother handed them out like candy, everything I did was apparently perfect, yet bullying throughout my childhood taught me that someone saying you had “nice shoes” really meant that you had “ugly shoes”. As I grew into a teenager I watched other girls tell their friends how absolutely lovely they looked only to bag their dress out behind their backs moments later, in my first job in a clothing store we were taught to always compliment customers on something they were wearing as a marketing technique; time had only seemed to confirm my belief that compliments were all false, manipulative or sarcastic in nature.
For those of us with low self-esteem, receiving a compliment can be a horrendous experience, our faces flush, hot with embarrassment and often feeling like we are completely unworthy of the compliment, it can actually make us feel even more critical of ourselves and we struggle to find the right way to respond.
Growing up, if somebody under the age of 40 told me “you look nice today!” Rather than accepting the statement as their opinion, I would immediately assume they were either lying or being sarcastic, so to try and block the hurt I felt, I would laugh at myself and draw attention to more of my flaws before they did with replies such as “Ha! Hardly, look at the huge pimple on my nose!”
This became a habit I took into adulthood.
Someone at work might tell me in passing that they liked my new shoes and I would immediately over analyse and overthink the simple comment wondering, “what did they really mean by that? Are the heels too high? Is the colour too bold for me?” Then I would fall into a pattern of negative thinking “Why did I wear these today? I look terrible, I shouldn’t have even bought them!” And I would feel awful for the rest of the day, all because someone had given me a compliment.
Being complimented about a bracelet or handbag was one thing, I could always potentially shift the credit to someone else/ deny responsibility by saying “oh my mum bought this for me” whereas the compliments that suggested I was somehow an okay person or had done something well were the hardest to swallow because they challenged everything I had ever believed to be true about myself.
I once worked in a large government department and I won an award for ‘employee of the year’ my first year there. I felt so undeserving of the title that I faked feeling sick, left work early and cried the whole way home where I smashed the fancy glass trophy I had been presented with against a wall. I felt so embarrassed for being mistaken for someone deserving and was 100% certain that all of my colleagues were far better at the job than I was, I became paranoid that they would all now hate me for receiving an award that was rightfully theirs.
After this incident, I discussed my hatred of compliments in depth with my psychologist. We ascertained that my upbringing and subsequent bullying had led me to distrust the authenticity of the compliment and my low self-esteem was forbidding me from accepting the ones given to me with genuine intention.
We discussed how there is a social expectancy for one to act humbly or dismissively when complimented for something we have created or achieved, nobody likes a gloater constantly going on and on about how absolutely wonderful they are, but at the same time it is okay to feel pride when you are recognized for something you have worked hard for and it is okay to receive a compliment.
She also mentioned that it could potentially make someone feel hurt or invalidated if they were offering me a genuine compliment and I dismissed it immediately as wrong, this was the same as dismissing their feelings as wrong. I had never looked at it that way before.
While I understood the theory of this and would happily apply it or preach it to any other human being on the planet, accepting that I too could occasionally be worthy of praise was very difficult for me to believe.
So, my psychologist issued me a challenge. She told me she wanted me to reply with a smile and two simple words: ‘Thank you’ and only ‘Thank You’. Whether I believed them or not, whether I thought they were wrong or not, it didn’t matter, I just had to say those words “thank you”.
It was really, really hard at first, compliments had always bounced off me like Teflon, as the words “thank you” left my lips I felt like I was telling a lie in a foreign language, my face would redden and my brain would fire back internally with 100 reasons why this was absolutely unequivocally untrue.
Over time I found that I was able to say thank you more naturally, despite the negative self-analysis going on behind the scenes and outwardly ‘accepting’ the compliment slowly became a habit. Eventually I found that I was even able to absorb some of the intention behind the compliment rather than thinking “why are they lying to me?” I was thinking “what a nice thing for them to say”.
Years later, I still sometimes struggle to agree with compliments I am given, however I am able to accept most compliments for what they really are, somebody verbalising their positive personal opinion about me.
By choosing to accept compliments, I have had the positive flow on effect of less negative dialogue going on in my brain which has gradually made me care less about what others think of me and let me feel free to express myself more. I now even have the confidence to dye my hair bright colours and sure, I get some weird looks but they don’t bother me the way they once would have.
Just the other day a little old lady walked up to me in the grocery store and said “I love the blue in your hair, it matches your eyes and looks just lovely!” Her compliment genuinely made me feel good and when I smiled back at her and said thank you, I really meant it.