How do you handle a sincere compliment?

I was in a workshop once where an exercise involved participants looking into a mirror and writing down a sincere compliment they could give themselves. One woman became so upset, she ran out of the room sobbing. Imagine how negative her self-talk must have been! What do you do when someone compliments you?

“When you cannot get a compliment any other way pay yourself one.”

— Mark Twain, American humorist

I was in a workshop once where an exercise involved participants looking into a mirror and writing down a sincere compliment they could give themselves. One woman became so upset, she ran out of the room sobbing. Imagine how negative her self-talk must have been!

What do you do when someone compliments you? Do you accept it, say thank you and move on? Do you shrug it off or even reject it outright? Perhaps you believe most compliments are hollow flattery and secretly wonder, “What does this person want from me?”

Some people cannot readily accept a compliment. They have some deep-seated need to deflect it, downgrade it or transfer the credit to someone else. This may be due to a lack of self-esteem (the, “I don’t deserve it,” mentality) or it may come from a kind of false modesty.

As adults, we are often so critical of ourselves that we’re thrown off-balance when someone gives us a compliment. I knew a beautiful young woman who had tremendous difficulty accepting compliments. You could almost see her squirm when someone offered a gracious acknowledgement of her loveliness.

I discovered in conversation that she had been overweight as a child and teased mercilessly. That image of an overweight child was still firmly affixed in her mind. Whenever someone complimented her, she saw an image of herself as that child and invariably replayed the cruel words her classmates had spoken all those years prior.

Have you ever watched children when they get a compliment? Typically, they say thank you and generally will tell you what else they can do. There is a lesson to be learned there. As adults most of us shy away or engage in self-sabotage. Practise these few easy methods for graciously accepting a compliment and you’ll never downplay your positive attributes again.

Acknowledge a compliment given to you immediately by saying thank you. Smile at the person who gave you the compliment and make eye contact to show your appreciation. You can also add a general phrase like, “That is very kind of you,” or something similar.

Supplement your thanks by including others, if appropriate. If you receive a compliment on a job well done and didn’t do it alone, make sure to give credit to those who helped. You can say something like, “Amanda was such a big help. I couldn’t have done it without her.”

Resist the urge to denigrate yourself. Avoid saying things like, “Oh, it was nothing, really.” You are not immodest by accepting a compliment. Putting yourself down isn’t necessary.

Respond honestly to a compliment. Tell the person giving you the compliment a little bit about your success. Say, “I had to spend all weekend on it, but I’m glad it turned out well.” It shows that you acknowledge the compliment and are thankful your hard work was noticed.

A genuine, heartfelt compliment holds great possibility. It demonstrates through both words and actions respect, admiration, approval, gratitude, trust, appreciation and hope.

And notice that I used the words “genuine” and “heartfelt.” There is a marked difference between a true compliment and an empty statement meant to patronize or falsely elevate. Most people can tell immediately when you’re being insincere. If you want to compliment someone, find something real and honest to remark upon.

When a colleague does a great job on a challenging project, compliment him or her on a job well done. If a contender get the job you wanted, send a note of congratulations. Someone told me once that a true indicator of healthy self-esteem and self-confidence is the ability to revel in someone else’s success.

Here’s a simple quiz that you may find revealing. Grab a pen and paper or sit down at the keyboard of your computer and answer these questions openly and honestly.

When was the last time you gave someone a compliment?

Whom did you say it to?

What did you say?

When was the last time you received a compliment?

From whom did you receive it?

What did the person say?

What do you most appreciate being complimented for doing?

A compliment is also good manners. My mother used to tell me, “If you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

That’s great motherly advice, but here’s another possibility: Why not attempt to find something positive in every situation and give praise to those that made the experience possible? It’s easier than you might imagine.

It true, there’s more to building self-esteem than simply being able to accept a compliment. If you’ve been holding onto a negative self-concept and find it hard to accept a compliment, you’ll need to rebuild a positive self-image by embarking on a journey of self-esteem building.

A Cree healer once told me, “All gifts come from the Creator and all praise is owing to her.” He went on to recommend that when someone gives you a sincere compliment, receive it with opens hands, accept it and allow it to pass through you and back to the source. Doubtless, his advice can make accepting compliments easier; perhaps you’ll find the same to be true.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His recent book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.

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