“A compliment is a gift, not to be thrown away carelessly, unless you want to hurt the giver.”
— Eleanor Hamilton, associate dean, Lancaster University Management School
“I don’t give out compliments,” she said, “and I don’t like to receive them either.”
I had just started a new job and was going through an orientation with the sales manager. I was taken aback by the comment but she was right. The entire time I worked for the business, she never once complimented me. In fact, it was quite the opposite with an endless string of criticisms. She needn’t have worried about receiving compliments from me. I could find absolutely nothing to praise her about either.
Suffice it to say, I didn’t stay at the job for long.
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?”
I was in a workshop once where participants were asked to look into a mirror and write down a sincere compliment they could give themselves. One woman became so upset, she ran out of the room. I could only imagine how negative her internal self-talk must have been.
Some people cannot accept a compliment. I’ve seen it happen often. They have some need to deflect it, downgrade it or transfer the credit to someone else. This may be owing to a lack of self-esteem (“I’m not worthy or deserving”) or it may come from a kind of false modesty. Either way, it’s uncomfortable for the one giving and the one receiving the compliment.
Have you ever been around children when they receive a compliment? Typically, they say thank you, then proceed to tell you what other amazing things they can do. There is a lesson to be learned there. Why is it as adults most of us shy away or engage in self-sabotage?
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 established in her mind. Whenever someone complimented her, she saw an image of herself as that child and invariably replayed the cruel words and actions of her classmates all those years prior.
If you want to feel comfortable accepting compliments, you’ll need to stop doing few things.
Stop putting yourself down. You deserve to be recognized occasionally. Instead of listing all the reasons you don’t deserve the acknowledgement, consider your achievements and allow yourself to feel worthy and deserving. Let each compliment build your self-confidence.
Stop assuming the other person is being insincere. Perhaps they are, but just as likely, they mean it and only want to share something positive. Not everyone has an ulterior motive. There is a vast difference between a sincere compliment and a statement meant to patronize or flatter. With a little practice, you’ll be able to easily discern the difference. However, if you disregard every compliment, you’ll never receive the praise or the deeper understanding.
Stop deflecting praise for your contribution. If you did a great job, than accept the accolades. Sure, if praise is misdirected, be upfront and honest. 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.
Stop claiming it was all luck or downplaying your achievement. Avoid saying things like, “Oh, it was nothing, really.” You are not immodest by accepting a compliment. Putting yourself down isn’t necessary. If you insist on downplaying, consider your motivation. Are you hoping people will persist in convincing you that you’re worthy? That might be a case of false modesty.
Here are a couple things you can start doing to become skilled at accepting compliments.
Immediately acknowledge a compliment by saying thank you. Smile at the person who gave you the compliment and make eye contact to show your appreciation.
You may also want to add a general phrase like, “That is very kind of you,” or something similar.
Tell the person giving you the compliment a little bit about your success. You might say something like, “I had to spend a few late nights, but I’m glad it turned out well.” It shows that you acknowledge the compliment and are thankful your hard work was noticed.
When it comes to giving out compliments, remember to keep it real. Find something genuine to comment on and choose an appropriate time. If a colleague did a great job on a project, acknowledge it. If a competitor gets the promotion you’ve been seeking, send a note of congratulations. A person with healthy self-esteem is never threatened by the success of others.
Be aware of over-complimenting. Being a recovering people-pleaser, there was a time when I went around complimenting everyone on everything. My compliments were not insincere but my motivation was wrong. I just wanted to avoid conflict by having everyone to like me.
American musician and songwriter Dean Wareham once declared, “You have to love yourself or you’ll never be able to accept compliments from anyone.” I think Wareham’s statement speaks directly to a lack of self-esteem. If you have a poor self-image, you’ll never feel worthy or deserving of praise. Use accepting compliments as a way to gauge your self-esteem growth.
A compliment can be a powerful tool when used appropriately. When genuine, it demonstrates respect, admiration and approval. Accepting a compliment graciously can provide you with a sense of gratitude, appreciation and hope. One of the most encouraging and nurturing things you can do is to give someone a true and meaningful compliment. Begin by genuinely complimenting the next person you meet and accepting the next compliment you receive.
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.