Why Compliments Are Hard To Accept | Uncustomary

Here’s Why Compliments Are So Hard to Accept, and How to Change That.

We often hear that we need to learn how to handle constructive criticism. From the openness of the workplace to the intimacy of our private relationships, accepting criticism gracefully is a highly valued skill.

Conversely, learning to receive compliments isn’t given the same level of attention. Yet, many of us find it just as hard, if not harder.

How come? Compliments are nice; we should be able to accept them with open hearts. Why can’t we? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

“I Find You Beautiful”

When she was in high-school, 18-year-old Shea Glover walked up to her fellow students, gave them a compliment, and filmed their reactions

In a 5-minute video, we see surprised teenagers smiling and blushing in embarrassment. Some would not even let the compliment land, while others looked away in disbelief. And we hear them say: “Shut up! Clearly you’re being goofy,” “This is so awkward,” “Wait, hold up,” “Are you serious?” or even “I kind of don’t believe you at this point.” 

A few students tried to return the compliment, but others downplayed it with words like: “I wore makeup today,” or “You’re making me blush, I’m going to look cheesy.”

Deflecting, downplaying, or sending back the compliment as fast as possible. All strategies we use when someone takes us by surprise with a compliment we didn’t expect. 

Sound familiar?  

Hiding Our Vulnerability

There are countries where compliments are reserved to small children. Adults view them as patronizing and a tad condescending.

But cultural factors aside, most of our difficulties with accepting compliments stem from the same issue: a low self-esteem and a lack of confidence. 

When our feelings of self-worth are not on par with the compliment received, it creates a cognitive dissonance. An uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. Which we’ll want resolved ASAP.

Which is why we get interactions like these:

  • Your report was super useful at the meeting today.
  • Thanks. I had a lot of help from Google.

There. Now the spotlight is away from us, which means our boss won’t see all our flaws either. 


  • This dress looks great on you!
  • Not as good as how you look with that hat!

Bam. Our friend paid us a compliment, but just like a professional ping-pong player, we’ve sent it right back at them. The focus is off us, we are not in their debt anymore, and it feels better.

Self-Preserving Strategies

In an attempt to hide our vulnerabilities from people we care about, we deflect and downplay incoming compliments.

We believe that if we lower their expectations enough, they won’t be disappointed when we – inevitably – fail them. And by refusing to believe in compliments we receive, we also save ourselves the heartbreak and disappointment when we don’t live up to them.

Read this again: if we refuse to acknowledge compliments, it could be because our brain is protecting us from being disappointed in ourselves.

But at the same time, we let our fears sabotage our relationships.

There is also an element of mistrust. “Why is this person saying these nice things, when I know they are not true?” We simply might be reluctant to accept compliments because we attach ulterior motives and irony where there might be none.

And finally, we humans have a tendency to look for hints around us that reinforce what we already believe about ourselves. Quite simply, a compliment that clashes with our belief system will feel fake. Which is why we’ll be quick to dismiss it.

A Better Framework

The problem with discounting compliments is that it turns positive interactions into negative ones. Conversations where our strengths are highlighted shift to conversations about weaknesses, inadequacies, and shortcomings.

To sidestep this process, authors, wellness consultants, and partners Suzan Pileggi Pawelski and James Pawelski propose a new framework: Accept, Amplify, and Advance.

In their book, Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts, they suggest we can train ourselves to accept a compliment instead of deflecting it. Then we should take a moment to amplify the good feelings, to take them in without discounting them. Finally, we should advance, using the compliment as an opportunity to connect and ask questions. 

By following these three simple steps, they argue we can generate deeper conversations, leading to stronger bonds and more meaningful connections.

Changing Our Perspective

Another course of action is to distance ourselves from the emotions attached to the compliments we receive. Just like counting in a foreign language helps remove emotions from financial decisions, reframing a compliment in abstract terms helps accepting it and feeling more positively about it.

And let’s keep in mind: people give us compliments because they want to. 

Let’s put ourselves in their shoes. If we complimented someone, would we expect them to discount it and downplay what they did to deserve it? No. Similarly, would we feel disappointed if they didn’t live up to that compliment in the future? No.

A compliment is a way for someone to thank you for something you brought into their world. Let’s remember that.

Fake It till You Make It

In the process of learning to accept compliments, there is nothing wrong with using a simple, default response. Then in the longer term, think about removing self-doubt that made you question the compliments. Step back, look at things objectively, reassess why you are given the compliments, and learn the compliment is also meaningful to the person who gave it to you. 

Being confident enough to accept compliments will take some time. But you can absolutely learn this skill, and there is even a shortcut: learning how to compliment yourself.

Self-love, and caring enough about yourself to notice things you do well, will do wonders for your confidence. 

You can use simple statements such as: “I love myself because…” or “I am grateful for being able to use the following gifts…”

Validation will first come from you, not what others think of you. 

Learning to accept compliments won’t happen overnight, but with practice, patience, and self love, we will make sure the positive cycle of compliments won’t stop with us. 

We will also reap the benefits, with better relationships. Better relationships with others, sure, but more importantly, a better, more confident relationship with ourselves.