Has there ever been a time in your life when you were complimented and froze on the spot while silently questioning the other person’s sense of judgment? Me too. I’ll admit, I’ve never been good at receiving compliments.
One example is forever seared into my memory. I was in graduate school. My professor complimented my assignment and asked if she could use it as an example to show others.
Standing before her, my body went into full freeze mode. My eyes cast downward as my neck and shoulders tensed. And my arms … why were they suddenly so weird? I lost all sense of speech and mobility, not knowing what to say or do.
When I rebounded, I immediately started to downplay her compliment and my accomplishment. “Of course, you can use my assignment as an example if you think it’s okay. You could also use Lauren’s. She’s an ‘actual’ writer and really good,” I said.
Peering over her glasses with raised eyebrows, the teacher said, “Sheila, don’t devalue your work; say thank you.”
My professor could see right through me, and she was right. I had a habit of downplaying my accomplishments. My brain kicked into autopilot before I could even organize my thoughts.
It isn’t easy to accept a compliment or acknowledge your accomplishments when you can see how it should’ve, could’ve, or would’ve been much better. So here I was saying thank you aloud, with my inner critic telling me this very accomplished psychologist must be confused. It didn’t feel genuine because I didn’t believe it was true.
I’ve spoken with other women who describe the same occurrence. They cringe and squirm when given a compliment. They immediately distract or devalue their hard work at the mere thought of acknowledging their accomplishments.
Why is it so difficult to accept a compliment or recognize your accomplishments? It’s a bit of a perfect storm, with the research pointing to societal expectations, gender roles, and how our minds work.
For starters, no one likes a bragger. I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard and experienced some form of this statement throughout my life. That, combined with nice girls, don’t … well, they don’t do anything that makes someone else feel uncomfortable.
And you don’t want to appear egotistical, vain, or (gasp) narcissistic, either. When society tells you to be humble, modest, and put the needs of others first, accepting a compliment or acknowledging your success often feels like an open invitation for negative judgment. In my experience, most of us can do that well enough on our own. We don’t need the help of others. Not to mention, at the end of the day, we just want to fit in.
I’m going to guess the story you’re telling yourself about your successes is probably vastly different from the one you’re hearing from others. Instead of seeing the win, you see the missed opportunities for greatness.
Oh, and there’s probably even more skepticism depending on who said it. There are people you believe “have to” tell you you’re terrific. Then others stir up suspicion. You can’t trust them because they probably want something in return.
There’s also the “oh, no” moment of how will I live up to this accomplishment in the future? Can I even repeat this, or am I doomed to failure? There’s so much self-generated pressure to maintain a future-forward standard for an in-the-moment compliment.
You probably don’t see your gifts as being valuable. Have you ever thought, “How hard can it be if I can do it?” Side note: Not everyone can do what you do.
Let’s not forget how compliments and acknowledgment rouse imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is characterized by persistent self-doubt and a fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence to the contrary. Imposter syndrome believes your success is based on luck instead of your skillset. “Oh, I’m just lucky, I guess.”
Then there’s the science. Researchers point to the biological effects of being physically surprised, leading you to shrink, freeze, redirect, and change the subject when complimented. It makes sense. Think about the last time you were surprised. You may have jumped, frozen, or even laughed it off. Most people aren’t moving through life expecting compliments at every turn. Therefore, receiving one can be unexpected. You’re caught off guard and react as you typically do when surprised, like when I was ambushed at a restaurant by singing waiters and calmly left my chair for the bathroom. They followed me—all the way in. But I digress.
In addition, our brains are wired to locate problems. That means you will focus on the negative instead of the positive. Do you ever notice how a hundred things will go your way, but you repeatedly replay that one negative experience?
Research shows that problem-solving and remembering negative experiences is how we have evolved to stay safe (and alive). Unfortunately, our minds can’t distinguish between actual (oncoming car) and perceived (I could be embarrassed) danger.
Instead of recalling what went right today, those feel-good experiences roll off you like summertime sweat. Meanwhile, the negative experiences take up space in your brain to warn you not to do “whatever” again.
Here’s the twist. The research also finds that meaningful praise (from others and yourself) can measurably boost motivation and performance. It’s even been shown to improve your brain’s ability to remember and repeat new skills.
But wait … there’s more! Acknowledging your achievements reinforces positive self-perception and cultivates a healthy sense of self-worth. Embracing your accomplishments empowers you to strive for even greater heights and encourages a healthy mindset.
Accepting compliments plays a pivotal role in building self-esteem and confidence. Compliments serve as external validation of your efforts and abilities, offering a positive perspective on yourself. When you genuinely accept and internalize compliments, you reinforce positive self-beliefs, enhancing your confidence in your skills and capabilities. This, in turn, empowers you to pursue new challenges and seize opportunities with greater assurance.
You’re also challenging the imposter syndrome’s grip on your self-perception and gradually building resilience against its not-always-helpful impact.
Additionally, by accepting compliments graciously, you inspire and motivate those around you to recognize and celebrate their achievements. Your ability to embrace compliments demonstrates the importance of self-love, self-acceptance and their positive impact on personal and professional development.
The good news is that accepting praise and acknowledging your success are not as tricky as they may first appear. However, it does take a bit of practice, persistence, and playfulness.
In a world where it’s easier to notice what didn’t go your way, start by noting what went right today. Look for the small ways, like you marked one thing off your to-do list or enjoyed your coffee while it was still hot. Then give yourself a high five. Extra points for high fiving yourself in the mirror, which is the preferred way, according to Mel Robbins.
Robbins researched the impact of high fives and wrote a book about it, The High 5 Habit. What’s so special about the act of a high-five? It signifies importance—that you’ve done a good job and are worthy or good enough. So, who better to receive one from than yourself?
You can train your brain to not be caught off guard or surprised by compliments. To do this, practice giving yourself compliments—something like, “I am really good at what I do.” Go ahead. No one can hear you. Reflect on your achievements. Embrace the fact that you have done something deserving of praise, remembering that simply being you is enough.
Acknowledge your strengths, achievements, and qualities regularly. Unsure of what those are? Ask two to three of your favorite people to tell you what they think.
Surround yourself with supportive and uplifting individuals who genuinely appreciate and celebrate your successes. They can help reinforce positive self-perception and provide a safe space to practice accepting compliments.
Notice when self-doubt arises while receiving compliments. Those pesky unhelpful beliefs we all have about ourselves have a way of popping up at the most inopportune times. Accepting compliments requires vulnerability, as it involves receiving recognition and acknowledging your strengths. Embrace vulnerability as a strength and an opportunity for growth and self-empowerment.
Meanwhile, when someone compliments you, take a moment to pause and truly listen to what they’re saying. This one takes a whole lot of practice. Try your best to avoid immediately dismissing or deflecting the compliment. Allow yourself to fully receive and absorb the positive feedback. Even if (or rather when) your mind is telling you otherwise.
Say “thank you.” I know it seems obvious. However, when you’re caught off guard and have your own stories about the compliment, thank you is usually not your first response. Curb your instinct to downplay your accomplishments or deflect the compliment onto someone else.
Remember, accepting compliments is not about bragging or being boastful. It’s about accepting the experience of the person complimenting you—allowing others to appreciate and recognize your accomplishments.
Throughout my graduate school experience, my college professor never passed up an opportunity to give me praise—exposure therapy in real time that I did not sign up for. “Um, thank you?”
I’m not going to say it became easier. My inner critic was still quite chatty and overly suspicious. However, I did learn to play the game. On the outside, I would say thank you. On the inside, I still didn’t believe a word she said.
What changed? The short answer: me. I practiced weathering my discomfort with other people’s experiences of my work and started to acknowledge my strengths and successes. By no means have I mastered this. Occasionally, I still catch myself deflecting, devaluing, or ignoring compliments and being heavily focused on what’s next instead of how far I’ve come. It will forever be a practice.
I cannot say this enough: Embracing compliments and acknowledging your accomplishments is not a sign of arrogance but a testament to your hard work. By learning to accept compliments with grace and appreciation, you empower yourself, boost your self-esteem, and inspire others to do the same. I’m challenging you to embrace your moments of recognition, celebrate your achievements, and encourage others to do the same.
Sheila Tucker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Heart Mind & Soul Counseling. She specializes in working with couples and individuals to better their relationships so they can connect more deeply to themselves and each other. Tucker also leads an eight-week anxiety skills group to help individuals practice responding differently to their anxiety. When not in the office, you’ll find her walking her pups or planning her next mountain getaway with her husband.