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wundayatta's avatar

What is it with compliments?

Asked by wundayatta (58638points) December 6th, 2008

There’s nothing I want more than to know people appreciate what I do. Yet, when people compliment me, I often try to deny it, or deflect it. Sometimes I get downright defensive, as if the person had criticized me, instead of complimenting me.

I have a couple of excuses for this behavior: I have low self-esteem; it’s embarassing; it makes me uncomfortable; I think the compliment is misplaced. These explanations just don’t seem adequate.

Compliments should improve my self-esteem. I speak before groups a lot, and sometimes I make a gaffe, and that doesn’t bother me. Where does the discomfort come from? Why should I care that I get complimented properly? Is it a strange form of honesty?

People might say I have talent, or I’m intelligent, or it’s incredible that I can do something such as improvisation.

These things are just me, I think. Nothing special. Nothing worthy of note.

Is anyone else like this? What’s going on here? Why can compliments be so hard to take?

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20 Answers

mrdh's avatar

I got told by the smartest student in school once that I was the smartest girl in my year (he’s in the year above). I was very skeptical at first and asked if he was being sarcastic. It was after about 3 minutes of “Are you being sarcastic?” questions and slight confusion did I accept he was being completely honest.

EmpressPixie's avatar

I think this comic strip covers… a lot of it:

KatawaGrey's avatar

I understand where you’re coming from. In high school and middle school, I was an ugly girl. Now, I don’t know if i was actually an ugly girl or if I just went to school with a bunch of exceptionally cruel and malicious young men, but I got told I was ugly more than anyone should, so, naturally, I believed it. Over the last year, I have filled out and my confidence level has shot up. I recognize on an intellectual level that I am fairly attractive (some have even said extremely attractive) but there is still that ugly high schooler inside. So, when someone tells me I am pretty/cute/hot/beautiful/whatever I think they’re lying to me.

Hope this helps, I’m not entirely sure I answered the question.

augustlan's avatar

I used to be the type of person who could not take a compliment well. I always discounted and downplayed them. I think it was a function of shyness combined with low self-esteem. You know what got me over it? The understanding that I was actually criticizing the compliment giver by not being gracious. It’s basically saying to them “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” or “You have terrible judgement!” It is a matter of good etiquette to accept a compliment graciously.

So, I had to work very, very hard on saying a simple “Thank you”, and not adding any qualifiers either (“thank you, but…”). I did it for so long, that it became habit. It’s not just ‘mouthing the words’ anymore, I actually feel thankful for the compliment. Fake it until you make it actually worked for this one!

MacBean's avatar

hahaha Is this question my fault? (I’m working on a reply to your PM! They just take me a while because I pick words carefully.)

wundayatta's avatar

@augustlan, It’s been a long time since I realized how rude it was to criticize the compliment giver. At least, not out loud. This doesn’t stop the train of thought from running through my head, and then I argue back that maybe they are right, and so on. It’s exhausting, because at the same time as this stupid argument is going on inside my head, I’m talking to the person, and trying to be nice and gracious. I’d love to know if they can tell what my brain is doing.

@macbean, yes, it’s partly your pm, but also tonight, two people came up to me to offer compliments on my playing. They acted like I was some kind of professional musician, when really I’m just an amateur trying to have a bit of fun. One told me it was kind of amazing that I could improvise, and I spoke with her for a few minutes. It was all I could do to tell her that this was not a talent at all, but in fact a weakness. I am deeply fearful of playing written music, because I can screw that up, and everyone will know. With improvisation, I can hear what I want to play in my head, but if I fuck it up, no one will know. I’m the only one who knows what I meant to play. I made so many mistakes tonight.

I didn’t tell her most of that. Instead, I tried to demystify improv a bit for her.

The other person told me how talented I was. That one really set my blood boiling. I hate “talent.” It’s hard work, it seems to me, not magic. It’s not special, just the result of practice. But I didn’t. I tried to put a smile on my face, and I thanked her.

Of course, it should go without saying that I don’t think I’m very good.

Anyway, I’m glad fake it until you make it worked for augustlan. The only time that ever worked for me was in learning to fundraise. My mind seems curiously immune to my efforts to get it to see things differently. It is stubborn as a glacier. I’m giving up trying to change it. But that’s another story. I would love to actually believe people who say nice things to me, but somehow, it just doesn’t seem to be in me any more. If I even ever had it. It would probably take a dozen jackhammers pounding away to get any movement inside my mind on this issue.

augustlan's avatar

Ah well, we’ll still compliment you anyway!

shadling21's avatar

Often, when given a compliment, I want desperately to believe it’s true (especially the “You’re so smart!” variety), but at the same time, I don’t want it to feed my ego. I consider myself a pretty humble person, and any time I consider myself better than others, I give myself a slap and feel horrible about it. At the same time, it feels good to know that I’m doing something right, that I’m turning into the person that I want to be. I think it’s this conflict between two impulses of self-love that gives way to awkward compliment receptions.

Of course, there is the assumption that one shouldn’t accept a compliment easily in a social situation. This is especially true with females discussing their bodies. How many times have we women said to each other, “Wow, I never noticed how great your legs look!” and heard back, “What are you talking about? These thighs are monstrous! And you can’t see it, but there is loads of celluloid on them”?

I’m always impressed when someone can accept a compliment graciously without making the situation awkward. It’s a kind of appreciative nod and smile, plus a tentative tilt to the side.

Jeruba's avatar

@Daloon, my husband has some traits in common with you, including the insistence on devaluing whatever comes easily to him, and he is also subject to depression. So I recognize that set of reactions. It used to be very difficult to pay him a compliment. For many years I coached him: just say “thank you.” Just say “thank you.” He worked on it. After a while he even learned to say it with a measure of grace.

I’m sure you’ll continue to work on all the stuff that goes with it in your mind. But as a kindness to the people who take the trouble to compliment you, please just learn to say “thank you” and stop there.

AlfredaPrufrock's avatar

I know exactly what you mean, Daloon. My mother used to put us down whenever we would say something nice about ourselves. Not bragging, but more in a way of self-discovery. She had this phrase she would say in Ukranian, which was something like, “look who thinks her poop doesn’t smell.” We were never told what we did well, but how we could improve ourselves. I pretty much grew up thinking I had no talents, beyond being what my mother called “the smart one.” That to me, was an unbelievable label, because I really struggled in school. My sister was “the pretty one.” Compliments of any kind made me really uncomfortable, and would make me feel as if there was something wrong about thinking well about myself.

It really wasn’t until I taught confirmation class at church that I began to get over it. The core of the instruction was about gifts of the Holy Spirit, and I was required to get up and talk to the kids about my “gifts and talents.” It took me a month to put together something. Some of that experience I’ve tried to carry forward in the workplace and at home, and I will verbalize appreciation and recognition of talents of people I meet. I try to do it in a substantive way, and highlight the meaning of having a talent in the scheme of a broader picture.

SuperMouse's avatar

Back in high school a friend gave me a compliment. I argued with him and told him he was wrong, that what he said couldn’t possibly be true. After standing and listening to me for a couple of minutes he looked me in the eye and said (in a rather irritated tone), “when someone gives you a compliment just smile and say ‘thank you.’” I have tried to do that ever since.

answerjill's avatar

I don’t normally get a lot of attention or compliments about my appearance. However, on the rare days that I put on a full face of makeup and blowdry my hair, I receive compliments on my appearance (almost without fail). While I am flattered by their words, I sometimes wonder if my “natural” self looks like crap and that is why they are so astonished when I fix myself up! (Like Katawa—and many others, I’m sure—I still have some low self-esteem issues that stem from childhood/adolescence.)

gailcalled's avatar

Daloon; if I were in range, I would give you a klop upside the head, as my grandmother used to say. Repeat after me, “Thanks.”

Milo agrees that you are being an idiot. :-) (There. Does that feel better?)

wundayatta's avatar

LOL gail. Yeah, it’s true. I am an idiot about things like this, but this idiocy seems difficult to make a dent in.

(And isn’t it weird how much more comfortable I am with a comment like that?)

gailcalled's avatar

@Dal; Then make sure you do NOT open this link from aanuszek1:

You do not deserve to laugh any more today.

wundayatta's avatar

Dontcha love the reverse psychology? Now, of course, I have to look at it, even though I’m on the slowest computer on earth.

Or do I?

El_Cadejo's avatar

daloon, i just wanted to tell you, i think your awesomes :)

Nimis's avatar

I don’t take compliments very well either.

Though I’m trying to be better at accepting them as pleasant social fluff
and not any absolute statement to be critically-assessed.

galileogirl's avatar

I took a group of honors students to a competition yesterday on constitional topics. One of the groups, which had the 3 top students in the class, was awful. They totally froze and answered the question completely wrong. The judges who were all very nice (lawyers and law professors and judges) kept asking ‘lifeline’ followup questions to give them the hint to change their answers but it didn’t work. At the end of the alloted time the judges give feedback and they all tried to say something positive like how clearly they spoke and that they were consistent in their answers. When I talked to them afterwards, I explained why their answer was wrong and they got such a low score. My uberhonors students said, ‘But they liked us, they said we did good things’

Moral: Compliments are nice but honesty is more useful.

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

Maybe its like when someone runs into a burning building to save a child. They call him a hero, but he demurs and says he’s no hero, he was just doing what seemed like the right thing to do. Or maybe I missed the ball.

Anyway, when it comes to compliments, I just say thanks, and then try to figure out a way to fish for more compliments. :-)

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