When my husband, Sam, and I started dating, we were talking on the phone and he said, “You’re beautiful, smart, and funny.”
My heart did a cartwheel. “Yeah, not quite,” I said, laughing. I am sure my face turned cherry-red.
Sam said, “I believe the appropriate response is thank you.”
I hadn’t realized I couldn’t take a compliment, but once he pointed it out, I caught myself dodging them all the time. When someone said something nice to me, I would usually come up with a self-deprecating remark. That wasn’t beneficial for my self-esteem or my well-being.
After that, whenever Sam gave me a compliment, I would give him a sarcastic, “Thank you!” in a sing-song voice. It wasn’t ideal, but it was a start.
In Psychology Today, Suzi Pileggi-Pawelski, MAPP, and James Pawelski, PhD., say people generally react to compliments in one of three ways — and they’re all unhealthy.
This is when we wave off the compliment as if it is a silly statement or completely unfounded.
Vulnerability appears to play a big part when it comes to the challenge of receiving compliments well. We are often afraid of showing our true colors, everything that makes us human, imperfections and all. Many of us are afraid to have the spotlight shine on ourselves solely for that reason. Additionally, if we open ourselves up to love and gratitude, we also risk opening ourselves up to everything else that can go with it, like pain and loss.
I used to be the queen of deflection, yet I wasn’t consciously doing it out of fear of becoming close to someone and showing my vulnerability. I’m sure that was the reason, though. At the time, I was recovering from a trauma and I wasn’t looking for any more pain or loss.
The Pawelskis refer to this as the “hot potato” game and I’ve definitely played it. Here’s an example:
My friend: You look pretty today!
Me: What? Look at you! I love that outfit on you!
My friend: Ha! It’s not as hot as your outfit! Look at you!
Me: I wish! You are killing it in those boots!
And on and on it goes. We’ve all been there.
Again, vulnerability comes into play here. It’s natural to feel vulnerable if we find ourselves in someone’s debt. If we aren’t comfortable with it, we may try to repay (or “hot potato”) the debt back as quickly as possible.
This is when we come up with all sorts of reasons not to accept the compliment. I’ve been guilty of this many times. Here’s an example:
My friend: You look great! Have you lost weight?
Me: Are you kidding me? Ha! I’ve been eating like a pig since lockdown! I can barely fit into any of my clothes. Thank God this dress is black and stretchy! Otherwise I’d look like a fat cow! I don’t have a pair of jeans I can squeeze into without hurting myself. I feel disgusting.
At this point, I’m sure my friend wishes she hadn’t said anything and makes a mental note to never compliment me on my looks again. Ever.
Discounting is a popular and unhealthy habit. It’s as if the person receiving the compliment needs to come clean and mention all their problems first, before they are pointed out. Why can’t we just be open to receive without emphasizing the problems with the praise?
The Pawelskis recommend three steps to accept praise gracefully:
Just accept the compliment with a simple thank you. Make sure to look them in the eye. This may take some time for you to feel comfortable doing. Expect to feel awkward at first.
This is where you accept the compliment internally and let the sweet words flood your body. It’s okay to savor a compliment. Let yourself believe what was said without arguing with yourself about it.
This is where you continue the conversation with a question and use it as an opportunity to make a bigger connection to the other person. Remember, you’ve already said a simple thank you — don’t skip that part!
My friend: I can tell you’ve been working out. You look fabulous!
Me: Thank you! Why don’t we meet up this weekend and go for a walk on the trails of Main Street Park? The weather is so beautiful this time of year!
*At the neighborhood barbeque*
Neighbor: Did you bring this fruit salad? It’s delicious!
Me: Thank you! I got the idea from the new restaurant down the street. Have you tried it out yet?
All these suggestions will take practice before they feel natural. Once you get used to it, social situations will become less daunting, your self-esteem will improve, and the bond between you and others will strengthen.
Now, get out there and let your beautiful inner light shine bright! I know you can do it!
(Now, say, “Thank you.”)