Why Do Some People Hate Receiving Compliments?

If compliments—and your responses to them—make you cringe, here’s what you can do to make things a lot less awkward.

You’ve put on your fanciest duds, your hair came out just right (for once), and someone tells you how great you look. But instead of enjoying the praise, you stumble over a response—negating or dismissing the compliment, cringing, and possibly even skulking away. You didn’t mean to do this, of course. It just kind of happened. And chances are, you’re going to be stressing out about your awkward reaction for a while. So, why can a compliment be so hard to accept? Here’s what a therapist and science have to say.

Why do compliments make some people uncomfortable?

“People have trouble accepting compliments for a number of reasons. Sometimes, it’s tied to social anxiety. It can also be caused by feelings of low self-esteem, or by going through life without experiencing positive feelings of gratitude,” explains Lisa Schuman, a New York–based social worker. She also cites unresolved conflict as a potential source. “If you’re feeling anger or resentment toward someone and they give you a compliment, you may find it hard to believe,” she explains.

And what about the person who can’t handle the way they just responded to someone’s well-meaning, kind words and had to escape from the convo? Social anxiety disorder is not just a catch-all phrase; it’s an actual condition that affects 7 percent of the U.S. population, according to the American Psychiatric Association. People with it can really struggle with both giving and getting compliments. They may cast off kind words about themselves because they don’t feel worthy of getting them. This leads to a vicious cycle of escalating self-degeneration and even more social anxiety.

Even for people who don’t suffer from this disorder, compliments can sometimes lead to awkwardness, especially if you’re feeling unsure of yourself in the moment. And it’s a very rare person who never feels uncomfortable some of the time, either at parties or during intimate conversations. But learning how to accept compliments is an important social skill that everyone can benefit from, whether they experience social anxiety occasionally or often.

It’s not me—it’s me

Studies have shown that self-knowledge and self-esteem are the two main components that inform our social interactions. We bring our own feelings about ourselves into each conversation we have. If our self-esteem is on the low side, according to data, we are less able to accept positive feedback or shift our perception of ourselves based upon it. We think we’re not worthy, and all the praise in the world simply cannot change that. It’s too dissonant with our current belief system about what we perceive to be our worth.

Everyone (except maybe Beyoncé) has a bad self-esteem day every now and then. And some people feel poorly about themselves all or most of the time. If we get a compliment on a day when we’re feeling like we’re not all that, it’s hard to believe—and pretty much impossible to accept. So even a sincere, well-meaning, and honest compliment is going to land on us like a lie.

One way to boost your self-esteem? By learning how to stop comparing yourself to others.

Blame it on our ancestors

Schuman believes that this phenomenon may have its roots in our most ancient DNA and that it even may be hard-wired. “Our bodies and brains look for what’s negative in our environment, in order to protect ourselves, like our early ancestors keeping an eye out for saber-tooth tigers that might leap out at any moment to eat us. We’re poised to identify and deflect the negative so that we can survive,” she explains. In modern-day life, this phenomenon may play out in social interactions, which, let’s face it, can sometimes be as scary as fighting off a saber-tooth tiger. This may be especially true when we’re verbally sparring with a frenemy or someone we don’t completely trust to be honest with us. It can even happen with people we genuinely like and typically trust.

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You’re so vain

Compliments can also make us feel as if we’re standing out when all we really want to do is blend in with the crowd. This may be because a trusted family member or that mean girl from middle school told you not to be conceited. Having the spotlight shine on us for our accomplishments can feel great some of the time, but other times, it can simply be too glaring to handle, especially when we’re feeling a tad off-kilter for whatever reason.

Learning how to say thank you starts with practicing thankfulness

According to Schuman, practicing gratitude for the good things about yourself and your life is the first step toward being able to accept compliments. This will help you internalize the good things that are being said to you, rather than negating them. “People experience benefits when they are gracious. The first step is to tell yourself that you want to be gracious and that if you feel gratitude, you will also be more connected,” she explains. “People are attracted to those who are happy and gracious. Being able to say thank you is a part of that.”

Research backs up the connection between gratitude in daily living and feelings of self-worth. So do the experiences of people in 12-step addiction programs and other self-awareness groups that stress the importance of gratitude in everyday life.

Getting over old resentments

So, what should you do if your spouse, coworker, or friend gives you a compliment, and all you can think about is how mad you are at them for something they did nine years ago? Holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Resentments can clog up your life, making it harder for you to feel good about yourself or the other person. “Thinking about negativity, resentment, and bad feelings will eat away at you. Think about them like an old sandwich in the garbage,” suggests Schuman. “You’re not going to go through the garbage to look for the sandwich. Why should you go back and look for it? It’s smelly and gross. Close the lid and look for something else. Visualize a closed garbage-can lid, and redirect yourself to something better. Then it will be easier for you to accept a compliment from that person.”

How to respond to a compliment

Adjusting your perspective isn’t always easy, but you can get there—and in the meantime, fake it till you make it. Not only can that lessen awkwardness in the moment, but it can also help put you on the right path. So, accept a compliment with a simple thank you, even if you don’t quite own it inside.

And if you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed when you receive a compliment, take a quick, deep breath, and use those seconds to quickly craft an acknowledgment. For example, depending on the situation, you might say: “I really did work hard on that assignment, and I appreciate that you noticed the effort.” Or: “Thanks for letting me know you like this color. I wasn’t sure when I chose this shirt if it was flattering, but I love your taste, so I appreciate you mentioning it.” Whatever you say is pretty much fine, as long as it allows you to own the compliment you’ve just received instead of diluting it. But in general, it’s a good idea to keep your response short and sweet, and when in doubt, stick to those two golden words—thank you.

Getting a compliment also presents an opportunity for you to give one, so long as it is honest. Feel free to acknowledge the compliment giver for something relating to the moment, such as their outfit, their role in a big task at work, or any other thing that the two of you share. Just don’t get into a battle of the compliments. The goal here isn’t to outdo each other with over-the-top accolades, but rather, to show gratitude for the kind words given and to inspire camaraderie. Here are some more tips on how to give a sincere compliment.

Practice makes perfect

Yes, the more you do it, the easier it will become. But it also helps to practice gratitude on a daily basis, by identifying the good things about yourself and your life, and giving thanks for them. If you own the good things about you, you will be able to accept compliments about yourself more readily. Keeping a gratitude journal may help. The key is to learn to move onto something else without obsessing over the compliments you receive or their implications—and to simply accept them at face value. Like any habit, practice makes perfect. And in this case, it will help you to realize just how perfect you really are. Yes, you. And yes, that was a compliment.

Corey Whelan
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer and reproductive health professional who has worked with infertility patients and adopting parents for over 25 years. Her work has been featured in multiple media outlets, including Reader’s Digest, The Healthy, Healthline, CBS Local, and Berxi. Follow her on Twitter @coreygale.