When Compliments Make You Uncomfortable

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A compliment is a gift offered from the heart – but receiving that gift isn’t always easy. For many people, compliments trigger insecurities, making them feel a bit uneasy, or even outright uncomfortable, as if the compliment is a problem to cope with instead of a gift to be enjoyed.

For instance, if someone were to compliment your work – “You are such an amazing snake milker!” (yes, that is a real job) – the obvious response would be “Thank you!” But being so openly accepting of the compliment may make you more unsettled than holding that snake. Maybe you have been taught that feeling good or proud means you are arrogant or overly impressed with yourself – a very bad thing. Or you might feel uneasy accepting the compliment because you hold negative thoughts and feelings about yourself, and so the compliment doesn’t match your inner reality. Such negative self-perceptions cause needless emotional suffering.

To begin receiving compliments as they are meant to be –opportunities to feel good – you must first become aware of your defensive behaviors. Here are some common ways that people deflect or minimize compliments:

Dismissing the comment: If you pretend that the person never complimented you – or you move quickly onto another subject with the shrug of your shoulders, then you don’t have to experience the discomfort.

Trying to prove you are unworthy: You might feel compelled to prove the person wrong by telling them all the ways that you fall short of their praise. Or, you might make a joke of the compliment. Unable to contain your disbelief, you might explain, “Anyone can collect venom from a snake – it’s not like it’s rocket science.”

Turning the focus on the other person: Your brain might automatically minimize the compliment and jump to a return compliment. By highlighting something wonderful about the person who has just admired you, you can quickly turn the focus on them – with the bonus of possibly indirectly proving how you really are not worthy of a compliment in the way that they are.

Accepting the compliment with gusto: Your discomfort – or need to feel good because of how badly you feel about yourself – might show itself by you gloating or inflating its meaning. You might give off the sense of feeling overly important and superior to other people.  Yet, though it looks on the outside like you are reveling in the compliment, you will likely feel that you don’t really deserve it.

Getting suspicious: You might question the other person’s motives for saying something nice because, after all, you don’t deserve the compliment. You might also fear that you will be hurt, manipulated, or betrayed. So even if you outwardly accept the compliment, you feel anything but good about it. 

Not only do these defensive responses prevent you from fully enjoying a compliment, but they also deprive the other person of the opportunity of feeling good for offering it. It’s amazing how much better off the two of you would be if you replied with something like, “I appreciate you saying that. It makes me feel good.” Or, you can nurture positive feelings by graciously accepting compliments with a simple “Thank you.”


by Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD