Can you take a compliment?

Photo by Roman Kraft on

Photo by Roman Kraft on






Can you accept a compliment? Are you comfortable with acknowledgement and praise? Not everyone is. Some people feel very uncomfortable when they are complimented – even though it is generally well-meant and positive. Why is this and what can you do about it?

How do you respond to a compliment?
People respond to compliments in different ways. Some graciously thank the person. Others don’t. Instead they refute the comment downplaying the success, laughing it off or passing it off as credit due to others. Sometimes there is a form of compliment ping-pong played, where the person responds to a compliment by batting one back to the complimenter.

The emotion that accompanies these uncomfortable responses is embarrassment. It could be embarrassment at the attention being focused on the person. It could come from being uncomfortable with the attention and the perception of boasting. It could also be the result of the person doubting the authenticity of the compliment because of their own low self-esteem or self perception in that regard.

The other side of the compliment
A compliment is a positive acknowledgement or recognition of a person’s attribute(s), performance or success in something. When people react to compliments with these signs of discomfort, it is often a result of culture, upbringing or experience. The person offering the compliment doesn’t always understand this and can perceive these reactions as not accepting the offered compliment.

Consider the perspective of the complimenter. If you think of a compliment as a gift, a reaction that knocks it back is refusing their gift.

Richard Littlefield has researched how people relate to giving and receiving recognition. He suggests that “when someone is complimenting you, they are sharing how your actions or behaviours impacted on them” (as quoted in Goulston, 2013). A person who does this, has been both thoughtful and generous in offering the gift of a compliment. The recognition embedded in a compliment is more about the giver than the receiver.

The key to accepting recognition
Relating to compliments and recognition as a gift, is the key to learning to accept it. Whether you agree or disagree with the sentiment expressed or whether you feel you deserve it or not, the giver is sharing a gift with you. That gift is their experience of you. Their experience of you is not the same as your experience of yourself. It provides you with some insight into how others perceive you.

Some people say they don’t need recognition. However, everyone benefits from being recognised for their contribution. Even those who shrug off the need for feedback actually do value it. It is a positive interaction that builds good relations between people – in work and social interactions.

Tips for managing compliments
These tips are a stepped process to build your awareness of your own reactions to compliments, then change your response.

  1. Regard recognition as a gift.
  2. Accept the compliment – try responding with a simple “thank you”.
    If you notice you have rejected or diverted a compliment, you can always go back and thank the person later. Let them know you are working on accepting compliments and thank them then.
  3. Amplify the impact of the compliment by taking it in.
  4. Advance the conversation by asking questions about the compliment eg What was it about … that you thought was effective?

Goulston, Mark. 2013.  What to Do When Praise Makes You Uncomfortable in Harvard Business Review, 13 December 2013.

Weiss, Suzannah. 2018. A Psychological Explanation for Why Getting Compliments Are So Embarrassing in The Cut, 17 January 2018.

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