Often in therapy patients speak of being unable to give or accept compliments easily and graciously. As a psychotherapist, rather than treat this as merely a sign of poor social skills, I latch onto it and explore it as a symbol of deeper emotional issues.
People who have difficulty with these tasks often struggle with several related issues.
At a basic level, they have low self-worth, so that at they do not believe a compliment when one is given to them: “I couldn’t possibly be as smart as they say I am.” These Submissive types of people, as I describe them in my book “Pack Leader Psychology,” tend to please and appease in relationships. They don’t want to feel “one-up” or more powerful than others, but instead strive to appear less powerful. Denying compliments or being self-deprecating is one way to do that.
Yet these people also subconsciously dislike this feeling of self-deprecation because they sense that it puts them in a weakened position.
These Submissive people have come to believe that relationships ought be manipulative. Perhaps their early attachments to parents or other caregivers were insecure and conditional. Perhaps these people, as children, had to attend to the emotional needs of their self-absorbed parents. They learned to prop up their parents emotionally, placing their own needs second. This taught them that compliments are false and manipulative — a method some people adopt to manage a relationship to earn approval and acceptance: “I’ll give you this compliment if you then like me or submit to me or don’t hurt me.”
Therefore, giving or accepting a compliment can be felt as a minor form of vulnerability. If a person has learned to be distrustful of relationships, being emotionally open can be a fear-provoking experience: “If I accept a compliment from this person, I’ll be in their emotional debt. That feels unsafe to me, so I’ll demure.”
In my experience, by becoming more self-accepting, a person can naturally become more comfortable with giving the gift of a compliment. A self-accepting person has strong self-worth so that she can disconnect the gift of a compliment from any neediness for approval.
She can freely give and receive compliments without feeling indebted.
A self-accepting person does not fear relationships, so can be fully present in conversations, stating what she is experiencing, and express real feelings. If I experience someone as, say, pleasant and helpful, I will share that with them, knowing that I am giving them a gift that will, likely, improve their day. But I am not doing this in hopes of receiving anything in return. It is a true gift — with no agenda or expectation of anything in return.
To get better at compliments, it often just takes some practice. Start with giving an insignificant compliment to a stranger — praise the waitress for her good service. Then move on to people who are closer to you and try to give a compliment to them regularly. Feel how those experiences resonate with you.
When someone gives you a compliment, merely smile and thank them as sincerely as you can. Don’t brush off the praise. Think of a compliment as a gift — would you take someone’s gift and throw it in the trash in front of them? That’s what you’re doing when you dismiss their praise. This behavior is not likely to strengthen the relationship!
I believe that dismissing compliments also sends a signal to others that you have low self-worth. To Dominators, this is a sign they can take advantage of you and your insecure weakness.
With practice, you can be better at the social art of giving compliments. In the process, you may also start to really hear how others experience you. I find that many people have been told repeatedly about a talent that they have, but they were so busy dismissing these compliments that they never really absorbed what others were saying.
Brushing off compliments also tells people you aren’t comfortable getting them, so they will likely stop. If you want more praise, don’t train people to quit giving it!