Our society gives us the message that humbleness and modesty are virtues, and the opposite of these virtues is arrogance and conceit. This message is especially strong for women, and also in the southern regions of the US. Many people I know are self-deprecating and embarrassed at being singled out for a job well done. This is hogwash. It can be difficult to learn to accept a compliment, but it is a worthwhile goal.

Knowing when and how to give compliments can also be difficult. Many people get into a compliment-reflect-loop: Person A gives a compliment to Person B, Person B reflects or rejects the compliment and follows up with compliment to Person A, who then rejects and follows up with another compliment to Person B, etc. This exchange not only negates the value of the initial compliment by buffering it with filler-compliments, but it is an unsatisfying, exhausting exchange.

Why Accepting Compliments is Important

Most people like receiving compliments, but we turn them aside for various reasons. We can feel our “achievement” was too small to warrant a compliment — it may seem like the compliment is backhanded or intended in a mean spirit, or just that we are unworthy of appreciation for such a tiny thing. We fear to be seen as attention-seeking; we don’t want to be perceived as “fishing for compliments.” We wish to display our humble, modest natures, while secretly feeling pleased.

However, when we refuse to accept a compliment, we are hurting not only the person paying it but ourselves.

Imagine Bill, in his first job. Someone pays Bill a compliment, Wow, Bill, you got that done so quickly, it was amazing! You’re a real asset around here. Bill feels a little sunbeam inside, lighting him up, making him feel taller, proud, accomplished. That little compliment “made Bill’s day” or his week! And, if Bill is anything like me, he probably responded with something like, “It was no big deal.” Modest, to boot!

Now, let’s imagine that we’re the compliment-payer. Ten, twenty years older than Bill is, life has beaten us around a little bit, we have familial and financial obligations. Life isn’t terribly fun most times. Work is work, not a novel thrill. We see Bill, full of youthful confidence, so innocent and as-of-yet-undamaged. We see how hard Bill is trying, and we want to show you some encouragement (that maybe we didn’t have when we were younger). We compliment Bill, a deposit into his bank of self-esteem for days when life is going to get hard. When Bill shrugs and, suppressing a smile, says, “It was no big deal,” — how does that feel? We can see Bill is please, but he is rejecting our compliment. It is very easy to feel like Bill doesn’t value our esteem, that he has an ego that is unsupportable, and he is rejecting us for some reason. Our brains are good at filling in that reason — we may think that Bill perceives us as too old to matter, or too stupid to matter, or otherwise unworthy of Bill’s attention. It is easy to misconstrue Bill’s refusal of our compliment as an insult.

Now, back to Bill. Let’s assume that he has not alienated the other person with his behavior and ignore any complications that may arise there. Let’s just focus on the single act of rejecting a compliment. Can that harm Bill, really? In a single instance, probably not. But if Bill makes a habit of false-modesty, he can cause himself harm in the long run.

Our brains work in patterns. The more often we repeat a behavior, a thought, the easier it becomes. This is how muscle memory works. This is how rote memorization works. Repeated things become easier, they are more readily remembered, they are more accessible. The neurons in our brains along those pathways physically change to conduct impulses faster.

What this means for Bill, and for all of us, is that we can convince ourselves that the thoughts we have which lead to the rejection of a compliment are true. For instance, I should be modest, or I didn’t work hard, so I didn’t earn this acknowledgement, or I need to express unworthiness when I am complimented, or I am not important enough for recognition. Once we internalize those thoughts, they start to drive out feelings. We begin to believe that we actually do not deserve compliments, which reinforces the cycle of compliment-rejection.

At some point, it stops becoming an act or a display of false-modesty, and it becomes a genuine expression of self-deprecation.

How to Receive a Compliment

The mechanics of accepting a compliment are simple; say:

Thank you.

That’s all! I like to take a moment and think about what they have said; allow myself to reflect for a few thought cycles on this good thing. Sometimes, the compliment is something that seems trivial to me, and I don’t understand why my action is worthy of appreciation. In these cases, I will sometimes follow up the thank you with some questions. Thank you! But I’m not sure what I did that was significant. Can you give me a little more detail about what I did right, so I can keep doing this in the future?

Do not say:

  • No problem | No worries
  • It was nothing
  • Anytime
  • It was no big deal | No biggie
  • Sure
  • Of course
  • Yeah

If you want to express that you were unfazed by the task, that you are willing to repeat it in the future, and of course they can come to you — do this after saying thank you, and in a full sentence.

Never minimize with the “it was nothing” approach — while this is self-deprecating, it’s also insulting to the compliment-payer. Clearly it was a “big deal” to them, and they are trying to show you their appreciation — any dismissal will communicate that you think you are better than they are, that you have abilities they don’t, or that you do things more easily, and this task was beneath your notice — none of which create a happy rapport.

Also, do not deflect compliments with more compliments. If I tell Bill, “You’re a hard worker, we appreciate what you’re doing here.” If he responds by saying, “Oh, yeah. You’re a really great boss, though, I wouldn’t be so successful without your help.” While this may be true, and Bill may really appreciate me and my guidance, it sounds like a bunch of bologna. It’s like those gooey couples that can’t stop insisting one loves the other more — No, I love you more! It feels uncomfortable and false. Much better for Bill to accept my compliment in an open way: Thank you for noticing! I really value your good opinion, so this means a lot to me.

If someone is trying to start a compliment-loop, you can shut it down by accepting their compliment and not paying another out.

You can choose to accept backhanded compliments, too. It’s easy to be offended by a dual-edged compliment — after all, that is the intent in which they are given. If you can find the compliment inside the words and accept it, while rejecting the negative, you will not only feel good but avoid getting smeared by the message. For instance, we’ll pick on Bill again — “Great job in there, Bill you were ruthless!” Hmm, I don’t think I was ruthless, I was being impartial and fair. But thank you for noticing I did a good job!

How to Give a Compliment

If I give out compliments like stickers, I am more likely to have them rejected or perceived as watered-down. As someone who wants my words to matter to other people, I especially want my words of approval to mean something. So when I communicate admiration, I am honest and explicit. This doesn’t mean I don’t say “good job,” or “well done,” or “good idea” — I use those all the time, but in an everyday, informal sense. When I give a compliment, it is for something that matters to me, so I want to indicate that to the recipient through the gravitas I give it.

When I tell someone, “You are a thoughtful person,” I want them to be able to tell that I am earnest and genuine. They shouldn’t have to wonder whether I’m being facetious, filling the silence with words, or complimenting them so they will like me more. I speak the words in a tone that implies their importance to me. For unspecific phrases like this, I also usually follow it with a thank you — especially around people who do not know me well, to reinforce my sincerity — and some details about the event that caught my notice, and why their actions were significant to me.

If we make an effort to accept a compliment, we not only acknowledge the kindness another has extended on our behalf, but we allow ourselves to experience a good feeling without guilt. In paying a compliment, we are earnest, sincere, and honest — and we want our words to be received in the same spirit.