"We are prepared for insults, but compliments leave us baffled." - Mason Cooley "
"You look amazing!”
“No, no, I look gross. YOU look great.”
“Ugh, no way, I’m SO bloated.”
Who hasn’t been a part of, or witness to, an exchange that starts like this, and goes on into a spiral of compliment deflection and self-deprecation?
I have to admit, I’m not the world’s best compliment receiver myself.
I’m acutely aware of it. I coach others on it. Yet, my ability to accept a compliment with a graceful “thank you” takes focus and restraint. For many of us, with or without the grace, receiving a compliment is no small feat.
In fact, studies have found Americans deflect compliments two-thirds of the time.
And, I hate to throw my gender under the bus, but research points to women receiving compliments less than men.
In a study, compliments given from man to man were accepted 40 percent of the time, while compliments given from a woman to another woman were only accepted 22 percent of the time. To really put the nail in the coffin, if it was a man giving a woman the compliment, the percentage of women who accepted the compliment went up to 68 percent.
There’s a slew of reasons we do this. Receiving clashes with our cultural views of how we are supposed to behave socially. We don’t want to seem conceited or bitchy. Women, specifically, have learned this from a young age.
"In our culture, there is this unspoken rule that women are supposed to be modest. If we accept a compliment fully, the fear is that it’s going to come off as bragging," says Alyson Lanier a psychotherapist and life coach in an article for Women's Health.
She's not the only one talking about this.
Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., says in Today, "[We’re told] love yourself, but not too much. Be confident, but practice a style of humility this culture never requires of men. Believe in yourself, but never admit it out loud, lest you make another woman who doesn’t feel good about herself feel bad...If you’re raised to think it’s arrogant to ever say something positive about yourself, it makes it hard to accept a compliment."
(Read my blog about qualifying speech, Sorry, Not Sorry, here.)
Then, there are others for whom receiving a compliment taps into feelings of self-worth and self-esteem, or even trust. It's hard to accept a compliment that goes directly against your internal mean-girl, or that makes you question the giver's motives. It’s a murky, mucky mess.
Women with lower self-esteem, “...are more likely to genuinely not accept the compliment because it is inconsistent with their self-concept and they find it threatening,” says social psychologists Laura Brannon in this article.
Here's the clincher, even women with high self-esteem aren't immune to throwing a compliment back in the giver's face in hopes of appearing modest and being liked.
It’s upsetting to read, yet, I know I’ve been guilty of it myself on all counts.
On the surface, receiving a compliment seems like it should be simple enough. I mean, come on, who doesn’t like hearing something nice? Yet, so many of us are more comfortable giving. And, while giving is said to be better than receiving, and comes with a bunch of feel-good benefits, you can’t have one without the other.
When we deflect a compliment; when we put ourselves down instead of saying thank you; when we decline a gift or refuse help; we’re not only doing ourselves a disservice, we’re taking the benefits of giving away from the giver.
This insight from Christopher Littlefield in the Harvard Review really hit home: “Recognition is often more about the giver than the receiver...Even if you didn’t like the pink and purple socks your aunt knitted you for your birthday, you wouldn’t throw them back in her face! The key to accepting recognition is to relate to it as though it is a gift.”
Littlefield sums up the act of receiving gracefully.
It isn’t about us and our struggles with our intrinsic value, our self-esteem, or even how we can fit in socially. The act of receiving gracefully is about acknowledging the giver and the gift.
Being a graceful receiver has other upsides. According to Professor Norihiro Sadato, the study lead and professor at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences in Japan, "To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being rewarded money." (Read more in here.)
So, how can we channel some of our inner grace and accept a compliment without coming across as arrogant, or (gasp) bitchy?
Start by taking a moment to pause and hear the compliment. This gives us a chance to acknowledge the giver and let them feel good. It also allows us a moment to be present and actually hear what is being said instead of immediately going into our deflective dialogue (internal or external).
If there's a whole bunch of internal chatter going on, acknowledge that voice, and tell it/yourself, "I hear you. Not now. I want to respect the person talking to me and myself."
Yes, I'm advising you to talk to yourself.
Then, smile. It's the element of grace.
Remember this is about the other person as well. You don't have to believe what they're saying, though your self-esteem might thank you if you do.
Finally, a simple "thank you" is all it takes.
Then, sit on your hands and do your best not to one-up the compliment giver with another compliment (which is another way to deflect). Feel free to share the wealth if someone else was involved. Do not use this as a way to shrug the compliment off!
It's easier said than done, but with a little practice, we might be able to get the dismal average of accepting compliments up.
Thank you for being an amazing reader and making it to the end!