My husband I spent last weekend with our families. On our way out the door from my parents’ house my mom complimented my new blazer.
“This thing?” I said about a blazer I had been eyeing for months, saved for, and finally splurged on after refreshing the retailer’s site 722 times over Labor Day weekend in hopes of my size restocking.
“It’s not that nice. It’s too heavy. And shorter than I thought it would be. And it was on sale,” I said, listing its flaws.
We left and went to spend time with my in-laws, who, upon seeing me, were exceptionally congratulatory and overjoyed to chat about a new job I’ve recently started — doing exactly what I want to do, exactly where I wanted to be doing it — and wanted to know all the details.
“It’s not that cool, really. A job’s a job,” I bashfully said.
When we got in the car my husband — who has called me out on this numerous times — recounted the events and asked: “Why can’t you just take a compliment?”
Why we react negatively to compliments
See, if you’re like me, a compliment induces two reactions:
- Option A, the more likely option in my mind, is instant humiliation followed by fear that the complimenter will soon see that I am a fraud and he or she is wrong about me. I will be exposed, and everything will unravel from there.
- Option B, definitely also a viable option, stems from my distrust in the complimenter. He or she wants something from me, so I have to keep my guard up.
Either way, the issue is the same. We’ve stopped seeing ourselves as worthy of admiration. We spend so much time putting ourselves down that when someone suddenly expresses an opinion that differs from our own, we’re vulnerable and suspicious.
This may seem strange in an era where everyone is oversharing, seemingly begging for likes and to be liked. But contrary to what social media may show, many people don’t want to be acknowledged in a major way or at all. Feeling like the bright lights are shining directly on them makes some people feel like hiding.
The three response types
Suzann and James Pawelski, authors of “Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts” seem to agree that my reaction is hardly unique. There are three distinct types of reactions to compliments.
“We have found this to be a common experience of many people when receiving gratitude. We think part of the reason has to be cultural. We are often taught to be modest and not focus on ourselves. So that when we are given compliments we often deflect them, brushing them off like you might a crumb from your shirt or even a pesky fly,” Suzann Pawelski said.
Suzann said that while deflection is a popular response, so is unnecessary reciprocation. “Often, before the compliment even has time to land, the other person immediately launches into his or her own expression of gratitude,” she said. Suzann and James call this the “hot potato” phenomenon.
“This type of response feels very transactional. It’s like we feel that if someone pays us a compliment we have to pay them back for it right away,” they say. “Again, vulnerability comes into play here. It’s natural to feel vulnerable if we find ourselves in someone’s debt. If we aren’t comfortable with it, we may try to repay — or ‘hot potato’ — the debt back as quickly as possible.”
Suzann said the third type of response is discounting — this is where we give all the reasons why the compliment can’t be received.
For example, one time, James complimented Suzann on a great meal she had cooked. Suzann then went into a litany of all the reasons and problems why the meal wasn’t as good as it could have been — like me with my blazer. She gave a laundry list of reasons how she ran out of a certain spice, overcooked the potatoes, etc. You can imagine how James felt by the time she was done spewing her negativity! Suzann says this is an unhealthy habit among people.
“It’s as if the person receiving the compliment needs to come clean and mention all the problems first before they are pointed out,” she said.
Learn to Accept and Appreciate Compliments
The bottom line is that while compliments should bring joy and serve as a gracious gift, they can often feel heavier to a recipient. Give thought to the recipient when you voice your compliment and consider your reaction next time you receive one. There are reasons it might not feel as good as you think it should, but you’re not alone, and noticing how you feel can help you change that.