Although most people enjoy receiving praise, some of us bristle when we hear compliments, and a few of us downright hate them. One of the biggest factors determining whether we turn sour at the first hint of positive feedback is our self-esteem.
Many of us are more likely to compliment someone with low self-esteem than someone with higher self-esteem because we assume their need for positive feedback is greater. However, a series of studies found that compliments might not benefit people with low self-esteem at all, and can even make them feel uncomfortable. For example, in one study, college students with low self-esteem showed a stronger preference for keeping their current roommate if that roommate viewed them negatively, than if their roommate saw them more positively.
Why did they prefer the company of a person who regarded them poorly?
The answer is people actively seek to verify their own perceptions of themselves, whether those are positive or negative. When our self-esteem is low, positive feedback becomes difficult for us to absorb because it contradicts our existing self-beliefs. As a result, our defenses kick in and we reject the information. This is why I consider low self-esteem to represent a form of psychological injury, one that impacts us "systemically" and operates in a variety of contexts.
If we believe we're truly undesirable, hearing compliments about how attractive we are will feel jarring and inauthentic. If we believe we're unintelligent, someone lavishing us with praise about how smart we are will feel more like a taunt than a compliment. And if we're convinced we're incapable of success, receiving praise about our how capable we are can feel like a set-up for future heartbreak and disappointment.
The Perils of Complimenting Relationship Partners With Low Self-Esteem
The resistance people with low self-esteem have to compliments can be especially pronounced when the praise comes from their relationship partners. One study found that giving people with low self-esteem praise about being considerate boyfriends or girlfriends was enough to make them feel more insecure about their partners and even to view their entire relationship more negatively.
Any form of praise that comes from their partners, can make people with low self-esteem feel pressured to live up to the heightened expectations such praise implies. Because their confidence and trust in themselves is low, a person with low self-esteem fears they won't be able to sustain their efforts and they'll end up disappointing their partner. Further, they worry that their partner's love and caring are conditional, such that if they do fail to live up to their expectations, their partner will withdraw from them or exit the relationship altogether.
As a result of these internal pressures and anxieties, a person with low self-esteem is likely to use unconscious defense mechanisms when they hear compliments from their partners. Praise will only make them shut down and become more distant and withdrawn, as they hope (unconsciously) to lower their partner's expectations by doing so. Sadly, such reactions can unwittingly provoke exactly the response they feared as their partners are indeed likely to feel frustrated and annoyed of their efforts to provide positive feedback are met with such seeming indifference and disdain .
Compliments and Culture
The correlation between low self-esteem and a resistance to compliments should not be over-interpreted. People with low self-esteem are often uncomfortable receiving compliments but not everyone who is uncomfortable receiving compliments necessarily has low self-esteem. Praise has a large cultural and ideological component. For example, it is much more acceptable to praise children in some cultures than in others and it is much more acceptable to express positive regard to adults in some cultures than in others. Further, some people with high self-esteem might have ideologies or world views that associate compliments with "coddling" such that they experience praise as condescension rather than encouragement.
The bottom line is, give thought to the recipient when you voice a compliment and consider whether you should express it at all if you suspect their self-esteem is low.