Here's What It Means If You Can't Take A Compliment

Therapists share what this habit says about you -- and what to do about it.
Being unable to accept compliments could be related to your self-confidence, a fear of being seen or the societal rules that have conditioned you.
JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images
Being unable to accept compliments could be related to your self-confidence, a fear of being seen or the societal rules that have conditioned you.

Have you ever replied to a compliment with a self-deprecating rebuttal? For example, when someone praises your clean home you reply with “Oh, don’t look too closely.” Or when someone compliments your outfit, you say something like “Oh, it was cheap.”

If this sounds familiar, there may be a reason why you struggle with simply saying “Thank you.” In fact, our society makes it pretty hard for “Thank you” to be a complete sentence.

We asked therapists what it could mean if you struggle to accept compliments and what you can do to get better at it. Here’s what they said:

As a society, humility is encouraged, making it hard to accept compliments.

“In the U.S., we are taught to be very humble and honestly conservative,” said Emmalee Bierly, a licensed marriage and family therapist, co-owner of The Therapy Group in Pennsylvania and co-host of the “ShrinkChicks” podcast. “Like, the country started absolutely puritanical.”

We’re taught that accepting a compliment may even change how people view us, she added. There’s a false idea that your gratitude will be mistaken as vanity. And for women and girls, this viewpoint can be even more intense.

“Especially as women socialized in this country, we are so worried about looking self-centered or overly confident,” Bierly said. “We’re so scared about what that could possibly mean for us. I accept the compliment, then I’m ‘full of myself.’”

“For our BIPOC community, cultural beliefs and values come into play as well,” said Dominique Mortier, a psychotherapist at Bloom Psychology and Wellness in Toronto, “especially for us who are from more collectivist cultures.”

In collectivist cultures, people aren’t taught to focus on the individual because it’s viewed as selfish. “So those communities, they prioritize the value of being humble, and accepting compliments means not being humble in those communities,” Mortier noted, making it doubly hard to simply say thank you to praise.

You could also experience low self-esteem.

For some people, being unable to accept a compliment could indicate low self-worth or low self-esteem, according to Mortier.

“When someone compliments us, we may not necessarily believe them,” Mortier said. So our beliefs about ourselves are a factor here, too.

For example, if you’re self-conscious about your public speaking abilities and a co-worker compliments you after a big presentation, you’ll likely meet that compliment with some doubt.

This is especially true for people who had parents or caregivers who also had low self-esteem, Mortier added.

“They didn’t really have a role model or someone to watch to see [how they should respond to compliments]. And they will just respond based on what they’ve learned or what they’ve seen their caregiver or parent doing,” she said. This is often a deflecting response, like “Oh, stop” or “I messed up two minutes into the presentation.”

There is also a fear of being seen.

“We have a ton of difficulty being seen,” Bierly said. “For some people, it could be from an anxiety space ... ‘I don’t like when people look at me, I don’t like when people give me attention, I don’t like being the center of something.’”

And by default, compliments put you at the center of a conversation. This can cause people to dismiss compliments or change the topic as quickly as possible in order to get out of the spotlight.

Compliments don't carry the same weight for everyone. Some people need the reassurance while others couldn't care less.
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images
Compliments don't carry the same weight for everyone. Some people need the reassurance while others couldn't care less.

Compliments don’t carry the same weight for everyone.

“For some people, [compliments are] life-changing and so insanely significant ... it is how I get security, it’s how I get praised, it’s how I feel loved,” Bierly said. But “for some people, they truly do not give a shit, and they have it all internal,” she said.

Either way, it’s important to know what compliments mean to you. “If you’re someone who needs acknowledgment and praise, that’s a really important thing to know about yourself,” she explained. And if you don’t need that kind of reassurance, that is fine, too.

If you want to learn to accept compliments, notice how they make you feel.

“One of the things I would ask people to do is to track what [compliments] bring up for you,” Bierly said.

Think back to a time when you dismissed a compliment and ask yourself why you responded the way you did. For example, if someone said something nice about your outfit and you replied with “It was cheap,” ask yourself why that was your response. Did you want the person to stop talking about it? Did you not want them to think you owned anything expensive?

“And then once you’re able to locate or identify that feeling, try and use some counteracting thoughts ... So, what’s wrong with me saying thank you? What am I worried that it says about me? What feeling am I trying to avoid when I shoot down the remark? Why did I need to dismiss that?” Bierly said.

Additionally, remember that a compliment is just one person’s opinion — it doesn’t have to be yours, too. “A huge understanding of compliments is knowing that this person is sharing their perspective with me. I may not necessarily always agree with someone else’s perspective and that’s OK,” Mortier added. “Accepting compliments versus agreeing with them are two very different things.”

Over time, if you accept compliments more, you can learn to agree with the compliment if you want to. But simply thanking someone for complimenting your hair or outfit doesn’t mean you are automatically agreeing, too, Mortier said.

Don’t be afraid to ask a professional for support.

Your inability to accept compliments has likely been conditioned by society, making it a really ingrained issue. And low self-worth isn’t something you can just switch off because you want to.

Mortier said it can be helpful to get professional help from a therapist to deal with the things that make it hard for you to accept compliments. A therapist can provide you with additional help, ask prompting questions and offer a different perspective, she said.

“We’re our own worst critic at most times,” Mortier said. Having a neutral, alternative perspective can be hugely helpful, she added.

If you do want to be better at accepting compliments, know that it can happen and you deserve the recognition.

“I think every single person is worthy of honor and praise,” Bierly said.

Before You Go

A five-minute daily reflection journal with prompts

7 Journals That Can Help Your Mental Health, According To Therapists

Popular in the Community


HuffPost Shopping’s Best Finds