Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

What Do You Mean, I Look Pretty Today?

You probably know what it’s like to get a compliment that should make you feel better but actually makes you feel bad. Maybe it doesn’t feel genuine or it feels like a back-handed criticism. When this happens, does your reaction reflect your own insecurities and anxieties or is it an accurate reading of an underlying message? What can you do about it either way? Read More

Bad parenting experience

I have a mother who is a narcissist with Borderline Personality Disorder. From an early age I was told that I was worthless, and everybody was more important. Fortunately, I got into therapy early and was able to work through a lot of problems that I had on account of this. Mom is still alive and still attempting to destroy me.

I am reasonably successful in many activities and interests. I'm a popular local speaker and have spearheaded many different groups and accomplishments. I have never been able to appreciate a compliment. If I received a compliment I never accepted it. I would explain that I really did nothing to deserve it and then I tell the complimenter about someone else who really deserves the credit. This is the way my mother insisted I do as a child, as the proper way to handle praise through ladylike behavior because I was something less than special. I don't know how many times I've said, "It was nothing, really." to people when I spent weeks, months or years working on something. You know what? It was something, lots and lots of really hard work.

A few months ago I read a recent Psychology Today piece on accepting compliments I realized I have a really big problem. Now when somebody gives me a compliment I reply with a simple, "Thank you". It still feels weird but I'm working on it.

I think it's most often one-upmanship

This is an experience I have often had and noticed other people having, too. So often, when I give a compliment that I assume will make the complimentee happy as I intend, there is some unexpected and negative response.

I have given these experiences a lot of thought. It seems to me that the complimentee should be aware that the intention is genuine complimenting, and that, if they respond as if there were another motive, they are doing so deliberately and with intended malice.

Thus, what I believe is the spur to such responses is that one has inadvertently given the complimentee an opportunity to play a one-upmanship game with one, and that most people, given such an opportunity - no matter the context - do not hesitate to use it.

So many people seem to lack self-confidence and need to use every op-portunity to bolster themselves at others' expense.

I have never had...

a problem with accepting compliments but for years I've had a problem if I receive a birthday wish as a result of my doing business with or have minimal social contact with the caller. It has literally ruined the entire day. Thanks to this blog I recognize that it is different but the same. Thank you.

I was just laughing about

I was just laughing about this yesterday. Two Facebook 'friends': One said her daughter had just bought her first house and posted a picture of quite a fancy place for a young single woman. Two of her 'friends' called it 'cute.'
And another posted a picture of her (beautiful) self. One comment simply said 'Wow! I almost didn't recognize you!' Nothing else.
And in my own life, I mentioned to a neighbor that I'd surprised myself by losing so much weight in my first month at Weight Watchers. Her reply was 'Keep it up.' ??? I am not overweight and never have been (nor is the neighbor), just trying to lose 15 lbs of post-preganancy weight and am halfway there after one month. I kind of thought 'Good for you.' would have been more in order.
But, what the hell, you can't make people play nice all the time.

Should we really care how everyone responds?

I agree, some responses may be odd or strange. One has to look at context. If someone is on Facebook they may be using it while commuting, or in the bathroom or at work. Maybe they aren't reading the full post, but want to respond anyway. So they throw in a "cute" before they look at the pictures, or maybe a picture of themselves because they just uploaded one and had it handy.

I really don't care and have learned not to interpret what people say, unless they are being passive aggressive and making an insult through a compliment.

I know a group of people that I met 25 years ago. They are extremely touchy, so much so that I avoid them if I can. They dissect every word, every phrase. I learned immediately after meeting them never to used the word "died". One has to say "passed" or "is at one with father", even though these folks aren't religious. A few days ago I forgot the rule and mentioned to one of them that somebody had had a medical event. I never said "died" or "dead". Word quickly spread to the entire large group that I was rude and insulting because of the term "medical event". They've torn up my reputation over this transgression. So again, I'm taking big measures to avoid them.


I found that my mother in law is a genious at finding ways to interpret others' comments and compliments in the worst way possible in order to manipulate. She also gives out backhanded compliments like party favours.

It took me many years to decide that since I couldn't control her, I was just going to have to play my own hand the best way I could and observe her antics with as much amusement and detatchment as possible. It usually works unless she ropes someone else into her schemes. It's all good an fun otherwise, since she turns up after being so offended and morally outraged with a "fiddly dee! are'nt you suprised to see me again?" a few hours later.
If one can, such people should be avoided. If not... take them out for a spin :-)

to be clear

I do not purposefully wind her up. But I no longer walk on eggshells. I realized my reply could be taken wrongly and wish to point out that this lady HAS had a rough time in her life. It's simply she cannot undo that by behaving as she does. I stand by what I say to her, pay my compliments, and let her take them as she will, and ignore her theatrics. Still, the results can be amusing.


Siempre he considerado que mencionar las virtudes de las personas tienes diferentes ventajas tanto para quien lo da como quien lo recibe.

Pero existen diferentes reacciones antes los cumplidos: algunos agradecen y continúan. Otros (los que me dejan siempre pensando por qué la reacción y me encantaría que usted me aclarara) se vanaglorian incansablemente después de haber recibir el halago. ¿Hasta qué punto esto es positivo? ¿Podría esto ser un rasgo de baja autoestima? ¿debería continuar dando cumplidos a este tipo de personas?

Yo aprendí a no tener en cuenta los halagos. Considero que es una forma de influenciar a quien recibe el halago. Prefiero mantenerme al margen y agradecer.


Lo siento mucho de no haber respondido mas temprano -- y pido disculpas de antemano por mi español. Lo que usted dice es interesante. creo que es verdad, que una razón para rechazar los cumplidos es porque algunas personas los utilizan para sentirse mejor y otras para controlar a otras.

Relationship Insecurity

What's interesting when reading this is that, it all depends on the person who is giving me the compliment. When I'm in relationships I find myself more insecure about getting certain compliments that I don't think are as good as they could be.. for example "You look pretty"... but I want to look better than pretty. If anybody else gives me compliments I don't think as much of it. I guess there is such a thing as relationship insecurity and just general/common insecurity. Everybody always comments on how confident I seem and secure of myself I am, but when in a relationship it all disappears.

My mother

My mother hates children, has a personality disorder, and really wanted another boy. I was the last kid my parents had together, and they absolutely can't stand each other. Before they got divorced (I was four at the time) my mother found it funny to tell me how ugly I am and then after the divorce she started listing off specific things like "You have your fathers eyes, they are so ugly nobody would ever like them." (I'm cleaning this up quite a bit I don't want to be vulgar.) She also did things like buy me the wrong size of cloths and tell me I needed to lose weight. Like when I was around 14 I would start crying if a guy gave me a compliment, I honestly couldn't help it but it made me feel so like broken or crazy. I'm 16 now and I got over crying but I cant help how insecure I am in general. I'v been dating the same guy for a year and we are best friends but I cant help but notice when he doesn't say anything nice to me I get really depressed. I decided to quit bringing it up to him because it seems to annoy him, Iv told him everything about my mother and he tries to be supportive but he was lucky and came from like the perfect family so he can't really understand or relate to it. I have never had counseling because I just feel like they would change visitation or judge me. Honestly i still live with my mom because I feel sorry for her because she hasn't really matured. (I buy all of my stuff, food, and sometimes pay the bills) My dad knows how my mom is so hes trying to pressure me into moving in with him but I just feel hes too strict. (I can only hang out with one female friend I'v had sense 5th grade) Like I'm already in college classes and I'm aiming to be a pediatrician, so I know things will get better. I just am getting to be depressed all the time and I don't want to bother people, and it tends to annoy them... I am really not sure what to do anymore. :/

A very painful situation

Hi -- This sounds so awful. I'm really sorry that you're having to go through it. But one thing you should know is that you are not alone in this struggle, and it doesn't mean that there's something wrong with you. Some daughters of critical, hateful mothers have even written about it. There are a number of blogs on the PT website about it. Take a look, for example, at Peg Streep's blog She also has written a book called Mean Mothers-Overcoming a Legacy of Hurt, which you can find at Barnes and Noble.

I understand that you are worried about a change in your visitation or living situation, but you sound so unhappy, and a good counselor should work with you, not against you, to help you find a way to manage this situation. But if you don't want to go to therapy, maybe you could speak with a minister or rabbi or priest, who at least could give you support.

Take good care of yourself.


I like compliments :) I also like to give compliments, and have the idea that well I give the compliment sincerely, if they don't like it too bad, I know I really meant well. I like telling a woman as well "you look amazingly beautiful" when she does, when anyone does not I just don't say anything, but nevertheless am always tasteful, kind, sweet and polite.


I like compliments :) I also like to give compliments, and have the idea that well I give the compliment sincerely, if they don't like it too bad, I know I really meant well. I like telling a woman as well "you look amazingly beautiful" when she does, when anyone does not I just don't say anything, but nevertheless am always tasteful, kind, sweet and polite.

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F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.


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