Most people give you compliments because they want to make you feel good. But if you're like most people, those well-meaning, kind words are sometimes hard to hear.
Here are four reasons why it can be difficult to accept a compliment:
1. Low Self-Esteem
A new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that people with low self-esteem have the most difficulty accepting compliments. If you think you're somehow flawed, or that you are not deserving of attention, you might have trouble understanding how others can say nice things about you.
According to the study, compliments are unlikely to improve your negative self-image. Worse, if the admiration comes from a romantic partner, those well-meaning words of praise can actually damage your relationship, because you might think your partner is lying, which can cause you to lose trust.
2. Your Self-Image Doesn't Line Up
Another reason compliments can be uncomfortable is because the words you hear don't line up with the way you see yourself. Cognitive dissonance is the term psychologists use to describe such inconsistencies.
For example, imagine a co-worker says, "You're so smart. You always say just the right things in your reports." If you don't view yourself smart or competent, hearing those words might send you into a tailspin, as you wonder whether you lack insight or the other person lacks judgment.
This is why people quite often respond to a compliment with a justification. Saying something like, "Well, I just got lucky this time," might help relieve a little bit of the anxiety stirred up when someone's description of you doesn't match the way you describe yourself.
3. You're Uncomfortable with Big Expectations
Studies show that people with self-worth issues prefer to set the bar low. This way, if they meet their expectations, they're pleasantly surprised.
A compliment that implies you're expected to excel puts you under a lot of pressure. If your boss says, "I picked you for this project because you always meet your deadlines," you may find the words downright terrifying. When you feel like other people hold you in high regard, self-doubt may creep in and cause you to feel anxious. You might think it's only a matter of time before you disappoint someone.
4. You Want to be Humble
It's hard to know how to react when someone showers you with accolades like, "You're the best boss ever," or "You have incredible talent." Saying, "Yeah, I know," definitely makes you sound like a jerk. But for many people, even a simple "Thank you" can feel quite awkward. After all, bragging isn't an attractive behavior.
Studies link humility to a variety of positive outcomes, ranging from increased self-control and to more effective leadership. But accepting compliments can sometimes feel more like a superiority complex, rather than a graceful acknowledgment.
Gracefully Accepting a Compliment
Trouble accepting a compliment could be a symptom of an underlying problem. Tackle your self-esteem issues or address your core beliefs, and you may find that compliments become more comfortable.
And even if you feel awkward about accepting a compliment, your behavior doesn't have to be awkward. The best response to a compliment is showing a little gratitude: A simple, "Thank you," is almost always appropriate. Resist the urge to criticize yourself, but do share the limelight if someone has assisted you in your success.
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This article first appeared on Inc.