Most people like hearing praise but some people bristle when they hear compliments while others downright hate them. What determines whether someone enjoys receiving compliments or whether they turn sour at the first hint of positive feedback?
Compliments and Self-Esteem
More often than not, our receptivity to compliments is a reflection of our self-esteem and deep feelings of self-worth. Specifically, compliments can make people with low self-esteem feel uncomfortable because they contradict their own self-views. People actively seek to verify their own perceptions of themselves, whether those are positive or negative. 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.
In other words, receiving praise from others when we feel negatively about ourselves elicits discomfort because it conflicts with our existing belief system. 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 Challenge 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.
Given that the compliment in the study was mild, whether the participants were considerate or not could not have conflicted that strongly with their self-beliefs. Further, their partners know them well and were certainly in a position to comment on their relationship skills. So why would someone with low self-esteem react so strongly to such mild praise from their partner?
The answer is that 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 that 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 the 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 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 that 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 worldviews that associate compliments with "coddling," such that they experience praise as condescension rather than encouragement.
How to Increase Receptiveness to Compliments
It is possible to increase a person’s receptiveness to praise even if their self-esteem is low. One study found that asking people with low self-esteem to reframe a compliment from their partner in abstract terms and discuss what it meant to them and what significance it had in their relationship allowed them to accept the compliment and feel more positively about themselves and the relationship as a result.
Other studies found that interventions to boost self-esteem also resulted in participants becoming less resistant to compliments. (Watch my talk at Google NYC for examples of exercises that boost self-esteem.)
The bottom line: Give thought to the recipient when you voice a compliment and consider if and how to word it if you suspect their self-esteem is low.