Shy woman
People feel awkward when they receive compliments, as they are afraid of coming across as arrogant and conceited. So, they immediately try to deflect the praise. Image Credit:

Thank you for cooking such a lovely dinner. It was delicious!

When you hear those words of praise, do you...

a) Thank them, say it means a lot.

b) Convince them it’s a fluke: “I could have done better.” You start explaining an accident with the salt.

c) Compliment ping-pong: Say, “Oh you are just being too nice.”

D) Pass the credit: “Thank you, but the credit goes to my mother; she sent me the recipes.”

E) Crack a joke: “Ha ha, I have my moments,” you say.

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If it’s anything after the first option, you might have trouble accepting compliments. You aren’t the only one: Many people are rather awkward about receiving praises. Dubai-based Rachel Gardiner, an American public relations profession admits that she “goes red” and immediately looks at how she can praise the other person. “If someone says I dressed well, I’ll instantly say ‘oh you look good too’ as reflex, and they’ll say ‘I’m just wearing a hoodie and jeans? And then it gets more awkward,” she says. Meera Nayyar, a Dubai-based homemaker doesn’t take similar compliments on her dressing sense well either. “I instantly say, oh this belongs to my mother. She has better taste,” she adds.

Cue nervous laughter.

Why aren’t we able to accept compliments?

shy person
Most of us feel rather negatively about ourselves. Receiving a compliment elicits discomfort, because it’s in conflict with our own self-image. Image Credit: Shutterstock

There are an overpowering number of complicated reasons why most people can’t accept compliments. The most prominent reason being low self-esteem, explains Bushra Khan, transformational coach at Dubai-based wellness clinic, Wellth. If you don’t think that you’re worthy of praise, you’ll automatically deflect it. You might think that the compliment is insincere, or the person doesn’t mean it seriously. Case in point: Alieha Shahid, a Dubai-based Pakistani homemaker, says her first reaction after receiving a compliment is: “Seriously?” She always needs to double-check, and the person has to hastily reassure her that the praise, was in fact, earnest.

People may struggle with self-esteem issues, feel unworthy of praise or fear that accepting compliments might seem arrogant or brash. We may struggle to appreciate the compliment and accept it in a healthy manner since we are not used to it.....

- Bushra Khan, transformational coach, Wellth, Dubai

Some people don’t want to seem arrogant, either. “This depends on your upbringing too,” explains Catelyn Law, a British Dubai-based psychologist and stress specialist. “In many families, when a child receives a compliment or praise, the parent instantly tells them to not let it ‘go to their head’. So the child is conditioned to believe that receiving a compliment or praise, is somehow linked to arrogance,” she says, adding that modesty is seen more of a virtue.

“It can also be a societal conditioning in many settings, to immediately judge a person for accepting a compliment with confidence. However, when a person acts modest and tries to return a praise or deflect it, instantly, they receive more praise. Words like ‘sweet’ and ‘shy’ are ascribed to them, rather than encouraging them to accept praise,” she says. Another possible reason could be a person’s difficulty of being in the spotlight. “Receiving compliments put them on the spot, and they feel awkward,” explains Law. High achievers also face this struggle, as they look for imperfections in themselves, making it difficult to accept anything good about themselves.

The truth is, most of us feel rather negatively about ourselves. Receiving a compliment elicits discomfort, because it’s in conflict with our own self-image, adds Law. If we don’t feel attractive or don’t have much faith in our skills, hearing compliments just feel jarring and inauthentic. It will feel more like a taunt, she adds. If we do something well and receive praise, we start fearing that too much praise could go to our heads and set us up for heartbreak and disappointment.

Being unable to accept compliments implies an unwillingness to recognise your own talent and uniqueness, says Khan.  It also conveys to others that you feel inadequate and insecure. "This reduces your influence and limits your executive presence and leadership potential. Because if you don't seem to believe in yourself, why should anyone else," she says. 

‘A subconscious act of self-protection’

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Deflecting a compliment is an unconscious act that tends to rob us of human connection. It stops us from accepting the kind words and gratitude of others. Image Credit: Shutterstock

We have a messy relationship with recognition and there’s no easy answer as to why we respond to compliments the way we do, as research has showed.

Sometimes, we’re caught off guard, as explained by US-based authors and psychologists Tania Luna and LeeAnne Renninger in their book, Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected. Quoted in a Harvard Business Review study, they explained that a pleasant compliment that you weren’t unprepared for, triggers some sequences in our brain. It’s called the “surprise sequence” and has four stages.

When we’re surprised, we:

Stage 1: Momentarily freeze

Stage 2: Find an explanation for what is happening

Stage 3: Shift our perspective

Stage 4: Share our experience with other

Surprise always brings some joy, so even emotionally pleasant words can bring some amount of intensity. So, we freeze. As the authors explained, this emotional experience can feel rather uncomfortable and destabilising. So, we try to shut it down and recentre ourselves. We deflect the praise by quickly rattling out an awkward response, as that’s a possible unconscious method of trying to regain control in a rather vulnerable situation.

In stage two, we try to understand why someone said what they did, explained the authors in the study. It gets confusing to reconcile if someone else’s positive view is in conflict with our negative view of ourselves.

According to Luna and Renninger, this is confirmation bias: A tendency to seek information that confirms our views and ignore views that challenge them. So, when someone congratulates you on a great presentation that you felt was a disaster, it can feel jarring. This confusing interplay of surprise and self-image makes it difficult for us to process the good things we hear about ourselves. So, as Denise Marigold, associate professor of social development at the University Of Waterloo, Canada, explained in the article, “The fear is that if I allow myself to let in a compliment, and feel good about it, and end up disappointing others or myself in the future, I risk taking a bigger bite out of my self-esteem.”

As a result, we react awkwardly to compliments to protect ourselves. It’s an unconscious act that tends to rob us of human connection. It stops us from accepting the kind words and gratitude of others.

How to accept compliments

It might be tricky, incredibly difficult for many, but you need to start somewhere.

For starters, you need to know that the compliment is based on the giver’s perception, explains Law. It’s their experience. So, even if you feel that you stumbled on words in a presentation, overcooked your chicken or your dress is a little too pale, it’s their experience and opinion. They are just telling you how it made them feel. They’re just making an observation; there’s no need for an argument or justification. If they say you have a nice height, don’t immediately respond with, “Yeah, but not as tall as my father.” They didn’t ask.

So thank them.

Turn it into an opportunity to make friends or foster connections, she adds. 

You could also try saying, “Oh wow, that’s a different perspective.” Gradually, the anxiety will wear off as you slowly stop associating compliments with threats and surprises.