Few things make us feel as uncomfortable as receiving a compliment – but the secret to getting past that knee-jerk urge to deny and deflect is working on our own self-esteem and giving ourselves a regular pat on the back
‘You look gorgeous.” Admittedly, I had dressed up for a night out with friends. I even went as far as applying lipstick. After 18 months of lockdown wardrobe defeat and elasticated waistbands, I was emerging from fashion wasteland. I felt good and yet I still found myself forced to swallow the self-deprecating comment spinning off the tip of my tongue to the point I nearly choked on it. “This ol’ thing? Sure that’s the last thing I saw before I left the house...”
When someone praises something we’re wearing, we immediately start digging around for the receipt to prove it was on sale because, god forbid, we might appear big-headed.
A study by Japanese researchers discovered that compliments help people perform better and discover new skills. The same researchers equated receiving compliments to receiving cash; both light up the reward system of our brain, with the outcome being better decision-making and higher self-esteem.
However, taking a compliment is trickier than it seems, especially if you’re Irish. Shifting credit is hardwired into our DNA and keeping sincere emotions at a distance with humour is one of our strong points.
When someone offers us a compliment, we’re like prize fighters parrying blows. ‘Your hair is lovely’, ‘Oh stoppit, will you, I look like I’ve had a fight with a lawnmower’. ‘This dinner is delicious, you must have been slaving all day’, ‘Not a bit of it, I threw it together last minute, it’s probably fit for the dog’. ‘You’ve a great tan, were you away?’, ‘No, that would be the high blood pressure’ — quickly followed by suspicion: why do they want to know if I was away?
We are a deeply mistrusting bunch, but when you think about it, buried in some of the most classic Irish ‘compliments’ is a classic Irish knock-back. ‘Sure, you’re not the worst of them’ — raising you up while holding the back of your jumper. ‘Decent looking’ — we won’t say you’re drop-dead gorgeous but we’ll give you mediocre. Humility is a valued virtue, pipping confidence when it comes to qualified Irish responses; by god, we’ll make sure you don’t get above your station.
If we’re going to go deep, it’s likely to be a cultural hangover, linked to years of oppression. In the 18th and 19th centuries, most Irish were tenant farmers and any sign of wealth brought an increase in rents; it was prudent to be humble. But it also harks to the traditional family dynamic. It’s not so long ago that families were large and children were many, life was harder and a deep sense of shame ran through society.
We grew up in a culture that discouraged self-promotion. Children weren’t readily praised lest they ‘lost the run of themselves’. Later generations are certainly better at accepting praise but we are still a nation caught between humility and humiliation.
Years of being told we weren’t good enough certainly explains our knee-jerk rebuffs, but why is accepting praise so damn uncomfortable? “It puts us firmly in the spotlight, which we don’t relish,” says Brian Colbert, psychotherapist, best-selling author and a leading consultant in the area of personal growth. “We love the compliment but not the often unanticipated blast of attention. It’s no different to being made stand up in class in front of a group of people and do something, and then risk being humiliated for getting it wrong.”
Hearing something positive about ourselves requires listening to the story behind the compliment; choosing not to listen is a fast track to avoiding what’s really going on. According to Amy Morin, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, there are several reasons people find it hard to accept praise and most boil down to one factor: lack of self-esteem. She explains that when our self-image doesn’t line up with the words we hear about ourselves, we feel uncomfortable. She goes on to say that praise can actually often exacerbate self-doubt, citing studies that show that people with self-worth issues tend to set the bar low.
“When someone praises us, we have to do a bit of self-reflecting,” agrees psychotherapist Siobhan Murray. “It’s all linked to self-love and self-acceptance which we often struggle with.”
For the most part, women seem to be worse at accepting praise than men. It’s an unspoken rule that we should be modest. God forbid if saying ‘thank you’ might come across as bragging.
Amy Schumer catches the female zeitgeist perfectly in her sketch for Comedy Central where friends meet on the street and start complimenting each other. “I love your hat,” one says to her.
“Are you drunk? I look like an Armenian man. People are trying to buy carpets from me.”
In the end, a final friend shows up and when they shower her with compliments she replies with a simple ‘thank you’. They are stunned into silence by this and subsequently self-destruct. It’s funny, and painfully true.
“Women are more connected to their feelings,” says Colbert, “and thus more likely to draw attention to their dismissal of the praise, whereas men are likely to say nothing, or less about it, and get it dismissed quickly to avoid the spotlight.”
And yet we need praise, both from ourselves and others. Feeling valued and appreciated are basic human needs. “Human beings are tribal creatures; we belong in groups and get meaning from them, so both these things are important and factoring in both provides objectivity,” says Colbert.
“Every so often you hear you have got to follow your own intuition, your own head, your own heart — which often amounts to your own opinion. That’s all great, provided all three of these systems are in balance. If they are not, then the praise might be faulty or weak.
“Where this kind of external praise is absent, you can offer yourself a sense of appreciation and recognition, but to be told you are loved or are held in high regard by another human being is what connects us, binds us, and makes us co-operate, collaborate, and commune.”
External validation is important but we must be wary of it also, says Murray. “If we’re constantly seeking validation from someone else it can become quite addictive and dangerous when it’s absent, in that we may feel less able to connect or rely on our ourselves.”
She suggests a simple trick for those struggling with inner praise: at the end of each day, write down three things you’ve done well. It could be something minor like changing the bed linen or cooking a nice meal. “We have to learn to tune into our inner voice and tell ourselves ‘job well done’.”
Giving ourselves a pat on the back is said to lower stress levels, leading to positive habit formations. It all makes sense, but for those of us hardwired with violent aversions to praise it’s a hard habit to break. So how do we build the self-worth required to take the compliment? And how do we use that to counter our anxieties, our imposter syndromes and our limping self-esteem?
“Compliments are one of the essential fuels of self-worth,” explains Colbert. “For a person to feel self-worth, they have to feel they are of value. You help a person to feel valuable by endorsing and recognising their strengths and qualities through well-placed and honest praise.”
On the receiving end, we must bite back the desire to deflect and replace it with a simple ‘thank you’. Nothing else, no rejections. “Consider the fact that if someone gave you a gift, it would be bad manners to hand it back; it’s the same with a compliment.”
But how do we know if their compliment is sincere? Even if our overly attuned, suspicious Irish ears are on high alert, effusive compliments, for the purpose of everyday banter or even self-serving ones, can be harmful. “There’s rarely a problem with hearing the compliment,” explains Colbert. “It’s what someone does with it after hearing it. Stop, think, entertain the notion of its truth. Consider the intention of the person offering it to you, use your head, heart and your intuition.”
Everyone has qualities that deserve praise. We get better at sniffing out the insincere ones if we pay attention and recognise our own values, beliefs and strengths and ignore that obnoxious inner chatterbox that’s telling you your hair looks like a pigeon’s nesting ground.
And remember, there’s usually something genuine behind every compliment, whether it’s an attempt to chat or bond or maybe they really do like your outfit — so just say ‘thank you’. And then pat yourself on the back.