How do I take a compliment?
December 27, 2011 1:20 PM   Subscribe

How do you internalize compliments and praise?

I mean, outwardly I am fine; I know how to be grateful and the social aspect of taking a compliment isn't the issue here. I just have a hard time really accepting them.

Due to baggage from my formative years (which I am working on with the help of a professional, so that angle is covered) I have a really hard time taking compliments and accepting praise. I grew up in a household where the rule of thumb was (and I am being generous here): "if you get praised for anything but perfect work, it will discourage you from wanting to improve."

Most of the time I just get sort of defensive (again, on the inside) to the tune of "whatever, I'm just doing my job" or "whatever, this is what decent people do." Intellectually, I know that internalizing praise isn't going to make me lazy or big-headed. But, you know, first reaction is just to sort of wave it off and go back to work. But, dammit, I want compliments and praise to make me feel good as opposed to uncomfortable and ever-so-slightly contemptuous for the person who thinks what I am doing is actually "good." (Which, again, I intellectually know is good.)
posted by griphus to Human Relations (17 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Have faith that the person complimenting you has some authority on the matter. If you trump their judgement with your condescension it won't matter what anyone says (as you know).

The compliment is about you and your work, sure, but it's also about that person's perception of your work, judgement of it, and then communication of said things. Acknowledging that someone else's opinion of you and your doings as a just assessment outside of your opinion of yourself can be difficult (especially if you're used to a standard of perfection), but it's very freeing and enlightening once you achieve it. Validating a compliment within yourself isn't about agreeing with it; it's about recognizing an alternative perspective as valid and incorporating that into your self-assessment/self-worth/personal perspective.

(Your posts and comments on this site are consistently enjoyable and amazing, and if you don't recognize my authority on the matter I don't know what to tell you, you crass bastard.)
posted by carsonb at 1:38 PM on December 27, 2011 [9 favorites]

Sometimes (particularly in situations I am likely to be hard on myself) I tune out the particulars of the compliment and just imagine the person is speaking in shiny stars and pluses, with the intensity proportionate to how much I respect and value that person's input.

It's easy to get critical of specifics ("Well, X could have been done better ..."), but it's hard to be critical of a dancing gold star.

I find speaking gold stars in return helps me accept the gold star I was given. I make a compliment swap out of it.
posted by griselda at 1:40 PM on December 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think I know what you mean, more so than I would like. :)

I try to consider the other person's intention and spirit in giving the compliment. S/he wants to acknowledge this positive thing about you or your action/being/contribution/qualities/etc. because to him/her, it has value or meaning.

For me and in my view of what is purposeful in my own life, contributing things of value or meaning to others is extremely extremely extremely important to me, so I try to focus on the aspect of having gotten verbal acknowledgement that my action or effort is creating value/meaning to another and is being appreciated. It's easy to switch back to, "well but this is just what I'm supposed to do anyway" but I try to stay focused on the expression of the impact, rather than the action itself.

There are many colloquialisms along the lines of "to the world you might be one person, but to one person you might be the world," etc., and I think if you look at it from your own perspective, you can probably say that that's true of the people you care about--that they mean a lot and that even their small actions can have great impact on you. So even just in purely logical reasoning, this has to be true for other people, too. Your small act could still have an unexpectedly large impact, whether or not you expect it to.
posted by so_gracefully at 1:43 PM on December 27, 2011

Do you have imaginary suspenders that you can hook your thumbs under? Yes? Good.

Okay, so follow these instructions:

1) Hook thumbs under imaginary suspenders.
2) Smile casually, while tilting head off to the side.
3) Rock back, slightly, on the balls of your feet.
4) Take a moment to enjoy the absurdity of what you've just done; and appreciate the fact that, for just a moment, you stopped the cycle of self-defeating thoughts and maybe, just maybe, for a millisecond, that allowed you to appreciate the compliment.
5) Repeat as often as necessary.
posted by jph at 1:44 PM on December 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

I can get this same way, for different reasons.

What helps me is cultivating respect and trust for the people who do the praising. The person I trust most has given me a couple of little throwaway comments that had me walking on air -- but other people have praised me to the skies, but I didn't care too much about what they thought so it didn't sink in.

But trust issues is probably part of that "baggage from formative years", as it is in my case too, so this is all easier said than done. What also helped me, too, was taking a couple of the people I really trusted aside when I was going through a rough patch, and saying that I could use a bit more boosting-up than usual -- and they listened and they did. It was sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in a good way; they were a bit freer with praise, I trusted their opinion and it improved my mood, and I was a tiny bit more likely to believe other people as well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:02 PM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Most of the time I just get sort of defensive (again, on the inside) to the tune of "whatever, I'm just doing my job" or "whatever, this is what decent people do." Intellectually, I know that internalizing praise isn't going to make me lazy or big-headed. But, you know, first reaction is just to sort of wave it off and go back to work. But, dammit, I want compliments and praise to make me feel good as opposed to uncomfortable and ever-so-slightly contemptuous for the person who thinks what I am doing is actually "good." (Which, again, I intellectually know is good.)

I've countered one of my neuroses with another. I was raised to diminish my own successes, too. But I was also raised to be a bit of a people pleaser, and certainly polite. I realized that one of the big problems with hemming and hawing about compliments was that it made me look rude--ungracious, really. And I want to be able to react with grace, rather than to demur awkwardly, which is uncomfortable for anyone involved.

(Plus, you're being a jerk for viewing the person contemptuously. You probably know that, but I think it bears saying. There's no need to be a jerk to someone who is being nice to you.)

So I've started using a stock phrase. When someone compliments me, I say the following: "Thank you. That means a lot to me. I really enjoyed doing x." It doesn't matter if you're not feeling it. Say it anyway. Fake it.

Funny thing is, after a few months of it, I'm starting to feel it, too. Compliments no longer fill me with dread, because there's no fundamentally ridiculous interaction every time someone gives me one. I graciously accept the compliment, and we both move on with our lives. It's a relief, and that's helped me feel a lot more comfortable with my successes, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:04 PM on December 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

I wouldn't internalize it, any more than I would internalize criticism. I'd take what useful feedback I could from it, but I wouldn't let it get me in the solar plexus.

Other people's opinions are feedback, nothing more.

As for your outward behaviour, say, "thank you!" and give them a big smile.
posted by tel3path at 2:19 PM on December 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

May I suggest . . . use humor?

My childhood was filled with praise, so I love compliments, but my Bear grew up in a very different household. I gather that to acknowledge that he had done something good meant he was Prideful, meaning he was actually very bad.

Over the years I have known him, we have turned his discomfort with compliments into a bit of an inside joke. E.g. we have speculated on all the awful things that might happen if he said "Thank you" and didn't explain at once why what he did was nothing much. Would a lightning bolt strike him down? Would demons carry him to hell? Would he fall into a sudden abyss due to his Pride?

We've laughed enough about this by now that he actually can acknowledge the good things he does, at least most of the time. It takes practice and, I think, some amusement at the silliness of it, to get past this need to immediately discount compliments.
posted by bearwife at 2:28 PM on December 27, 2011

Giving compliments is a good way to work on receiving compliments. When you compliment someone, and you see that you genuinely mean what you are saying, it isn't so hard to see that people genuinely mean what they are saying to you. It becomes less of a deal.

Read a list of positive things about yourself aloud to someone else (therapist?). I used to hate doing this, to the point where I trembled and cried. I'm pretty brave in general, but could not handle this. The more I did it, the better it was. Now I can accept positive things about myself and it doesn't kill me to have someone point out something nice. I like it now.
posted by amodelcitizen at 2:58 PM on December 27, 2011

I agree with tel3path - it's better NOT to internalize praise.

Praise and compliments (as well as insults and criticism) say much more about the person giving than the person getting. If someone always compliments little things about your appearance, it's probably because they are a really nice (and observant) person, and they likely do this for lots of people. If someone compliments your work, it's less about them saying that your work is the pinnacle of work-ness than that they just want to say something appreciative and maybe give you a little ego boost. It's not like there's some objective idea of Good and people only give out compliments if you meet it, you know?

So take compliments in the spirit they are given, and think "Wow, what a nice thing to say!" and let it go at that. No ego inflation necessary.
posted by ella wren at 3:03 PM on December 27, 2011

I also see taking and believing compliments as assertiveness practice. You are entitled a compliment without getting tangled up in negative feedback.
posted by amodelcitizen at 3:25 PM on December 27, 2011

Imagine a little victory song playing, to which you are socially obliged to, ever so slightly, dance.

Failing that, imaginary suspenders.
posted by ead at 6:15 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thank you for the great advice, everyone. (And, yeah, I totally know I'm being a jerk, PhoB, but it definitely makes it easier to stop when someone else agrees.)'s less about them saying that your work is the pinnacle of work-ness than that they just want to say something appreciative and maybe give you a little ego boost

That's the thing, I want that ego boost. I feel like every time someone gives me a compliment, it's like I am being offered a piece of delicious cake and I am saying "oh, that looks delicious, but no thank you" for no good reason at all.
posted by griphus at 7:13 AM on December 28, 2011

....I wonder if trust is a thing for you as well? Because -- to use your cake example -- with people I don't trust as much, I don't take it because I think they're "just being nice" and they secretly don't really mean to offer it, but with the people I trust, I'm all, "They want me to have some cake! Yay cake!"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:31 AM on December 28, 2011

I do the same thing, by always mentally adding on to someone's compliment, "well, as good/great/excellent a job as we can expect from you." I appreciate the comment - as much as someone like me can. Thank you, childhood. You suck.

I love the ideas of dancing stars, imaginary suspenders and victory songs - but for myself, I've been mentally interrupting my qualifier with, "Fuck that! I deserve this!" Then, chocolate.
posted by doyouknowwhoIam? at 8:17 AM on December 28, 2011

Actually, I don't. I just tell myself the person praising is nice and go on.

This is probably a more serious mental health issue than thinking I can answer helpfully answer internet questions on a phone, but I simply don't take nice words seriously. If my husband says I'm beautiful, i try to be pleased. If he puts a picture of me as his screensaver, then I'm flattered. If someone at work says "great job" I try to be pleased. If they put me up for a similar but larger project, then I'm flattered.

This is not fair to people who offer praise and compliments, but when it gets down to it, actions are what I listen to.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:04 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

A compliment often arrives out of the blue, and it's the unexpectedness that makes it hard to accept. (What, my report from last week? You read it? And you came over here to tell me it was clear and concise? huh? I mean, thanks.) And sometimes it arrives at totally expected times, and it's the formality of it that makes it hard to accept as being sincere? (Oh, yes, indeed I did just get a new haircut, you have correctly identified it as being different. Oh, and you say it looks nice? Well what else could you really say at that point, anyway? I mean, 'thanks, I like it too')

When the compliment is arriving I'm often not in the right frame of mind to really internalize it as praise or get an ego boost from it, but I do sort of mark it as a gold star on the calendar (so I leave thinking, good day today! or nice party!) and a gold star next to that person (polite, kind, good coworker, conscientious person who reads reports) and I set it aside for future times when I'm feeling down. (Nono, stop freaking out and just finish this report. B told me the last one was good, so I should submit this and it will be fine)
posted by aimedwander at 1:04 PM on December 29, 2011

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