Why Do Some People Hate Receiving Compliments?

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You’ve put on your fanciest duds, your hair came out just right, and someone tells you how great you look. But instead of enjoying the praise, you stumble over a response—negating or dismissing the compliment, cringing, and even skulking away. So, why can a compliment be so hard to accept? Here’s what a therapist and science have to say.

Why do compliments make some people uncomfortable?

“People have trouble accepting compliments for a number of reasons. Sometimes, it’s tied to social anxiety. It can also be caused by feelings of low self-esteem, or by going through life without experiencing positive feelings of gratitude,” explains Lisa Schuman, a New York–based social worker. She also cites unresolved conflict as a potential source. “If you’re feeling anger or resentment toward someone and they give you a compliment, you may find it hard to believe,” she explains.

And what about the person who can’t handle the way they just responded to someone’s well-meaning, kind words and had to escape from the convo? Social anxiety disorder is not just a catch-all phrase; it’s an actual condition. People with it can really struggle with both giving and getting compliments. They may cast off kind words about themselves because they don’t feel worthy of getting them. This leads to a vicious cycle of escalating self-degeneration and even more social anxiety.

Even for people who don’t suffer from this disorder, compliments can sometimes lead to awkwardness, especially if you’re feeling unsure of yourself in the moment. And it’s a very rare person who never feels uncomfortable some of the time, either at parties or during intimate conversations. But learning how to accept compliments is an important social skill that everyone can benefit from, whether they experience social anxiety occasionally or often.

It’s not me—it’s me

Studies have shown that self-knowledge and self-esteem are the two main components that inform our social interactions. We bring our own feelings about ourselves into each conversation we have. If our self-esteem is on the low side, according to data, we are less able to accept positive feedback or shift our perception of ourselves based upon it. We think we’re not worthy, and all the praise in the world simply cannot change that. It’s too dissonant with our current belief system about what we perceive to be our worth.

Everyone has a bad self-esteem day every now and then. And some people feel poorly about themselves all or most of the time. If we get a compliment on a day when we’re feeling like we’re not all that, it’s hard to believe—and pretty much impossible to accept. So even a sincere, well-meaning, and honest compliment is going to land on us like a lie.

Blame it on our ancestors

Schuman believes that this phenomenon may have its roots in our most ancient DNA and that it even may be hard-wired. “Our bodies and brains look for what’s negative in our environment, in order to protect ourselves, like our early ancestors keeping an eye out for saber-tooth tigers that might leap out at any moment to eat us. We’re poised to identify and deflect the negative so that we can survive,” she explains. In modern-day life, this phenomenon may play out in social interactions, which, let’s face it, can sometimes be as scary as fighting off a saber-tooth tiger. This may be especially true when we’re verbally sparring with a frenemy or someone we don’t completely trust to be honest with us. It can even happen with people we genuinely like and typically trust.

You’re so vain

Compliments can also make us feel as if we’re standing out when all we really want to do is blend in with the crowd. This may be because a trusted family member or that mean girl from middle school told you not to be conceited. Having the spotlight shine on us for our accomplishments can feel great some of the time, but other times, it can simply be too glaring to handle, especially when we’re feeling a tad off-kilter for whatever reason.