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Can You Take a Compliment?

Click here to contact Tina and/or see her GoodTherapy.org Profile


You look terrific today. I love what you’re wearing. You have such a nice smile. I like the sound of your voice.

Many people would rather eat a broccoli-flavored Popsicle than be on the receiving end of a compliment. Are you one of them? How did you feel when you read the previous paragraph? Receiving compliments – and also giving them – is hard when self-esteem has been injured. Low self-esteem tells us we’re just plain not good enough. And we imagine that if we can see it, so can everyone else.

If I believe I’m a dull and boring person, I will assume that you agree with me. So if you tell me that you think I’m fun and interesting, something feels very wrong. Either you’re being nice to spare my feelings, you don’t know me very well, or you’re just plain lying to me. Any way you slice it, your compliment makes me uncomfortable!

The key to being comfortable with compliments is to stop believing that other people share your low opinion of you. They don’t. They aren’t as critical of you as you are. And even if they were, they don’t have time to evaluate you because they’re too wrapped up in their own concerns.

The mistaken notion that others are judging can be seen in action when teenagers are forced to appear in public with their parents. They assume the world can see how weird their parents are, and they seem to be horrified by everything their parents say and do. If you’re a bystander, the source of their humiliation is often a complete mystery.

Accept the fact that people don’t see you as you see you. If someone offers you a compliment, they’re likely telling the truth. Isn’t it possible that someone could find your eyes beautiful? Or enjoy your singing? Or genuinely appreciate your fashion sense?

When you receive a compliment, smile. Say “Thank you,” or “How kind of you,” or something equally simple.

If you have difficult feelings when receiving compliments, you don’t have to act on them. You don’t have to tell the complimenter how wrong they are, for example, or point out something that’s bad about you. Graciously receive the compliment, then talk over your feelings later with your therapist or a trusted friend. Low self-esteem doesn’t just make it hard to receive compliments; it can also make it nearly impossible to give them.

When self-esteem is very low, it’s like being financially strapped. You’re walking around with your very last $5 in your pocket. Using it to buy lunch for someone else is not an option. You literally cannot afford to give your money away.

Think of someone who seems to have more confidence than you, and who is also very attractive. Now picture yourself telling that person, “Gee, you look like a million bucks!” and picture them basking in your compliment. Giving an already-confident person such a gift would feel like taking Bill Gates out to lunch on your last $5. Ridiculous, right? Bill Gates should be taking you out, not the other way around. He can afford it. You can’t. The only problem is, if you’re not giving away compliments, you’re missing out on opportunities to feel good about yourself.

A compliment, like a gift, does as much for the giver as for the receiver. You get to experience yourself as generous and kind. You get to light up someone’s life for a moment – what power! And you affirm to yourself that you CAN afford it. As long as you have something to give away, you’re rich.

Practice giving compliments. Make them honest so you don’t feel too phony. It’s bound to feel a little forced if you’re not used to doing this, so do make sure you can be honest in what you choose to compliment.

Start today with someone you think it would be easy for you to compliment. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. “I like your tie” is a compliment. If you don’t normally give them, people who know you might think you’re being sarcastic. Don’t be thrown by this. Just say, “No, I mean it. I like your tie.”

Notice how it feels to offer the gift of your attention and appreciation. Give at least one compliment every day and watch what happens. If you run out of people to compliment, try giving them to yourself!

Giving and receiving compliments is easier with high self-esteem. But like all behaviors that interact with self-esteem, compliments are both cause and effect. That is, high self-esteem makes it easier to give and receive compliments, AND giving and receiving compliments supports higher self-esteem.

So get out there. I know you can do it. Why? Because you’re smart, brave and strong. ;)

© Copyright 2011 by Tina Gilbertson, MA, LPC, therapist in Portland, OR. All Rights Reserved.

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  • CarolineS May 23rd, 2011 at 11:03 AM #1

    Thank you so much for this article! I am one of those who loves to give compliments but know that I have a tough time receiving them. I guess that stems from never feeling like I lived up to anyone’s expectations when I was growing up and I guess that as an adult I continue to feel the same way. I wish that I could handle these circumstances a little more gracefully than I do but it is hard to undo years worth of behavior.

  • Tina Gilbertson May 23rd, 2011 at 12:40 PM #2

    You are so right, Caroline, that it’s hard to undo years worth of behavior.

    The only way I know to make this – or any other – change is to be patient with yourself, but PERSISTENT in doing it the new way.

    Best of luck with your efforts at receiving compliments more gracefully. Practice with this: You write very well!

  • Morag H. May 23rd, 2011 at 11:21 PM #3

    Great article, Tina! When I was younger I couldn’t take a compliment without adding a “but” to the end of it. “Thanks but I know it’s a mess” I’d say when I was complimented on my shoulder length natural curls, which happened all the time.

    Or if I was asked where I’d got my spiral perm because it was beautiful, I’d say “It’s natural, you think people would pay for this??”. I hated having curls when I was young. Now I love them.

    It took a friend telling me that when I said stuff like that I wasn’t just putting myself down. I was throwing a gift back in the person’s face that complimented me. The idea of causing hurt horrified me and I stopped soon after that.

    I learned to just say “Thank you” and smile. It was much harder than I thought it would be too to drop the “yes but…”.

  • kris weiss May 23rd, 2011 at 11:38 PM #4

    I always pay a compliment to retail staff that are checking me out at the register in busy stores. I used to work in retail and some days were almost unbearable when you had one grumpy, rude customer after another.

    It’s shocking how so many feel they can treat staff like dirt, take out all their pent-up frustrations on them then waltz out the store without a twinge of conscience.

  • max May 24th, 2011 at 4:19 AM #5

    when I read the title I was like ‘yes, of course!’ but later as I read through the post, I realized that yes, there are a lot of people who could have trouble even with a nice and positive thing like a compliment. feel bad about such people because everything, whether good or bad, generally affects them in a negative way :(

  • Vickie May 24th, 2011 at 12:33 PM #6

    It is hard because when you feel one way about yourself and then someone says something to the contrary then it is hard to believe it. That does not mean that you shold not accept the compliment with grace and humility, but you should also allow that to sink in and completely embrace what others are thinking about you. Think about how much better this could make you feel!

  • Adele May 25th, 2011 at 4:49 AM #7

    Those who have the highest self confidence are always the ones who have the best ability to accept and give a compliment. All of this takes practice. I have received compliments that sound so fake, and have accepted some that I know I felt like a fake for just saying thank you. Wow- this social interaction stuff and doing it well sure does take a lot of work! ;)

  • Morgan Calhoun May 25th, 2011 at 7:28 PM #8

    I have no problem accepting compliments. And I have no problem complimenting myself either! If it makes you feel good, do it. I am always generous with compliments because you never know how bad a day that woman or man’s had up till then. It’s nice to be nice.

  • Savannah A. May 25th, 2011 at 9:27 PM #9

    @kris weiss: that’s true! I never get mad if cashiers have to do a price check or change the receipt roll or I get stuck behind an old lady who can’t swipe her card right. That comes with the job! I did it for ten years.

    It’s not the cashier’s fault and it’s very stressful when you have a queue of shoppers tutting and huffing as if you’re to blame.

    When it’s my turn to be served I’ll say “you’re doing a great job” or “you handled the lady very nicely” or “thanks for being so efficient” if all goes smoothly. If it doesn’t, I’ll wait patiently until whatever is wrong gets resolved. Having a fit helps nobody.

    Be pleasant, people. You could be the one customer that makes them decide not to quit that day, you know.

  • Alison Chase May 25th, 2011 at 9:40 PM #10

    If you ever need examples of how to accept compliments graciously, watch the red carpet on Oscar night.

    Pay attention to what the celebrities do when the presenters are gushing over their dresses. You don’t hear any of them being self-critical!

    They say thank you and some give a gracious nod of acknowledgement for good measure. Follow their lead.

  • garth f. May 27th, 2011 at 9:44 PM #11

    As a man, I find it completely ridiculous that I can’t compliment a woman without being insulted, yet a woman can apparently say what she wants and get away with things that would get me kicked out of a bar if I’d uttered them.

    Why is that? Seriously. I’d like to know.

  • Tina Gilbertson May 28th, 2011 at 3:03 PM #12

    Hi Garth,

    I wonder if your compliments are being interpreted in a different way than you mean them. If so, that sounds pretty frustrating.

    The next time this happens, take a mental movie of what happened – the context and your exact words when you complimented the woman – and then play it back for a friend. Try to remember all the details so you can accurately recreate the scene.

    Running the conversation by somebody else, and hearing their take on it, might get you some clarity about the inequality you’re sensing.

    Best of luck with figuring this out!


  • lucilleperry May 29th, 2011 at 9:54 PM #13

    I don’t follow why they would have a problem being complimented. I admit a complete stranger complimenting you can be a bit creepy if they appear out the blue suddenly.

    On the other hand, if they go out of their way to say something nice about you, you can at least be nice and say thanks.

  • Ellis R. June 3rd, 2011 at 8:47 PM #14

    @lucilleperry–I agree, Lucille. Even if you don’t like a compliment you got, you should nod, say “Thank you” and not let it get to you. Folks are only trying to be friendly and getting offended is going to have others saying less-than-nice things about you.

    Often the giver is nervous when they do try to give a compliment so they may fluff what they planned to say. Ladies and gents, please don’t take offense over a well-intentioned action.

  • Amber Davies June 5th, 2011 at 1:09 PM #15

    @Ellis R. — I have done that several times in the past, the nod and thank you. One time when I was in Vegas, a man said to a stunning and splendidly-dressed woman “You look absolutely magnificent” and she took great offense to it.

    Once she was out of earshot, I said to him “I’m sure her attitude is why she isn’t here with her husband.”

    Not every man is being chauvinistic or patronizing. I thought it was a charming compliment and wish it had been directed at me!

  • Allan Weiss June 5th, 2011 at 1:46 PM #16

    @Vickie: That’s so true. Some see themselves as a total Adonis when they are no oil painting, and yet many more think of themselves as ugly when they are actually pretty good-looking.

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and we are for sure our own worst critics.

  • Brianna Griffin June 11th, 2011 at 9:37 PM #17

    @Morag -Throwing a gift in their faces is exactly what you’re doing when you get offended by a compliment. Even if you get a gift you don’t like, you’re expected to like it long enough to trash it when they are out of sight. I grew up putting up with that a lot.

    Why make them feel bad when a thanks would make them feel good?

  • Beverley Reid June 18th, 2011 at 8:38 PM #18

    @Brianna: Well said!

    How do you throw away a compliment anyway? Roll your eyes at it? Ignore it? That’s so rude! Thank them for the compliment and then get on with your life, or even better, give them one in return.

    Like one of the commenters said, if they go out of their way to say something nice about you, you should appreciate it and not think anything bad of it.

  • PsychedinSF August 24th, 2012 at 10:08 AM #19

    Believing your attention and appreciation is a gift is so important! What a beautiful way to put it. We are all unique and special and by allowing ourselves to set aside insecurities we shine without worry and judgement. Listening with empathy, complimenting with sincerity and trusting that you are enough offers such peace of mind and a happiness that comes from within. Wonderful read!-PsychedinSF

  • M. Rose January 18th, 2013 at 6:13 AM #20

    I find it interesting that this went from encouraging people who have trouble taking compliments to telling them how bad they are for not doing it graciously.

  • Karren January 20th, 2013 at 8:04 AM #21

    I’m one of those who can’t accept compliments, when i received one it’s hard for me to accept it.. i feel so embarrassed about it, especially when they say it out loud… or in public.. And sometimes i’m shaking when i received one… how can i overcome with it? thank you so much :)

  • Tina Gilbertson January 20th, 2013 at 10:39 AM #22

    That sounds painful, Karren; I’m really sorry to hear it.

    The only way I know of to overcome a strong emotional reaction is to try to understand it. Simply understanding (with compassion) does more than you may think; it can unlock patterns and create shifts without your doing anything differently.

    What’s the embarrassment about? Is it that the complimenter is calling attention to you? If so, what does that attention feel like?

    These are the kinds of questions you could explore with a compassionate therapist or a good, patient friend.

    Thank you to Karren, and everyone who’s commented so far, for sharing your experiences.

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