How to accept compliments even when you don’t believe you deserve them

I used to be so bad at this it still makes me cringe.

Let’s say I’d written a document and it was quite good. Someone would say “that was a really great document” and I would freeze. I had no idea how to respond. I might blurt out a rebuttal: “oh, it wasn’t that good.” The person paying the compliment would insist that no, really, it was very good and I shouldn’t be so modest. Then I’d be dealing with a compliment I didn’t know how to handle about my work, and a piece of personal advice I didn’t know what to do with. I would keep digging (“no, really”), the well-meaning colleague would keep digging alongside me (“yes, really”) and soon things would become so awkward one of us would have to fake our own death to escape. Or something.

How did we get this bad?

I don’t know if this is a social class thing, a British thing, a growing-up-in-the-80s thing, or maybe none of those, but one of the most scathing insults when I was at school was “ugh she really loves herself”. Showing any faith in ourselves and our abilities was punished by our peers. How messed up is that?

Here’s a thing kids would actually do to each other:

Some kid: Hey, I like your picture, you’re really good at drawing!

Me: Thanks!

Kid: I was only joking, it’s rubbish really. You don’t actually think you’re good, do you? Hey everyone, Julia thinks she’s good at drawing! Have you ever heard anything so pathetic? Haha, look at her crap drawing!

[All the kids laugh. I wish for the ground to swallow me up. Any social capital I might have had is in tatters.]

It’s surprising any of us are able to function at all. (And for those who still struggle with self-esteem, is it any wonder?!)

One survival technique we used was self-deprecation as a defence mechanism:

Some kid: Hey, I like your picture, you’re really good at drawing!

Me: Really? I think it’s rubbish [it doesn’t matter whether this is true or not]

Kid: Nah, I was only joking, it is rubbish.

[At most this gets a muted laugh from the other kids. My social capital is unchanged.]

Whether the cause is the same or not, I meet lots of adults who seem to have never learnt how to accept a compliment.

How to (outwardly) accept compliments, even if you’re not ready to (inwardly) accept compliments.

Just say “thank you”.

Haha, just kidding. I mean sure, that is a good way to accept a compliment, but it’s pretty much the default and I’m sure it’s already occurred to you. And twenty-something me would never have been able to do it. Saying “thank you” would imply that I agreed. And if I didn’t feel like I deserved the compliment, that would feel wrong.

However, somewhere along the road I stumbled upon a hack that works for me and it’s so easy it’s ridiculous:

Thank you, that’s very kind.

That’s it. That’s all you have to say.

Assuming the compliment was well-meant, it is a kind thing to do, so you’re being completely truthful. You’re neither agreeing or disagreeing with the praise. Nor are you getting into a cycle of “no, really, it was nothing special”, “yes, really, it was amazing”, prolonging an excruciating interaction. (And if for whatever reason you do suspect some ulterior motive, this provides a quick exit without insult or having to engage further.)

I’ve run this idea past a few people and so far have heard two main objections which I’ll paraphrase here:

“It’s so transparent, I wouldn’t let someone off the hook that easily. I would reply “ ‘no, I’m not being kind, your work really is amazing’ ” [and keep going until they acknowledged that yes, their work is amazing].

If you’re the person giving the compliment in this scenario, think about what you’re trying to achieve. If you’re praising someone to make them feel good, you won’t do that by prolonging a conversation they find painful.

Instead, try being specific. This opens up an avenue to a less awkward exchange about the person’s area of expertise.

You: I really loved your talk, it was so inspiring!

Speaker: Thank you, that’s very kind!

You: The part about when you first learnt to play the guitar reminded me so much of my own experience. It took me so long to get bar chords, I thought my fingers would never be strong enough!

Speaker: Yes, that’s exactly what I was getting at! Now when I teach children to play… [Non-excruciating conversation continues]

If you’re the person receiving the compliment you can use this too. If someone is heaping praise upon you in an uncomfortable way, ask them what they liked.

The other objection I’ve heard is:

“This does nothing to help your self-esteem, it’s just another type of deflection by turning attention to the other person’s kindness and away from you.”

To be clear, my purpose here isn’t to fix anyone’s deep-seated problems. That’s also not your job as an admirer of their work. It’s nice to give people a reason to feel good about themselves, but we can’t demand their personal growth on our schedule.

(And if your self-esteem is low enough that it’s causing you problems, or if the people closest to you regularly make you feel worthless, please seek the help and support you need. Here’s a list of UK contacts, and here’s an international list.)

My purpose here is to suggest a way to avoid interactions that make us feel worse.

And from my own experience, as I learnt not to dread receiving compliments, it was easier to engage in rich, meaningful conversation about my work. But to do that I had to get over the rabbit-in-the-headlights terror first.

So, now over to you. Does this sound like good advice? Is it something you’d find helpful? What tricks have you found useful? Am I missing some damaging side-effect that means I should never share this idea with anyone ever again?! Let me know in the comments.

Product manager from a background in EUC, ITSM, Agile, DevOps. Talks a lot. Sometimes on stage. Views expressed are my own.

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