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Why am I uncomfortable receiving compliments?

Welcome back to Ask Dan Anything.

Today, I came to realize that people are really uncomfortable receiving praise and compliments.

I know I used to be like this. I was stuck in this weird loop. As a Nice Guy people-pleaser I was constantly seeking validation and approval but whenever somebody actually gave it to me I was very resistant to it.

I‘d push back and use self-deprecating humour to pass it off, or I’d like give the credit to somebody else. Or I would be very suspicious of the person giving the feedback – thinking that they’re up to something, that this is a scam of some kind.

Recently, when I posted about this in the BROJO Facebook group, a lot of people responded with similar experiences.

So if you’re someone who struggles to take a compliment, to take praise, this one’s for you.

Feeling uncomfortable

When I asked the group, a range of struggles came up, usually around emotional discomfort in reaction to the praise.

Some people feel embarrassed and awkward when they get a compliment. For some people it’s only with certain people or certain compliments that they feel this way. For others it’s with everything – all positive feedback.

Some people get suspicious. They immediately start to question the person’s intentions for giving compliments, or the truthfulness of praise. Many people analyze feedback and weigh it up as evidence to figure out whether or not it’s true and correct and accurate. They overanalyze it.

And these reactions – either feelings of awkwardness and guilt, or embarrassment, or suspicion or anger or even kind of just resistance and defensiveness – ends up manifesting through physical reactions, behavioural reactions.

How we react to compliments

Some people feel compelled to return the compliment, they can’t just accept one – they’ve got to give another one back.

Some people will try to pass the compliment on to other people and deflect it.

Some people will use self-deprecating humour – they’ll take the piss out of themselves to show that their ego isn‘t boosted  – that they’re not vain or conceited.

Other people might actually even get defensive – “No I’m not!” – and fight back against the feedback and push back and try to prove it wrong.

And various other ways of just trying to get away from the compliment and to not be stuck with it landing on you.

How confident people react to praise

I‘ve studied confident people for over a decade now and there are a few things that they almost all do the same. One thing that confident people do is when they get feedback they just say thanks. That’s it!

They don’t fight against it. They don‘t go on about it. They‘re neither arrogant nor ashamed.

They’re just like “Thanks” and they move on with their life, and they’re actually pretty similar with negative feedback too; it’s like “Thanks for letting me know”and they move on.

So if this isn’t you, if that isn’t how you naturally respond to compliments, then odds are this is a confidence issue. And that’s what you need to start seeing it is as: this isn’t about the other people – about their legitimacy or validity, their ability to judge you – this is about you.

Your self-worth

I’ll put it to you that when you’re confident you will only respond to compliments with gratitude – a genuine thanks but no real attachment to the content of the compliment.

What I saw in the reactions of people and in my own life is that compliments are perceived as one or two things: Either they’re a threat – some sort of dangerous risk – and/or they’re seen as valid feedback, a measurement of how good you are as a person.

When in fact they’re neither of these things!

And it’s you seeing it as those things that makes it a problem for you. If you feel defensive, suspicious, awkward, and you feel the need to push it away and get away from it, that means you see it as a threat – that is a threatened response.

That is a fight-or-flight response… to words and opinions!

And if you feel pride (your confidence goes up) or guilt (your confidence goes down) – positive/negative feedback – then you’re seeing it as valid feedback. You’re seeing it as a measurement and it’s not that either!

So how you react to compliments gives you hints as to subconsciously what you think they are. If you react by defensiveness or fighting back against them, then you see them as a threat. For some reason your brain thinks of compliments as dangerous.

And if you feel like your moods really change with the compliments, if when you don’t get compliments you feel really down and when you get them you feel really up (dependent obviously on how much you believe them), then you’re seeing them as a measurement of how good you are as a person.

Why you react with defensiveness

When you’ve responded defensively it’s probably because of a few different things.

One is, you think it’s a lie.

You’ve come to the conclusion that whatever they’ve said couldn’t possibly be true. They’ve given you a compliment and you think “No that’s not true, I’m actually not good enough for that” and you assume that they know this and therefore they’ve deliberately lied to you.

Somebody with low self-worth and who’s naturally suspicious socially, like somebody who’s been bullied, they’re gonna assume that everyone has negative intentions a lot of the time. And so if you add a compliment to that, you think “This is this guy’s trying to manipulate me with this compliment, this is some bullshit.”

And when you‘ve got low self-worth, you‘ll think anything good that they say about you is wrong because you don’t think that about yourself, you don’t think of yourself as good. So you’ll think that this person is trying to trick you.

Or you’ll think it’s a misunderstanding, that they genuinely mean what they say – they’re not trying to trick you – but that they’re incorrect. They don’t know they’re wrong and therefore the threat is in the Imposter Syndrome (the secret fear that you’re not good enough and will one day be revealed as such) – eventually you’re going to be found out.

They say “Oh you’re such a good person” and you’re like “Oh no! They don’t know the full truth about me. When they do my world’s gonna come crashing down!” So for this reason you push against the compliment, like “as long as it doesn’t stick to me there won’t be this future Imposter problem.”

I might thinkt that if a manipulator tries to flatter me with a compliment, as long as I avoid that from sticking to me they can’t manipulate me later, I won’t owe them anything.

And if they’re wrong – if they misunderstood, they think I’m better than I actually am by mistake – if I avoid that sticking to me then I can’t let them down in the future and have that embarrassing/disappointing moment.

There’s also – I think for me personally this was the main one – the risk of deep connection.

Avoiding connection

When somebody actually shows genuine affection for you – a preference for you – they‘re showing you emotions like attraction and love and interest in you. A lot of people with low self-worth (especially nice guys and people pleasers, ironically) will push back against this, because nothing is more threatening to someone with low self-worth than an actual deep connection.

Why? Because then all your dark shit gets discovered!

All that shit that you’ve been hiding, behind your fake smile and you’re go-getter attitude. If someone gets in close they’re gonna see that it’s all bullshit and you’ve got this dark misery going on inside you.

So quite often a compliment is like trying to open the door into that connection.

If somebody says “I really love your art” you’re like “Ahhh! Don’t don’t come into my house, get out of my house! You don’t want to see what’s behind this art, it‘s fucking terrifying – I’ve can barely sleep at night, get away from me, I don’t want you to see this!”

People who get really uncomfortable with compliments, they immediately for some reason sense a risk of rejection/abandonment. They’ll avoid compliments so somebody can’t get close enough to hurt them really bad later on. It’s a preventative measure.

How your ‘humility’ is perceived

Now what you’ll think is that you come across as wise, self-deprecating and humble.  You think you come across as somebody who’s modest and doesn’t have a big ego. But that’s not how you come across…

How you really come across is dismissive and blunt and cruel, annoying and frustratingly resistant, incredibly low in self-worth, and unappreciative.

You’ll know it because you’ve been the other person. You’ve tried to give someone a compliment, they’ve thrown it back in your face and you’re just like “Damn! Fuck you, I was trying to be nice, like what the hell?”

It’s like you give someone a gift from they just spit on it. Of course you’re gonna feel awful when they do that, and that’s what you’ve been doing to people who try to praise you!

Sure there’ll be a couple of people who are “wrong,” and sure there’ll be a couple of people who are manipulative, but most of the time when someone goes to the effort of giving you a compliment they’re trying to give you recognition and appreciation and you’re spitting on it with your reaction.

I’m not saying that to make you feel bad. I’m saying that to wake you up to the idea that your pushing back on a compliment somehow makes you more socially acceptable… it’s the opposite okay!

It makes people just not want to connect with you (which might be your secret goal under all this).

How to be more confident

Let’s get straight to the point: you want to deal with this?

Do what I did: start just saying thanks.

I gave people the benefit of the doubt. I assumed that they’re doing this for the right reasons and they know what they’re talking about.

Most of them are fully grown adults. They’ve had time to develop a lifetime’s worth of wisdom and judgment and whatever, and when they give a compliment it’s because they appreciate something and they will show that appreciation.

There is no right or wrong to it. They feel something when they observe me and they’re just telling me about that feeling. I can’t deny that feeling. I can’t accurately say “You’re wrong to like what you see.”

They might say “You’re a good dancer” – I don’t need to believe that I’m a good dancer because they’re not really saying you’re a good dancer, they’re saying I like to watch you dance, or I like to dance with you, and I can’t deny them that. I can’t say no you don’t because I don’t know how they feel!

I have to assume they know what the fuck they‘re talking about and so the only really reasonable response I can give to a compliment is to say thank you.

It takes a push of courage to give a compliment. You’re putting yourself out there as part of connection building.

You can get rejected for compliments – you’ve been rejecting people for compliments all your life, right? You’ve been breaking hearts all along the way, thinking that you’re being humble.

This person’s really putting themselves out there by giving me a compliment and they’re very vulnerable right now, so the best thing I can do and the most accurate thing I can do is just say thanks. Thank you for putting it out there. I know you’re trying to affect my mood and I don’t want people to affect my mood but I get the intention and I appreciate it.

How to work on this

If you are using compliments to measure yourself – if you’re using other people’s feedback to figure out whether or not you’re a good person – then that’s the next piece of work you need to be working on.

You need to get yourself a coach or a therapist or you need to do some of our BROJO courses.

Design a new measurement system, because you know what? After years of doing this, I’ve gotten to the point now where both compliments and insults are the same to me: they’re just basically meaningless feedback.

Now I get the gesture, the intention – most of the time someone’s trying to help. Even if someone insults me they’re trying to stand up for something; they believe in something and they see me as against that something, so they’re just saying they have a preference for something else. And when someone gives me a compliment they’re just saying they have a preference for me.

But they could both be wrong, they could both be right, they could both be both. Who the fuck knows? I just know that they’re just trying to express themselves and that’s actually got nothing to do with me.

So to take it as feedback is a complete delusion. The only person who knows whether or not I’m doing the right shit for me is me; they can’t give me feedback on that.

They might say “Hey I love your dancing” but maybe I was faking it, how could they know that I was lacking integrity in that moment? In which case their compliment doesn’t actually give me any feedback on who I am.

Somebody can – and often does – say to me “I hate your work” – there are people who hate my videos and they hate all my shit, but I know I’m doing this stuff for the right reasons so their hate is irrelevant to my measurement system. I’m living by my values in making these videos.

So that’s the thing you need to be working on ok?

Compliments are uncomfortable just because they are poking at one of your insecurities. Once you get to the point where compliments and negative feedback are just noises coming out of someone’s mouth and you don’t actually have to do anything about it, just say thanks and move on, then you know you’ve actually achieved a certain level of confidence.

I hope that’s helpful. This was a huge one for me. I didn’t realize it was an issue to struggle with compliments until later in my life.

Thank you for watching/reading. Please leave your thoughts, comments, feedback below. What are your thoughts on compliments? What do you think of them?

And of course email me dan@brojo.co.nz with your questions.

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