Making compliments comfortable

It’s been a big week here at Hope Street Cards HQ. In a quite surreal turn of events, we unexpectedly received some media attention. Far and away, the most wonderful part of this has been that our Hope Street community has grown. To all our new members – we welcome you openly and with loving kindness – and we hope that you join with us in our hope to create supportive connections with loved ones and yourself when things are a bit shit.

The other thing that has happened as a result of this attention, is that we’ve been inundated with positive feedback and compliments. It’s been incredibly overwhelming. And humbling. And beautiful. And we thank you all from the bottom of our hearts.

And I’m really, really stoked that I finally taught myself how to actually accept a compliment. For realz.

I am a big believer in the power of a compliment. I think they are one of the most extraordinary components of social life. If given right they can create so much positive energy that they make things happen almost as if by magic. Compliments are little gifts of love. Not asked for or demanded. Informing a person they are worthy of notice.

The art of the compliment is a really powerful social skill. Giving a genuine compliment can escalate the atmosphere of positivity between two people, fostering the flow of conversation and advancing communication. And I love to give these powerful gifts.

In the past, I just haven’t been very good at receiving them.

About a year ago I decided it was time to overcome my unassertive responses to receiving a compliment. I had just presented a seminar at a largish event and another speaker approached me afterwards and complimented me on my presentation. Quite automatically, I began dismissing or deflecting the compliment with “oh, it was only okay. I could have …”. She very quickly took both of my hands, interrupted me and said, “Sam, please accept that it was very good.”

It was a pretty big wake up call to how I was responding to praise.

When we have trouble accepting the compliment, we can instantly suck the positivity out of the interaction and deflate the donor of the gift. They may feel awkward for noticing and commenting on something that we feel is unworthy of praise. In essence we are totally invalidating the other person’s judgment.

But I’m not alone in this. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of people around who find compliments difficult to accept and receive. And this deflection of praise is probably coming from a place of fear.

Firstly, how receptive we are to compliments is usually a reflection of our self-esteem and deep feelings of self-worth. Specifically, compliments can make people with low self-esteem feel uncomfortable because they contradict their own self-views. We actively seek to verify our own perceptions of ourselves, whether these are positive or negative. For example, in one study, college students with low self-esteem showed a stronger preference for keeping their current roommate if that roommate viewed them negatively, than if their roommate saw them positively.

So receiving praise from others when we feel negatively about ourselves can make us uncomfortable because it conflicts with our existing belief system.

Whilst I truly believe that my self-esteem is at its most healthy point it’s probably ever been at, these really core belief systems are pretty difficult to shake. And if someone catches me at a vulnerable and weak moment and lavishes me with praise about how smart or talented I am, it’s quite possible it may feel more like a taunt than a compliment.

Secondly, at times in my life – particularly when I have been unwell – I have felt a significant level of discomfort with big expectations. As a result, if a compliment implies (or I  interpreted it in a way that implies) that I’m expected to succeed or excel, it can feel a lot more like pressure and a lot less like praise.

Sometimes when we feel that other people hold us in high regard, self-doubt creeps in. And when self-doubt creeps in, anxiety is usually holding doubts hand. So the intended compliment can lead to us thinking it’s only a matter of time before we disappoint someone.

Thirdly, our upbringing or culture can also influence our acceptance of admiration or praise. Within the realm of our family and culture values, modesty, for example, may be a virtue. Praise has a large cultural and ideological component. For example, it is much more acceptable to praise children in some cultures than in others and it is much more acceptable to express positive regard to adults in some cultures than in others. Further, some people with high self-esteem might have ideologies or world views that associate compliments with ‘coddling’ such that they experience praise as condescension rather than encouragement. 

But is it is totally possible to increase our receptiveness to compliments. Allowing ourselves to receive compliments can help us identify our strengths and provide us relief from the nagging doubt about our own skills and worth. When we are complimented, the same part of our brain is activated as when we receive financial reward. We feel encouraged and are likely to repeat complimented behaviours and feel our motivations renewed. Plus, we allow the person complimenting us to experience the gift of making us feel good.

I can't help but think our day to day would be much nicer and we would feel more connected and less frightened of each other if we shared our nice thoughts (the complaints and criticisms seem to come all too freely). When we think of something nice about someone, we just express it.

And these days if someone gives me a compliment, I don’t get scared. I assume they mean it and I say thank you.

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