Oh compliments. You wonderful little gifts of love.
How did you all find round two our little #complimentbombing experiment? Did you dish out more praise than you might normally? And what were the effects of this? Did you receive some compliment bombs perchance? And what was that like for you?
Chances are it was easier to be the bomber than the bombed. Giving a compliment is usually much easier a thing to do for us than receiving one.
However, if we look at praise-giving as part of the whole big world we call ‘communication’ then it probably falls under some of the same rules. It’s about give and take. For this social engine to run smoothly, we need to be comfortable and confident at both: the giving and the taking.
We don’t often look at accepting praise and compliments as a skill. But I reckon it is. It’s a skill that I for one had to consciously practice and develop.
I used to be excellent at avoiding compliments and praise. A conversation that started with someone observing that they thought I looked nice, could meander into me explaining at length that the entire outfit had been purchased second hand for a small amount of money which thus negated its beauty. I might then launch into a diatribe of my faults and failings regarding my current appearance and provide a fascinating insight into the lack of personal care I allocated to my body. This would end in embarrassing laughter from myself and the Complimenter no doubt backing away in an attempt not to catch a form of lice from my unhygienic body parts.
There’s a number of reasons why it can be hard for us to accept compliments, or these little gifts of love.
Firstly, how receptive we are to compliments can be reflective of our self-esteem and deep feelings of self-worth. Specifically, compliments can make those of us with low self-esteem feel uncomfortable because they contradict our own self-views. People actively seek to verify their own perceptions of themselves, whether those 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 more positively.
The resistance people with low self-esteem have to compliments can be especially pronounced when the praise comes from their relationship partners. One study found that giving people with low self-esteem praise about being considerate boyfriends or girlfriends was enough to make them feel more insecure about their partners and even to view their entire relationship more negatively.
Given that the compliment was mild, whether the participants were considerate or not could not have conflicted that strongly with their self-beliefs. Further, their partners know them well and were certainly in a position to comment on their relationship skills. So why would someone with low self-esteem react so strongly to such mild praise from their partner?
The answer is that any form of praise that comes from their partners, can make people with low self-esteem feel pressured to live up to the heightened expectations such praise implies. Because their confidence and trust in themselves is low, a person with low self-esteem fears they won’t be able to sustain their efforts and they’ll end up disappointing their partner. Further, they worry that their partner’s love and caring are conditional, such that if they do fail to live up to their expectations their partner will withdraw from them or exit the relationship altogether.
Another reason compliments can make us feel a bit icky is because the words we hear don’t line up with the way we see our self. This is what the psychologists amongst us call ‘cognitive dissonance'.
In other words, receiving praise from others when we feel negatively about ourselves elicits discomfort because it conflicts with our existing belief system. If we believe we’re truly undesirable, hearing compliments about how attractive we are will feel jarring and inauthentic. If we believe we’re unintelligent, someone lavishing us with praise about how smart we are will feel more like a taunt than a compliment. And if we’re convinced we’re incapable of success, receiving praise about how capable we are can feel like a set-up for future heartbreak and disappointment.
Studies have also shown that those of us who may have issues with our self-worth tend to prefer to set the bar low. That way if the expectations are met, we get to be pleasantly surprised.
For some of us a compliment can imply that we’re expected to excel and this can increase the pressure. When we feel as if other people hold us in high regard, self-doubt can creep in, causing us to feel anxious in regard to disappointing someone.
Whilst all of this is totes interesting, the correlation between low self-esteem and a resistance to compliments should not be over-interpreted. People with low self-esteem are often uncomfortable receiving compliments but not everyone who is uncomfortable receiving compliments necessarily has low self-esteem. 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.
Difficulty in accepting compliments and praise is not always about confidence and esteem. It could just as easily be a lack of practice. If you were raised in an environment where compliments were rare, then you don’t gain the experience of accepting them. Therefore you just need to catch up on lost time and practice more now.
One thing I did to help overcome my ungracious acceptance of praise, was I stopped considering it as a compliment. But instead I tried to reframe it as a gift. Because that’s what I reckon compliments are. Little social gifts. With other gifts, I tend not to snatch them away from the giver, chuck it in the bin and say ‘Well that’s a load of old rubbish’. By treating compliments and praise as little gifts of love, my general reception of them started to change.
At its core our self-esteem is a pretty subjective evaluation. And probably not the best thing to try and run all our social communication and etiquettes through. We don’t have to believe the compliment, but we can still accept it graciously. In a socially appropriate manner. Just by acknowledging positive feedback we may even begin to entertain the possibility that maybe there is something positive to comment on. It may even begin to change our perception of our self.
So, thank all of you who got involved in giving compliments for World Compliment Day. And we praise all of you who were able to receive the compliments. With a smile. And a thank you. That’s just awesome!
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