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URMC / BHP / BHP Blog / May 2024 / Can you take a compliment?

Can you take a compliment?

By: J. MacLaren Kelly, MAPP, Ph.D.

Can you take a compliment?

"Great job. You really worked hard on this project and it shows." You might respond with, "Just lucky I guess," or, "This part isn’t resolved yet," or maybe just "Oh. Okay, what do you expect the next project to be?" Hearing this from your boss should be good news to your ears, but instead it makes you uncomfortable. You almost automatically try to address this discomfort by explaining it as lucky happenstance, by focusing on a smaller incomplete portion to draw attention away from the part you’ve completed, or by minimizing the role you played. Does this sound like you? Does receiving praise or compliments make you squirm? Let’s discuss what influences your response, why accepting praise when warranted is a better route, and how to work on being a better receiver.

Reasons for responses to praise.

Several different factors could contribute to your response to praise. You prefer for others to view you how you view yourself. This preference is a powerful influencer upon what you do with feedback. Based on self-verification-theory (Swann, 1983), once you develop a view of yourself, you rely on it to navigate the world. You are motivated to maintain this self-view, and so accept or refute feedback based on whether it is consistent with how you view yourself. If you view yourself as a "a hard worker," a compliment of such from someone else is accepted as correct; if you view yourself as "lazy," the same compliment is rejected. When you hold a negative view of yourself, you accept negative feedback more readily than positive feedback. Discomfort from a compliment may reflect disagreement with your view of yourself.

Another factor contributing to your response to praise could be your preference against the social attention that accompanies praise. In an article by Weeks et al. (2008), they describe individual differences in a concept known as "fear of positive evaluation" — anticipatory anxiety over increased positive social attention from doing something well. The fear of positive evaluation suggests that positive social feedback leads to anticipation of the possibility of upward movement in a social hierarchy; this upward movement may eventually lead to conflict with group members higher in the social hierarchy. The prospect of conflict with high status group members is anxiety-provoking. Fear of positive evaluation serves to maintain the current social position in the hierarchy.

Why should we care?

Genuine compliments serve as external feedback directed toward you that your expertise and effort resulted in a desirable outcome, that someone noticed when you did well, that what you did mattered to someone else. Feedback like this is like ripe fruit just waiting to be picked. Dismissing praise or positive feedback is a missed opportunity. By accepting the compliment as genuine and earned, you garner a specific instance of your positive impact on your surroundings. The accrual of other instances like this one could potentially change your own self-view for the better. These examples may also serve as evidence against any doubts over worth that emerge in the future. 

How to work on receiving praise:

To address your difficulties receiving praise, you have a few routes.

  1. Try simply saying, "Thank you" when you receive a compliment. Rest your attention on the compliment for a few moments, refraining from directing your attention elsewhere. If you notice yourself accepting the thought as true, then stop and pat yourself on the back. If you notice an urge to discount the positive feedback, then move on to step 2.
  2. You next take the same steps you’d take when practicing cognitive reappraisal. First, describe your situation (your who, what, where, and when). Next, identify the automatic, unexamined thoughts that you have in response to the compliment. Do these thoughts sound like thinking traps? What evidence do you have for/against these thoughts? Is there another way to view the compliment? 

If accepting compliments is something you are struggling with, engaging in therapy at Behavioral Health Partners may help.  Behavioral Health Partners is brought to you by Well-U, offering eligible individuals mental health services for stress, anxiety and depression.  To schedule an intake appointment, give us a call at (585) 276-6900.


Morton, J. S., Mikolajczak, M., & Luminet, O. (2022). New perspectives on the praise literature: towards a conceptual model of compliment. Current Psychology, 41(9), 6038-6050.

Swann, W. B., Jr. (1983). Self-verification: Bringing social reality into harmony with the self. In J. Suls & A. G. Greenwald (Eds.), Psychological perspectives on the self (Vol. 2, pp. 33–66). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Weeks, J. W., Heimberg, R. G., & Rodebaugh, T. L. (2008). The Fear of Positive Evaluation Scale: Assessing a proposed cognitive component of social anxiety disorder. Journal of Anxiety disorders, 22, 44-55. Doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2007.08.002


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