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I Can’t Take a Compliment

Flattery and complimentary remarks always used to make me extremely uncomfortable. If someone told me that they liked my hair, or my outfit, or complimented me on a job well done; I couldn’t handle it. I broke eye contact, looked down at the ground, shuffled my feet, and dismissed their kind words with negative words of my own:
• “Oh thank you, but I barely did anything with my hair today. It doesn’t look that good at all.”
• “You like this outfit? I’ve had it for like three years; see this hole here in the sleeve?”
• “You liked my book? Oh, I’m sorry you had to read it, it’s so sad and too short.”
• “I’m not beautiful.”

I’m sure that most people who gave me compliments assumed that I was just being modest or that I was afraid to look vain and self-centered when I would blow off their praise by knocking myself down. And that’s a logical thought; most women are raised to be humble and many women worry that accepting a compliment from anyone about anything will make them look arrogant and conceited. The fear of coming across as cocky or that they walk around assuming they are “all that” seems to make a woman’s (or man’s) modesty kick in and they end up downplaying the compliment and focusing on their weaknesses.

However, in my case, modesty was never the issue. In my case, I truly never believed any of the compliments coming out of someone’s mouth and always assumed that there was a hidden agenda. Every single time someone would say something nice to me, I would wonder what the catch was, what did this person want and why were they buttering me up?
• I do a great job raising my sons? Well, you must need a babysitter.
• Oh, you like my house? You must need a loan.
• I look beautiful in that outfit? You need some big favor so just get to the point and quit buttering me up.

Not only would I sit and rack my brain trying to figure out this person’s ulterior motives, I would begin to get nervous and worry about future meetings with this person.
• What if they didn’t like my outfit the next time they saw me?
• What if my house was messy the next time they came over?
• What if my boys were having a tantrum the next time we were all on the playground?

I would imagine the disappointment on their face when they realized I couldn’t live up to their high expectations; so I would lower the bar with negative responses in the hopes that I could lower their expectations of me. I wanted them to think of me as I thought of myself.

I didn’t understand how to take the compliment because it was not the way I was raised. For every one compliment I might have received from my mother; I had already received over a thousand insults. If I came upstairs for school one morning and Mom looked me up and down and told me I looked “decent”, I would remember how she had just gotten done telling me how disgusting and ugly I was the night before. If she told me that I had done a chore around the house exceptionally well, it only meant that the next time that chore was done, it better be up to those standards or I would suffer the consequences. And if she happened to mention a great grade on a school assignment, it only meant that she was buttering me up to do something for her. Not one compliment I received from Mom growing up was sincere or heartfelt; there were always strings attached.

So in my adult life, when well-meaning co-workers or family members would give me a sincere compliment, I went into panic mode and bullied myself nonstop. I refused to accept hearing anything positive about myself because I couldn’t see myself the way that they did; I couldn’t understand how strangers could think positively about me when my own mother struggled to say one nice thing to me during my childhood.

I was constantly dismissing my own abilities and self-worth to everyone around me. I was suggesting to every person who complimented me that nothing I did was important or special and that anyone could do it. I was implying that the person complimenting me didn’t mean what they said and that perhaps they didn’t know what they were talking about. And I constantly diminished my own value by reminding people of my perceived faults and taking the focus off of my strengths.

It wasn’t a healthy way to live and not a positive image to portray to my two young sons. I didn’t want them growing up fighting the same battles I fought in my head, I didn’t want my sons to think that it was appropriate to argue with someone who told them they were doing a good job, I didn’t want my sons to mistrust everyone around them, and I certainly didn’t want them to think that they were unworthy of praise. I had to change my way of thinking and I had to realize that not everyone was Mom, not everyone had secret agendas and were out to hurt me.

I still fight that bully in my head whenever I hear a compliment, but I’ve gotten a lot better over the years. I found that simply saying “Thank You” when someone says something nice to me fights those negative thoughts filling my brain and makes me feel somewhat worthy of the praise I’m hearing. Simply saying thank you instead of arguing and mistrusting someone has helped me realize that most people do have good intentions and are telling the truth when they give me praise. Not everyone has a hidden agenda and not everyone is out to hurt me.

And by simply saying thank you, I’m showing my sons that their mother can do special and important things and that they can too.

I Can’t Take a Compliment

Sarah Burleton NY Times bestselling author

Victoria Gigante Writes For Psych CentralSarah Burleton was born in a little town in Illinois to a very emotionally disturbed woman. Her first book, her child abuse memoir "Why Me," spent 26 weeks on the New York Times and the print version is endorsed by David Pelzer, author of "A Child Called It." Sarah is now realizing her goal in becoming an ambassador for abused children and adult survivors and is currently conducting workshops and seminars throughout the state. Her message of strength over adversity and her story will help counselors, teachers, and other professionals identify signs of abuse and learn ways to establish trust with an abused child.

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APA Reference
, . (2015). I Can’t Take a Compliment. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 7, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Oct 2015
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