Why do compliments make you feel embarrassed?

Picture yourself in a classroom the day after a big exam. The teacher stands before the class, lambasting your classmate John for his less-than-impressive performance on the test. Then he turns his attention to Kate, pointing out how wonderfully she did by contrast. Now, john is slumped all the way down in his seat — but so is Kate. Why is it that compliments can be as embarrassing as insults?

Getting a compliment is supposed to feel good. But if it can make you cringe, curl up, or even start to have an anxiety attack, then what is it good for? If kind words make you react that way, then you’re certainly not alone — nearly 70 percent of people associate positive recognition with embarrassment and discomfort. Ever notice how a single compliment tends to spiral into others? (“I like your jacket!” “Thanks, I like your shoes!”) Or how some people make sure they don’t take credit for good work, even if they deserve it? (“It was a team effort.”) Those are all examples of compliment anxiety rearing its head. But why does it happen?

First of all, a compliment causes a strange wrinkle in the fabric of social interaction. In general, we’re socialized to not say positive things about ourselves and to not openly disagree with people. That can make a compliment uncomfortable — either you can accept it, violating the first unspoken rule, or deny it, violating the second. There’s also a social benefit of acting humble in response to a compliment. In many ways, the acceptable response to a compliment is embarrassment, and the discomfort you feel might be caused by your unconscious knowledge that you’re supposed to feel that way.

You might even internalize the belief that the person is being disingenuous, and that can add another level of discomfort. It might even cause your impostor syndrome to flare up. After all, if your classmates or coworkers are complimenting the thing that you’re insecure about, isn’t that evidence that you’re in over your head? (Answer: No, it means you’re more capable than you’re giving yourself credit for.)

There’s another element of public praise that’s uncomfortable besides the praise part: the public part. Anxieties surrounding positive attention are well documented, and pretty easy to understand. When somebody gives you a compliment, they’re not just saying you did a good job. They’re also saying that they’ve been watching you. Even if they approve of what you’ve done, you might flash back to the part of your process you wish they hadn’t seen — or maybe you start worrying about what happens when they’re watching in the future and things don’t go so well.

Let’s say you struggle with these kinds of anxieties. It’s nice to know you aren’t alone, but it would also be nice not to have a minor panic attack everytime someone compliments your hard work. Fortunately, there are a few methods you can try to make the next compliments you receive feel more uplifting and less embarrassing.

It’s important to realize that a compliment is as much about the giver as the receiver. When somebody gives you a compliment, they are giving their feedback on how your actions affected them. They’re not asking if you agree with that feedback, they’re just giving it. Try accepting it like you might accept a gift (don’t throw it back in their face!), and if you feel up to it, amplify the positive effects by asking exactly what they liked about your work. Or you could just say thank you.

Check out my related post: How do you spot a lie?

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