Here’s Why You Can’t Take a Compliment

Ever had that “meh” feeling when someone compliments you? Like your accomplishments are somehow “dirty” or “fake”? 

I was reading Learned Optimism by Dr Martin Seligman. The book made me realize that this feeling comes from how we explain our failures and successes to ourselves. 

This tends to hinders our ability to continue doing great work, and I want to share how you can deal with this feeling.

Dr Martin Seligman is an American psychologist, and he’s authored many books on Positive Psychology.

See original image 

In Learned Optimism, he really breaks down optimism and pessimism into their constituent parts. I’ll try to spare you the details here but basically what I learned is this: 


People who are pessimistic about positive events tend to have lower self-esteem.


Now, assuming low self-esteem is what’s getting in the way here. How would that cause feelings of inadequacy? And what should be done about it?

Upon learning this I thought to myself:

-What if I consider myself an optimist in general?

-How can you be pessimistic about something?

-Define pessimistic 

All of these (legitimate) questions are answered in the book, and it’s where I’ll be drawing my answers from.

See original image

First of all, it turns out you do not have to be a full-on emo pessimist to (occasionally) have pessimistic patterns of thought.

As Dr Seligman explains in his book: Optimism and Pessimism are explanatory styles. 

They are lenses you put on at times when you’re trying to make sense of the world around you.

There’s certainly tendencies, but whether we adopt a optimistic or pessimistic explanatory style in any given setting depends on our perception of events. 

Your perception controls the story in your head.


See original image



Now in his book, Dr Seligman goes into detail about the different parameters we use to categorize events in an intellectual way, which allows us to then “select” the explanatory style we’re going to apply to each situation.

Again, for the sake of time we won’t go into details.

How we perceive events (what they mean to us) tends to dictate how we explain them to ourselves. And how we explain things to ourselves, then of course dictates how we will react. (How you take the compliment) 

So what decides how you perceive an event? 

Well that’s also an interesting question, and the answer to that holds the key to being able to actually change your reaction.

It’s your beliefs. 

Your beliefs control your reactions.

See original image


That’s the whole deal, and the greatest takeaway you could take away from this piece. 

Change your beliefs, change your life, and that’s something that’s been preached so much, but it does make logical sense: 

Beliefs > Perception > Action (or lack there of) > Results (or lack thereof) > Life

Allow me to explain how you can use this piece of knowledge to be more confident in yourself, and not feel so weird when someone says something nice about you: 

What you believe controls what you perceive. (“I’m not that good, this person’s compliment is not genuine.”)

What you perceive creates the “story” you tell yourself. (“They’re probably just trying to be nice to me.”)

The story you tell yourself (your explanatory style) controls how you react.

So here you have the typical progression.

I invite you to try this out on yourself after interactions with people. If you’re thinking your behavior came out “weird”, you can ask yourself what belief was at the core of it.

“They’re probably just trying to be nice to me.” is quite a lot more pessimistic of a view than say: “Yeah, they’re basically letting me know how good I am at this.” 

Whether you’re right or wrong about the story is not the point of this discussion. The point of the discussion is to highlight how what you believe, creates what you tell yourself, which in turn creates the awkwardness.

Of course it’s best if you’re able to be optimistic, and see yourself accurately at the same time. No contest. 


See original image


So what is that belief which leads to feeling like compliments aren’t “real”?

Well, again that’s a very interesting question. And one that leads us to the gist of my dissertation:


You don’t believe the laurels should be yours.

See original image


I think they call this impostor syndrome.

And apparently it’s quite a common phenomenon in society today, especially in the workplace.

Of course, it’s probably wise not to get too close to any extreme, right. 

It’s good to know when you deserve the praise people throw at you. Absorbing those good feelings is going to make you a happier and more self-confident person in life (read why).

However, knowing where you stand might be even more important. I’ve already discussed how staying open to education is a key factor in self-improvement.

As in all thing, moderation trumps absolution.

You want to let the praise nourish your heart, yet never fill your head.

That’s graceful. 🙂

 Check out: Learned Optimism by Dr Martin Seligman

Leave a Reply