Why Compliments Make Us Uncomfortable

As the woman smiled, she tapped me on the shoulder and said: “That was a superb job you did. You handled it quite well”. But I was set back by the statement. “Well no, I had lots of help from others, you know…” I said while scratching the back of my head. “Everybody did their part and… things worked out fine...I guess.”, awkward silence.

“I know they did, but I'm talking about your part” she smiled. “You are like one of those people that can’t accept a compliment, aren’t you?”. I feel my lips getting tight, my face is blushing like a small kid busted eating the 10th piece of chocolate. I node awkwardly and return back at my work.

That was actually a true story of mine that happened a while back and it took a long time to wrap my head around it. Why would something so innocent as giving props be perceived with such avoidance and resistance as if it was a thousand family reunions compacted together in one occasion? Why did I try to avert a nice warm gesture instead of accepting it in its whole glory and let it shine my heart with pride and vanity as it was supposed to? I mean, it’s always nice to indulge in it for a while, isn’t it? And furthermore, who are ‘those people’ exactly averting any kind of compliment like the plague, and how did it happen to be one of them? I certainly didn’t choose it myself, shyness chose me. But the incident prompted me to delve deeper and try to understand how it all comes together, and where it fits in the psychology eco-system. As it proves we all tend to avoid certain exposure one way or the other even when they are for our own good.

Introverts And The Inner World

As is described before, introverts live mostly inside their head and imaginary world. Usually, this world consists of things and occupations that they devote their whole energy to and can find pleasure in bothering with for long periods of time. That obviously may come in contrast to the extrovert way of seeking companionship and strong relationships as everything translates to how it correlates to the group and its particular dynamics.

So that means that introverts are devoted to a craft or hobby and designate that to be the medium through which they can manifest their skills and find their pride. And as they level up in it they can find some sort of fulfillment the same way an extrovert would feel fulfilled by the means of creating strong bonds and alliances. But where the interpersonal language requires to speak up for yourself and promote your good qualities to other people and see yourself as a marketing brand that can be refined and served to others as a commodity, the introvert language consists mostly of punishers and inner critics that you use against yourself thinking that this is the only way to progress and push yourself to develop your skills.

It’s the wrongful idea that you cannot achieve your targets unless you bash on yourself constantly and it is mostly derived by the models of relationship we create at a young age, witnessing how our environment behaves towards each other. And many times, this inner critic is nothing but an easy way to feel good in a quick way and defend our falling ego by the means of playing smart against your doings.

Defining Whether You Are An Introvert

All in all, that means there is a single experiment you can try out to define whether you are an introvert or an extrovert. Find 3 things you did the last week that truly and objectively showcase your good skills and capacities and voice them out in speech or a piece of paper. That would be something like “I did a good job handling a difficult friend or peer without allowing the situation to get awry” or “I managed to finish the tasks on time and with good quality delivering good overall results”. And now wait for a few seconds and check back on yourself. If you feel awkward about assessing any of this or you feel any kind of discomfort, it is a sure sign of how you treat yourself all this time and how little recognition you give yourself for all his struggles.

Many times we don’t realize that the way we treat ourselves would never be an acceptable way of treating any human being, demanding incredible things, and pointing the finger in the first sign of failure. This little experiment allows you to realize that speaking well for yourself is not part of your language and you’ve been mistreating yourself unjustifiably for a long time.

Compliments and Self-Esteem

Many times these little intricate details are neglected or mashed into the standard assessments of popular wisdom. “You don’t believe enough in yourself” or “You need to be more confident”. The assumption is that you hold a negative self-image and the good words you are receiving from others, contradict your views, and create cognitive dissonance.

But having been in the situation myself and seen it with my own eyes I can attest that not only I wasn’t feeling inferior in any way but I was actually considering my part to be the most critical one and this work being the biggest reason for the success of it.

And even further so, how often is it that people really hold themselves in a bad self-image? Obviously we bash ourselves for our mistakes and failures, but are these harsh judgments refer to our being or our doings?

The Core Illusion

People are made in a way to be strict for their actions as to the outcomes they bring in relation to others. And surely we can judge ourselves in that sense when we don’t achieve these interpersonal results we would hope for. But this kind of self-image describes mostly our relationships with others and rarely hold on their own when others are not around.

It is simply a curse of humankind to always think of ourselves as capable and skillful, with good judgment and cognitive abilities, as the image we really hold in the deepest parts of our psyche.

This core belief in our abilities is an illusion that we need, the same way we have developed to defend and protect ourselves. The reason we always fall to the tendency to underestimate the view others have for themselves is that we witness the mistakes they are doing and project our judgments on them as if they were to feel the same way about themselves, but this never really happens. Even in cases like depression the bad judgment refers to the bad outcomes we get in our life goals, and not to the core assessment of ourselves which is kept intact.

So imagine this. You are the sole owner of a small company. That company actually consists of only one employee from which you expect to grasp the full length of your productive capacities. That means he is the only source of productive power and you can only use him to maximize your product-quality and profit. And so the story goes that you advance to become the worst kind of employer that bullies him daily, mistreat him heavily, and undervalues his skills in order to keep him under control. You think that were you to change into a good face he would stop being as productive as he is now and so you are bound into this little game of keeping the upper hand.

But then a friend of yours comes along and finds the two of you one afternoon to catch up. As you describe the work you have been doing he is amazed at the incredible job your employee has made and what a valuable piece of the puzzle he is. You are dumbfounded. Can’t he understand that by saying this, he comprises the foundation you have set down already and your employee may recoup and ask for more things that you may not be able to deliver?

Now imagine that this employee is actually yourself and you are the inner critic that bashes out on you, day in and day out. And the friend that spoke the good words for the employee is actually the friend that paid you a compliment and shocked you in your core.

The Desire To Be Discovered

It may be an untold truth, or one of those things we all kind of sense but refuse to declare publicly but introverts long to be discovered for their inner world. Even when they declare their despise and indifference for any external validation and even when they refuse to participate in the social-dynamics games, they crave recognition for it. It doesn’t matter if their thing is playing an instrument producing the most beautiful chords, or if they spend hours upon hours on arranging the pieces of solid puzzles and reverent into the little ‘click’ sound they make as they glue together, the way Hue Jackman likes it. Their work strives to be manifested one way or the other. They all want to be revealed for it and clapped for their amazing devotion to the little details of their hobbies.

But here is where the difference lies because this urge is mostly unconscious and would be denied no matter how desired it is. Giving props is an extroverty thing. It doesn’t match with the introvert way of focusing on their thing and refining the little details, but stresses the social view of how it plays out with others. “But this is not why I’m doing it!” the introvert would yell inside his head. “I’m not after your props or recognition! I’m doing it because I like it.” Receiving the compliments is equivalent to jumping up to a different world and abandoning your previous ideals of doing an excellent intro-work inside your intro-head.

And what does it mean for someone to give you props even? Is he in charge? Is he the reason you are doing it? If he hadn’t recognized it, would that mean that your work means nothing at all? For an introvert, accepting a compliment is a pure disaster and demolition of his values.

It is actually funny to realize that the antidote to ‘not accepting compliments’ is not confidence but humility.

The way forward

So as always, little micro behaviors can pinpoint to deeper issues that we need to dive into and dissect in order to solve them on their core. The little discomfort when receiving a compliment is an indication that we are unjust to ourselves and act as our own worst bullies. We would never do something like that to someone else or tolerate such behavior. And with realizing this, below are 3 exercises to accentuate your ego and let it come forward in its fullness.

  1. Every week, journal 3 things that you are the proudest of yourself for. It doesn’t matter if these things are just describing your amazing work in choosing the right bread or how fast you ate your food. You need to give your honest answers and you need to explicitly put them down on paper or otherwise they won’t work. No matter what phycology says, many things are just a matter of habit, and promoting yourself is many time purely a matter of learning how to do it.
  2. Find 3 things that you feel bad on and hold yourself accountable and forgive yourself. This can be painful at first but many times we hold ourselves responsible for failures or setbacks without really realizing it. We hold it as proof that we are not capable or worthy enough of respect, when in reality we fail to see the situation with objective eyes and acknowledge various reasons that led us to it. And so it goes that many times we punish ourselves for these mistakes when it is the most unfair thing to do. Go back at it, analyze it, and justify your self for these past actions as this is the only way to release it.
  3. Picture yourself as he was 5 years ago. Find 3 things in which you managed to make progress and write them down explicitly.

These exercises can reframe the view you hold of yourself and set you in a new road of self-respect and appreciation. It’s time that we start boosting ourselves instead of standing as our own worst enemy.

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