On Compliments and Self-Esteem

by Ginger on April 4, 2012

in I'm a Disaster

Sitting on a squishy couch (how cliche, I think at times), facing the woman who is helping me see myself. The sun filters in through a window and I stare at the line in the carpet where shadow turns to light as she says,

“You’re not very good with hearing compliments, are you?”

And I let out a short laugh.


One of the things I’ve found both fascinating and frustrating about therapy is how much my therapist NAILS about me…and how much of it is an utterly DUH moment once she says it out loud. The first time I went to see her was the first time it became so utterly apparent to me that the things that go on in my head aren’t what everyone thinks. In hindsight, DUH. But it took her pointing it out for me to really see it.

Usually, she points out one thing, one AH-HA moment, during our hour together and then I spend the next week mulling it over. Turning it over and over in my head, looking at it from all angles to see “ok, so now you see this…now what?” It’s honestly one of the strangest things I’ve been through, this having a stranger point out these things that just…are. That are just part of me. Or have been part of me for so long that I don’t see the distinction any longer.

So when she calls me out on the compliment thing, I had to laugh. Because, no. No, I’m not good with hearing compliments.

Certain compliments are fine. “Your hair looks great!” “Oooh, I love your shoes!” “Hon, you look really nice today.” If it’s about my appearance, or things I own, or surface things like that, I don’t have a hard time with them. I take my compliment, say a gracious thank you, and leave with a little smile.

But beyond that? Well, that’s when things break down.

It’s not that I don’t GET compliments (I mean, I’m not drowning in them or anything. I’m not trying to say I’m covered in compliments from sunup to sundown). But if I don’t see the value in them, or don’t believe them myself? It’s like they bounce right off me. Like I’ve got this shield that keeps them from sinking in.

And the reality is, I don’t often feel like there is anything special enough about me to warrant compliments.

Many of the things I get compliments on I feel like are just HOW YOU SHOULD BE. It’s strange to get compliments at work for things like meeting or beating the budget, or managing my team well, or having patience with a difficult author. For coming up with solutions to problems. For handling a tough situation. Those are just parts of MY JOB. Getting compliments for them doesn’t seem like something that should happen. Same for my “off duty” life. I’m patient, I’m kind, I care about other people’s feelings. Why am I getting compliments for things that are just…how people should be?

So I don’t internalize those compliments. Because to me, it’s like complimenting someone on the fact that they breath air well. It’s just what you’re supposed to do, that’s not something worth complimenting.

And then there’s this:

These are not the kinds of things that our society values. These are not traits to be celebrated. These are not, as my therapist said, “sexy traits.” These are not things that people stand up and cheer for. These aren’t creating, or doing, or being anything exceptional. These may be worth a compliment in a situational context (say, a performance review), but these are not the things that make superstars.

And we’re a culture that values superstars.

So it makes sense (in my head, at least) that I don’t do well with compliments. To me, I’m just “average.” I’m not a superstar. I’m not building, creating, doing in that way. I’m a good solid worker, who is a good solid manager, with good solid ethics, who has good solid ideas, and good solid personality traits. But “good, and solid?” Those aren’t the things that inspire REAL compliments.

And yet.

This is also utter bullshit. Because on the FLIP side? I totally recognize and cheer and find value in these types of things IN OTHER PEOPLE. I want to rave about the small things that others do, and one of my favorite types of compliments to give besides “ooh I love your shoes” is “man, that was a really nice thing you did.” I want to acknowledge the big things, of course, but also the small ones. So many of my favorite people are people who do awesome at the BIG things. But man, so, so, so, SO many of them are the ones who are specTACULAR at the little ones.

So why isn’t it enough for me?

Maribel Reyes April 4, 2012 at 2:20 pm

I too have a difficult time with compliments, but slowly I am learning to accept them and be grateful for them. I am learning to appreciate how my kids, my husband, my parents and family compliment me on little things and now I smile when I get a compliment from a friend or a stranger. 🙂 I think we are all a work in progress, each with our own mission and goal in life. Self-esteem is another issue with me, but when I feel with a low self-esteem it is when I shine the most. I use that to power my motivation 🙂

Megan April 4, 2012 at 5:45 pm

I have the hardest time taking compliments from certain family members. Because they were never valued as children (foster care, neglected) they lavish on those they love.
I just don’t see myself as the great person they think I am.
It’s hard accepting compliments when you don’t feel good about yourself. And how many women have that problem? You can’t just say ‘thank you’ and move on, so many feel like they have to undervalue whatever it is they were complimented for.

Hope April 4, 2012 at 7:06 pm

My friend Mary just wrote a really good blog topic about this same thing! http://marysweightymatters.wordpress.com/2012/04/01/accepting-compliments/

I think we all need to learn how to be better about accepting compliments.

Ginger April 6, 2012 at 10:55 pm

Oooh, thank you for that link!

Craftwhack April 5, 2012 at 12:42 pm

I think we talk ourselves into being okay with doing all SORTS of stuff without ever being complimented or acknowledged for it, so when and if a compliment is bestowed upon us, it’s a little alarming. Maybe embarrassing, even. Even if we really are grateful for it. I started reading your post and found myself having therapist envy. I would so love a good solid 5-6 sessions with a kick-ass therapist right now.

Ginger April 6, 2012 at 10:56 pm

She really is awesome. Even when she makes me so freaking uncomfortable!

Reading (and chickens) April 5, 2012 at 4:04 pm

I think we all struggle with this, in some way or another, especially being happy with who we are. Most of us are the type that do the littler things, right? Good for you for working through it.

Christine @ Love, Life, Surf April 5, 2012 at 4:58 pm

This totally makes sense to me, especially the part about being good and solid within a culture of superstars. I totally feel average and so when I receive a compliment, it feels like a disconnect and I get flustered and run away. OK, not really run away but more likely to giggle and avert my eyes. I too love to praise and encourage others and make them feel good for the little and big things. But I’m working on it – stopping to take a breath and say thank you – but also acknowledging that yes, I do deserve compliments too.

Ginger April 6, 2012 at 10:59 pm

You just said in 4 sentences what it took me like 800 words to try and say. Exactly. Exactly!

clara April 7, 2012 at 5:15 pm

A lot of the time, compliments come as “you are X” instead of “you did Y” and I think a lot of us are uncomfortable with that structure because what if I stop being X, do I still have value, will you still like me? Whereas if it’s something specific that I did, there’s no argument: I did it.

I realized this when I started paying attention to what i said to my kids: “You’re so smart” and have been trying to say “You tried really hard to…” or “You figured it out!”

I also would like a therapist. I took a counseling course one time and we had to role play therapizing each other and the girl I was partnered with was great. I think it’s so valuable.

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