Why does receiving a compliment, intended to make us feel joy, often result in an instinctual reaction that makes us feel anything but? Comedian Amy Schumer humorously observed that many people have trouble accepting praise in a sketch where a group of women exchange pleasantries after crossing paths in the park, and “You dyed your hair! It looks amazing!” escalates into all-out bloodshed.
There’s a scientific explanation for why it’s so hard for our fragile egos to receive positive affirmation from others. “We love recognition, but we suck at it,” said Christopher Littlefield, recognition expert and founder of international consulting firm AcknowledgmentWorks, at the beginning of his Ted Talk on the benefits we can reap in our work and personal lives if we learn how to master the art of giving and receiving compliments.
As The Harvard Business Review reported, Littlefield’s research revealed that 88 percent of people associate recognition with a feeling of being valued, yet 70 percent also associate it with embarrassment. Even those of us that appreciate the occasional stroke of the ego can’t help the knee-jerk reaction of shamefulness that follows.
One reason why this is the case could be an indicator of a larger problem: low self-worth. A recent study showed that people with low self-esteem have more trouble accepting compliments because they doubt their sincerity, coupling the usual feeling of embarrassment with a deeper underlying humiliation in which they feel that they are being patronized. A baffling 2010 study revealed that people with low self-esteem prefer roommates that view them negatively, so that they won’t have to endure receiving compliments they perceive as disingenuous.
Additional research shows that compliments are best received as a means of motivation, not simply flattery. A group of Japanese scientists found that people performed better after receiving compliments. “To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being rewarded money. We’ve been able to find scientific proof that a person performs better when they receive a social reward after completing an exercise,” said study author and National Institute for Physiological Sciences Professor Norihiro Sadato. “There seems to be scientific validity behind the message ‘praise to encourage improvement.’ Complimenting someone could become an easy and effective strategy to use in the classroom and during rehabilitation.”
Another reason we may feel embarrassed when receiving compliments is because they activate the same area of the brain that lights up when flirting. Researchers at the University of Kansas found that exhibiting verbal cues, including giving compliments, can be an inevitable reaction when around someone we’re attracted to. “When you’re expressing yourself with someone you might like, nonverbal and verbal behaviors begin to reflect attraction, with a coy smile here and a laugh and a tease there, to clarify how you feel about a person,” said study author Jeffrey Hall, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas.
How can the unhealthy cycle of receiving compliments and self-deprecation be broken, so we can learn to feel good about the admiration of others? Science shows it’s all a matter of confidence. James O. Pawelski, director of education at the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, and his wife Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, a wellness consultant, recently released their book Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts.
The Pawelskis offer a new take on how to take a compliment: “accept, amplify, and advance.” Instead of immediately resorting to self-doubt, they explore the merits of letting it sink in, celebrating yourself, and advancing the conversation to better understand your own strengths. Learning to accept compliments may not happen overnight, but the mental health benefits of giving and receiving positive feedback can exponentially improve your relationships with others and yourself.