November 28, 2018

Spend enough time in a coffee shop or office break room and you’ll hear it:

“I love your new haircut!”

“Thanks, I wish it were a little longer.”

“Great job on that event last week.”

“You think? It felt like such a mess!”

All around us, compliments are offered and swiftly shut down, like arrows bouncing off a shield. Instead of letting praise sink in, we push it away.

Instead of letting praise sink in, we push it away.

It’s something I do whenever I feel unsure of myself. Instead of taking a compliment as a sign of a job well-done, I use it as an opportunity to offer criticism before someone else does. If someone tells me they liked a story I wrote, I’ll start rattling off everything I thought could’ve been better. I’d rather point out all my flaws than accept praise—even if that means I’m more or less calling my compliment-offering friend a liar.

When we do this, “we’re not truly taking in what’s being offered,” explain Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, M.A.P.P., and James O. Pawelski, Ph.D., in their book Happy Together: Using Positive Psychology to Build Love that Lasts. “Not surprisingly, this puts a damper on the gratitude interaction.”

According to the Pawelskis, there are three typical ways we brush aside compliments:

●︎ Deflecting: Pushing the compliment away (“You think? I don’t know about that...")

●︎ Reciprocating: Returning a compliment back to another person ASAP (“Thanks, I love the way you...”)

●︎ Discounting: Criticizing yourself post-compliment (“Thanks, but I wish I’d...”).

“Deflecting, reciprocating and discounting are ways of responding without receiving,” write the authors.

There are three typical ways we brush aside compliments: by deflecting (You think? I don’t know about that...), reciprocating (Thanks, I love the way you...), and discounting (Thanks, but I wish I’d...).

The alternative, they explain, is to simply accept a compliment.

“This may seem straightforward, but it is actually quite difficult for many of us to do gracefully,” write the authors. “If we can resist the temptation to respond in one of those (three) ways and instead pause and truly take the gratitude in, that can make a huge difference to us and to those who are expressing the gratitude.”

The difference isn’t just a temporary ego boost—research has found that receiving a compliment triggers the same part of your brain that lights up during sex, and that our brains use compliments to learn and grow, far more efficiently than they use criticisms.

Receiving a compliment triggers the same part of your brain that lights up during sex.

One small study even found that receiving a compliment can have the same feel-good effects as receiving cash, giving new meaning to the phrase “pay you a compliment.” Researcher Norihiro Sadato explains, "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.”

But accepting—and giving—a compliment can be easier said than done. By this point in your life, shutting down praise can be an instinct. You may deflect, reciprocate, or discount without even realizing you’re doing it.

“These kinds of responses may be routine habits we have picked up from our parents or other role models, or they may be a sign of insecurity, a feeling that we don’t deserve to be acknowledged,” write the Pawelskis. Part of the response may even be gendered—women have been found to have a harder time accepting compliments than men, according to research.

The good news? Habits are breakable, and you, too can learn how to accept a compliment you’d typically deflect. Here, how to begin.

Try a Simple 'Thank You'

Even the nicest, most deserved compliments can catch us off guard, leaving us scrambling to come up with an appropriate response.

The solution? A simple “thank you.”

There’s no need to justify your gratitude, or elaborate on what the compliment entailed—just thank your friend for paying you a compliment, and move on. If two words feels too short, you can customize your default response to something like, “thank you, I appreciate it,” or, “thank you, that means a lot.”

Show the Value of the Compliment

Once you’ve mastered thanking someone for a compliment, try articulating its effect on you.

Does your boss’s praise make you feel seen and worthy? You could accept it by saying something like, “Thanks, it’s so satisfying to know that my work is making a difference.”

You’ll be doing both of you a favor—by verbalizing what the compliment means to you, you’ll feel a greater impact. And by telling your boss how her compliment helps you, you’re increasing the benefits that she’ll experience as a compliment-giver.

Write It Down

The next time you receive a compliment, jot it down in a notebook or the Shine app.

Receiving a compliment can put you on the spot, and you may not react the same way you would with a little prep work. By reflecting on the way you accept compliments when you’re on your own, removed from the social pressure, you can dig deeper into why you feel uncomfortable with praise. Plus, rereading the praise can provide a quick ego boost, and help remind you of what others see in you.

Resist the Urge to Reciprocate ASAP

“Great job on that press release you wrote!”

“Thanks, yours was even better!”

Seems like a great exchange, right? Not so fast. Reciprocating a compliment can be an easy, guilt-free way of avoiding acknowledgement. Instead of basking in that warm feeling of a job well done, you’re pushing it aside in your rush to return the favor.

It may seem polite, but in reality, you’re denying your friend or coworker the chance to boost you up. Instead, savor your compliment, and then speak up the next time you notice something commendable—and keep the focus entirely on the person you’re praising.

Help Others Savor Praise, Too

If someone tries to brush off a compliment you give them, dig your heels in.

Explain why you said what you said—if you gave them props on their new apartment and they responding by hoping for a bigger space in a few years, detail what it is that you like about the current spot. Is the artwork on point? The air perfectly scented with a woodsy candle?

Getting specific helps back up your initial compliment, and can help the recipient see that they deserve the props.

Read next: It's Time to Let Go Of Your 'I'll Be Worthy When...' Statements

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