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‘You look lovely today!’

Do these compliments make you feel as awkward as Victoria Beckham in a tracksuit? Yep, Features Editor Danielle Hine, too. She explores why we feel this way – and why it’s time to change

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’ve always thought I was good at receiving compliments. Until I started writing this feature and became aware of how I really respond when people say lovely things to me. Just the other day a work colleague told me I looked good in a photo. My reaction? ‘Are you kidding? I look so ugly it makes me want to cry!’ My colleague looked aghast and embarrassed, and probably decided never to say anything nice to me again. Then, the other night my flatmate said, ‘Ooh, great top!’ I barely looked up from Facebook before replying: ‘Oh, it’s just a cheap bit of tat.’

 

I know I’m far from alone – a straw poll of friends and colleagues found that most of them are serial compliment rebuffers, too. So just what is it about the ‘c’ word that makes so many of us react as if we’ve been offered a plate of deep-fried eyeballs? You know – the shock, the barely concealed horror, the rush to push it away?

A straw poll of friends and colleagues found that most of us are serial compliment rebuffers

‘One of the main reasons is that culturally we’re not great at taking compliments,’ says Dr Gary Wood, psychologist, life coach and author of Unlock Your Confidence (Watkins, £10.99). Leading UK health and confidence expert Rhona Clews agrees. ‘In British culture, it’s taboo to seem big-headed or to have an over-inflated sense of self.’

 

But when I started researching the subject, I found that accepting compliments can actually help raise self-esteem and enhance our performance and motivation levels at work. One study has shown that it has a similar effect to receiving a cash incentive. Looks like it’s time for us all to change our mindset.

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    Big head? No chance

    The first step? Not to see compliments as the enemy of modesty. And to realise that thanking someone when they say how nice you look isn’t going to give you a jumbo-sized ego. ‘It’s a myth that accepting compliments means we’ll think too much of ourselves,’ says Rhona. In fact, they’re essential to our personal growth. ‘They’re a form of validation,’ adds Dr Wood. ‘One of the most important things for our continuing personal development is to get feedback, so consider compliments as just that.’

     

    Think about it – if your boss says you’ve done a great job, it’s valuable evidence you’re doing well. When your best friend compliments you on your winning way with her kids, that means she trusts you. If someone says, ‘Lovely dress’, it means you’ve chosen something that looks great – so well done you!

     

    But if there’s still a part of you that recoils, Dr Wood has a good tip to help you feel more comfortable. ‘Say, “Thank you very much, it’s so kind of you to say that.” This means you’re accepting the compliment as well as acknowledging the generosity of it. Then they can’t think you really mean: “Yes, I know I’m amazing!”

     

    It’s also important to note that if you think you’re being humble by rebuffing a compliment, you’re not! Instead, you’re hurling someone’s good intention back at them – the verbal equivalent of slapping them around the face with a wet fish just for being nice to you. ‘That person may have had to pluck up the courage to compliment you, and you’ve made them feel rejected,’ says Dr Wood. ‘See each compliment as a gift. Say a child has given you a painting as a present – you’d never screw it up and say it’s rubbish, as that’s rude and hurtful. So if you reject a compliment, not only can it affect the giver’s self-worth, it may also make you come across as conceited.’

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‘My week accepting compliments’

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Acting Associate Editor and serial praise rebuffer Lucy Moore spent a week soaking up the positivity

‘Sadly, my first thought when challenged to do this was: “Will anyone actually say anything nice in a week?” But I was up for it, especially when I learned, to my horror, that I may have come across as rude by rebuffing people who’ve been kind enough to pay me compliments in the past. No one likes a big-head, I thought.

 

‘Day one, and I wear my hair down to work (usually I scrape it back). “You look lovely today,” someone at work says (our office is very nice). I grit my teeth, stifling my usual self-deprecating retort. “Thank you,” I say meekly – and the world doesn’t end.

 

‘Later in the week, a friend tells me I’m a good cook (I am, but I always deny it) when she’s round for dinner. “Thanks,” I reply and even feel able to elaborate: “That’s lovely to hear, as I really enjoy it,” I continue.

 

‘As the week progresses, I wear a new top one day, enjoy a few comments and manage to say thank you to all of them, hopefully less awkwardly. And I find myself giving more compliments, too. The circle of positivity grows and no one thinks I’m conceited. I’m just holding my head a little higher and it actually feels really good.’

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    Self-esteem starts here

    Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that there could be some real self-esteem issues at play. If a compliment makes you writhe in embarrassment while you spout a stream of self-loathing denials (‘Why on earth would you think my legs are great? I’ve got chunkier calves than an Olympic weightlifter!’), then you need to pay attention to this. ‘Compliments are a test of self-esteem,’ Dr Wood admits. ‘It’s someone else showing they value you. And this makes you question if you value yourself.’ Rhona adds: ‘You feel uncomfortable if it conflicts with your own opinion of yourself. If someone says “You’re beautiful” and you don’t feel it, you’ll push it away, allowing your inner critic to take over.’

     

    Understandable, yes, but how do we stop reacting like that? Well, sometimes that old adage is true – you have to ‘fake it until you make it’. ‘If you receive compliments and praise with grace and ease, you come across as confident and positive, even if you don’t feel it,’ says Monica Strobel, leading US work and life success coach (and author of The Compliment Quotient, Wyatt McKenzie, £8.50). And by resisting the urge to reject a compliment, we can actually start to think more positively about ourselves. ‘It can help retrain the way you think to: “If I’m accepting this, I must be worthy,” says Dr Wood.

     

    Another effective way to stop those negative thoughts is to make a note of the things you like about yourself and keep going back to them. ‘Write them in a book or type them into your smartphone… whatever works best for you,’ says Rhona. ‘But make sure you put “I choose…” in front of each statement, such as, “I choose to notice my kind heart”. It can be effective in silencing your inner critic, as you’re taking the power back.’ Clever.

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Speech bubbles filled with compliments
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    Practice makes perfect

    Unlike, say, Beyoncé, who undoubtedly gets told she’s amazing most days, the rest of us can probably count on less than one hand the compliments we’ve had recently. That means we may find the experience, when it does happen, a bit, well… novel. ‘It’s about practice,’ says Monica. ‘And keep reminding yourself how good it feels when someone takes a compliment from you,’ she says. Dr Wood adds: ‘When we’re not used to receiving compliments, it can sometimes be because we’re not used to giving them, either.’

     

    So, go on, spread more praise around. That colleague who has shampoo-ad hair – tell her. The barista who gets your large, soy, non-foam, extra-hot, one-shot chai latte just right every day: let him know. The friend who’s always there for you – remind her how great she is. Then, when it’s your turn to get some of the good stuff back, you’ll be a little braver at saying those two simple words: thank you. ‘Get into the habit of saying that every time,’ urges Rhona. ‘Let it just hang in the air – don’t try to say anything else. Initially you might feel awkward, but stay with it and that feeling will go. Like any muscle, it will strengthen with use.’ Good luck!   

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Photography: Full Stop Photography

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