A Psychological Explanation for Why Compliments Are So Embarrassing

By
Photo: SuperStock/Getty Images

Last month, I got an email from my life coach telling me how much he enjoyed our last conversation and how much progress I’d made. I scanned it, then quickly hit the “back” button and didn’t respond for weeks. It was just too much.

The following week, I was working when I noticed a Slack message from an editor: “We all loved your headline.” I buried my face, squirmed in my seat, then got it together enough to timidly type, “thanks!” before it occurred to me: Isn’t getting a compliment supposed to be a pleasant experience?

In theory, yes. But in practice, plenty of people on the receiving end of praise blush and stammer their way through the experience.

“Embarrassment is associated with public failure, and it is also associated with public success,” says Oriana Aragón, an assistant professor of marketing at Clemson University who researches incongruent expressions of emotion. In fact, in one study by Christopher Littlefield, founder of the organizational psychology research firm AcknowledgmentWorks, 68 percent of people said they associated recognition with embarrassment. Here’s why — and how to feel a little less awkward next time someone says something nice.

You’re not supposed to like it.

Part of the issue is that we don’t know how to respond, says psychologist Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts.
We’re taught from an early age that outright boasting isn’t great behavior. Sometimes, that lesson manifests as the humblebrag, but other times, it becomes an aversion to anything that could be perceived as self-aggrandizement. When someone else is doing the boasting on your behalf, he explains, you’re left with a choice between violating that social norm by accepting the compliment or undercutting the other person’s perspective by denying it. For many people, both are uncomfortable options.

The embarrassment doesn’t always come from not knowing how to respond, though. Sometimes, it may arise because we know the most socially acceptable response is embarrassment. “If the social norm was for one to not revel in compliments and attention, then embarrassment would be an adaptive response to such attention,” says Aragón.

You don’t believe it.

This sense of conflict over responding to a compliment can be especially strong for people who doubt its veracity. That’s probably why those with lower self-esteem have more negative feelings after getting compliments, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Another study, published in 2010 in the journal Self and Identity, found that people with strong negative self-perceptions prefer roommates who view them negatively — possibly, Winch says, because someone with low self-esteem might worry that the person complimenting them is playing a joke or hiding an agenda.

For someone who doesn’t think highly of themselves, a sincere compliment can go so far as to cause a miniature identity crisis, says Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. When a piece of praise is totally incongruous with how you see yourself, it can trigger confusion or impostor syndrome, leaving you feeling worse off about your abilities than before anything nice was said at all.

You feel judged.

Compliments express intimacy, Winch explains. A compliment implies that the giver knows someone well enough to comment — on their performance, their outfit, whatever they case may be — with the confidence that their praise will mean something. If the receiver doesn’t feel comfortable reciprocating the affection, though, they may find themselves taken aback or tongue-tied.

A compliment can also feel like it’s setting you up for high expectations. People may rebuff statements about their strengths because they don’t want to have to live up to them. Or  they may balk at the reminder that they’re being evaluated — and fear a less favorable outcome down the road. “It is possible that when people succeed and are in the spotlight, this attention opens them up to criticism,” says Aragón.

You feel greedy.

People tend to believe “gratitude is scarce, and if we receive it, there won’t be enough to go around,” explains James O.
Pawelski, director of education at the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center. It’s a conclusion he reached by conducting relationship workshops with his wife, well-being consultant Suzann Pileggi Pawelski. Often, participants will allude to the idea that accepting a compliment feels like hogging someone’s affections, taking more than their fair share of a finite resource.

But even if compliments make you uncomfortable, Morin says, the last thing you want to do is argue with the person complimenting you, which  might just spur them to elaborate on your positive traits and draw out the experience.

Another common reaction is treating the compliment like a “hot potato” and praising the other person to deflect the attention, says Pawelski. He doesn’t recommend this one, either — by moving on so quickly, you’re denying yourself any small amount of enjoyment that may have come with the embarrassment. And worse, you may just magnify the awkwardness: Now, the other person feels weird and squirmy, too.

In their book Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts, the Pawelskis lay out a three-step process for responding to compliments: “accept, amplify, advance.” Accept the compliment by saying “thank you,” amplify its impact by taking it in, and then advance the conversation by asking questions. I, for example, might ask my editor, “What about my headline worked? I want to make sure I can replicate that.”

It’s a nice in-the-moment fix, but a longer-term solution might be questioning the self-doubt that made you feel unworthy of the compliment in the first place, Winch explains. “Our old boss might have made us feel incompetent,” he says, “but if our new boss compliments our performance repeatedly, it might be time to change our own assessment of our abilities and skill sets and recognize we’re more capable than we realized.” When in doubt, it might be best to assume you really do deserve the praise.

Why Getting Compliments Can Be So Embarrassing