Advice for Awkwards

Hi Ruth,

I’m trying to get better at accepting compliments. My crippling low self-esteem both craves and shies away from receiving compliments — I’m terrified of coming off as cocky but also don’t want to insult someone by aggressively rejecting their compliments as I am sometimes inclined to do.

Stay Humble, Yeah?

Dear SHY,

Just say “thank you.” No, really — it’s that easy.

I mean, it isn’t, of course, because if it were actually that easy then no one would have this problem when, in reality, practically everyone who’s ever existed has struggled with receiving compliments. It’s a pretty standard social script for the recipient of a compliment to try and downplay what they were complimented on — think, “oh, I just had to do laundry today,” or “gosh, I’m not, really,” or anything else along those lines. But why do we all instinctively do this?

The answer is, well, we don’t. At least, not instinctively. Have you ever heard a kid respond to a compliment by demurring gracefully? I certainly haven’t. So why is it that, once we hit puberty, so many of us become awkward when receiving compliments? (Why do we all become so awkward at puberty, honestly?)

It’s because of what you said, SHY. We’re all worried about coming off as cocky or conceited or super full of ourselves if we respond positively when complimented. We’re worried that if we actually appear to like something about ourselves, instead of downplaying our achievements and personality, then we’ll become a social outcast for being obsessed with ourselves.

To be straightforward with you, that’s not going to happen. (Okay, I will admit that there is a subset of the population that wants you to rag on yourself when they compliment you, but it’s usually just people who are trying to manipulate you or people on dating apps who are trying to hook up. They might call you a conceited b**** if you respond to a “you’re hot” with “Thanks! I know,” but honestly, what do you care for their opinions?)

Let’s talk about why people compliment each other. At its most surface level, it’s a method of social lubrication. We’ve all done this — you’re trying to make friends with someone or at least become an acquaintance, so you compliment their shirt, or their hair, or some other random object they have on their person. And it usually works, because people like being noticed, and they like hearing nice things about themselves. The typical response to one of these compliments is a “Thank you! I like your ___,” and then the both of you have been nice to each other and you leave that interaction feeling good.

Then, of course, there are compliments to make someone feel good. People absolutely do this! And if you respond by being negative about yourself, then that puts them in the position to keep talking you up. If that’s what you want? Well, you do you, but beware the fact that they might very well become resentful of you for doing this.

Lastly, there are the compliments you give someone when you just really like something they have going on. Maybe it’s a great t-shirt, maybe their hair looks phenomenal, maybe they said something really smart in class. If you receive one of these compliments and then start rejecting it? Think about what that implies to the person who complimented you. You’re kind of telling them that they’re wrong for liking whatever it is they complimented.

Ultimately, the response that most people actually want is just a “thank you,” maybe with something extra at the end. It acknowledges that they did something nice and that they made you feel good. And more importantly, it trains you out of thinking negative things about yourself whenever someone says something positive.

You look great in that,