Features Lifestyle

The Mystery of Struggle in Responding to Compliments

Regardless of the existence of a simple “thank you,” most of us still struggle to find the right response when we are given compliments. For example, when someone says, “Hey, you look great today!” We might answer that with: 

“Nah, you’re exaggerating. I look awful. I didn’t get enough sleep last night.” 

“Yeah, my sister did the makeup for me.”

“Oh, come on. You look even prettier than me.”

In other words, we either neglect the praise, downgrade it, shift its focus to something else (e.g., the makeup), or return the compliments to whom we speak with.

It is easy to understand why we feel uncomfortable when someone insults us since it directly degrades our self-quality and we feel threatened by it. However, why is it so puzzling to reply to a compliment, even though it indicates positive impressions from others? Apparently, the phenomenon occurs not only because we lack self-esteem, but also because of other factors related to our psychological state and the inconsistency of our social conform. 

The first cause of this phenomenon is our unconscious fear of pleasure. Couple therapist, Harville Hendrix, in his book “Getting the Love You Want” (2001, p. 136-137) mentions that we unconsciously develop the fear of pleasure due to our childhood experiences. When we were little, we found that being fully alive is deeply pleasurable that we nearly had no boundary of energy to play and enjoy the moment. However, some of those pleasures were limited by our caregivers so that we could be safe. They would say: 

“No running in the hall!” 

“Come down from that table!” 

“You’re being too noisy!” 

As children, we didn’t blame our parents for ruining our mood. Instead, we believed that we were not worthy of the pleasure. Slowly, we began to make an unlikely association between pleasure and pain. A certain kind of pleasure may unconsciously trigger our fear of being punished as we grow up. Consequently, we restrain ourselves from the excitement and pride of being praised.

The more significant factor is the contradictory social norm we have to follow (Lambert, 2018). On one hand, people expect us to agree on the positive statement they are trying to offer, like when our friends invite us to a party, or when we discuss a certain movie theory. On the other hand, they also demand us to not engage in self-praise since it can lead to arrogance. When someone gives a compliment, agreeing to what they say means that we have to engage in self-praise, and not engaging in self-praise means that we state disagreement to the person we talk to. In short, we cannot follow both norms at the same time and that troubles us in picking the proper response toward compliments.

All in all, feeling confused about how to respond to a compliment is normal. We are haunted by our fear of past experiences and stuck in the middle of two competing social expectations. 

When someone compliments you, try to start saying “thank you.” It indicates that you accept their opinion and you appreciate them for letting you know. If you are afraid that it will make you seem arrogant, ask about what is good, and what can be improved from your performance to gain a deeper perspective from the person you are talking with. With this simple strategy, we may embrace a better way of communicating with others.



Hendrix, Harville. (2019). Getting the love you want: a guide for couples (fully revised and updated version). St. Martin’s Press. 

Lambert, Bruce L. (2018, August 2). How to accept compliments and why it’s so hard. How Communication Works. 

Pawelski, Suzie Pileggi and James Pawelski. (2018, December 4). Why is it so hard to accept a compliment? Psychology Today.



Journalist: Agnes Seraphine

Editor : Vivi Julianti, Cherry Larissa Hendranata (QC)

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