How to Accept a Compliment (and Why You Should)

Published Sep 29, 2016
How to Accept a Compliment (and Why You Should)
There are a lot of reasons why it's so hard for us to accept a kind word toward us. Here's why it matters how you respond to a compliment, and how to do so graciously.

“You did a really great job on that project,” a boss tells you.

You respond:

“It wasn’t really that hard.”
“I could have done x, y, or z better.
“I wanted to finish it sooner than I did.”

“I love the way you welcome new members into our bible study/always sign up to take meals to hurting families/serve the church with your gifts,” says your friend.

You answer:

 “I wish I could do more.”
“You’re the one who is always helping people!”
“Oh, well, I’m not all that talented so I have to step up where I can!”

“You look beautiful today!” your husband smiles.

You roll your eyes:

“Oh, well, must be the new haircut.”
“Finally got to take a shower this morning!”
“You’re crazy/you have to say that/oh, whatever babe.”

Do any of these sound familiar to you? They certainly do to me. I hear these reflexive echoes in my own heart, deflections spilling out of my mouth when a compliment is extended my way. I hear them, too, in conversations around me, especially among women. A gracious, thoughtful word is offered and is almost visibly swatted away, sent flying back into the air, surrounded by a swarm of stammering phrases attempting to negate the compliment.

Why We Can’t Accept a Compliment

I’ve thought long and hard about why we do this to ourselves. Perhaps the answer is shame or insecurity, revealing a lack of confidence in any part of our wiring or gifting. Perhaps we feel the need to be humble, and we are fearful of pride, so we perceive compliments as threats, a dangerous temptations that may lead us into arrogance or inflated egos. Maybe it’s much more simple than that - maybe it’s entirely social. Maybe we just don’t know what to say, perhaps because we didn’t grow up in home where encouraging words were offered, or just because no response we can think up seems to match the words that were spoken.

I’ve realized a little something about this dilemma, and it’s this: all of those reasons I mentioned above - personal shame, fear, uncertainty about social responses - the thing is, they’re all self-focused. These motivations for deflection are not rooted in consideration of the feelings, effort, or worth of the person who extended the compliment. These motivations only consider how we, the complimented, feel upon hearing these words, and how quickly we can react in order to make that uneasy feeling go away.

I wonder, though, if we flipped the script a bit, if we made our response about the person who extended the encouragement rather than about our own discomfort, if perhaps our unease would slowly, over time, trickle away?

Focus on the One Giving the Compliment, Not Yourself

In Christian circles, we speak often of giving freely and much, of self-sacrifice and generosity, of patterning our lives after the One who laid His down for us. This, I believe, is a really good thing. This reminder of sacrifice is something we need to hear regularly and often, something that chips away at our natural, opportunistic perspectives and instincts to self-protect. We think of encouraging other believers to live their lives this way by talking about giving and serving and helping and volunteering and plugging in. But what if there’s a little piece that we’re missing, a little something more that we should say? What if we could teach one another, and teach even our own hearts, the art of graciously receiving a word aptly spoken, which the Scriptures tell us is like apples of gold in settings of silver? What if we thought of receiving a compliment, an encouragement, or a thoughtful word, as an opportunity to focus on the person who extended the gracious statement, rather than on ourselves? What if we thought of humbly receiving her kindness as a chance to build her up, letting her see that the life-giving words she chose to speak are creating joy and are beautiful in the sight of a lavish God who is abundant in His bestowing of loving, over-the-top gushing toward us, fallen, broken people?

A Better Response

I struggle with this as much as the next girl, so I’ve decided to train myself to use a phrase that will help me to begin the process of graciously accepting an encouraging word rather than responding to it with discomfort or disdain. “Thank you,” I respond, “that’s really kind of you to say.” This, I’ve found, both guides my heart toward a freer, more spacious place where it is able to be built up by another, as well as acknowledging a Godly trait in my friend, spouse, coworker, or family member. I am receiving that which they have given to me, and I responding from the overflow of that which they have offered. This is not the same thing as trading compliments. Rather, it’s a simple way of acknowledging that the person had the eyes to see, heart to give, and words to say that which is edifying, profitable, and comforting.

The extension of a kind word and opportunity to respond may not seem like an opportunity for discipleship, or for helping one another in the practice of giving sacrificially, but when looked at through this lens, I firmly believe it can be both. And, as it turns out, you just may find that it becomes easier to believe the lovely words offered to you when your mind is shifted away from the disbelief or discomfort that causes you to respond negatively. By thinking of the heart and kindness of the one who offered encouragement when shaping a sincere response, two souls will be lifted, unified, and strengthened.  

Abby is an old soul, a Jesus girl, better in writing. She is a pastor's wife and mom of two boys, one of whom has a neuro-genetic disorder, which Abby writes about (among other things such as faith, liturgy, depression, social issues, and literature) at Abby directs communications for a nonprofit organization and co-facilitates two community efforts - one promoting bridge-building racial reconciliation conversations, the other supporting area foster and adoptive families. She has a soft spot for books, podcasts, learning about human relationships through television and movies, personality typing, and pasta. Abby holds a B.A in Communication from Texas A&M University and is completing her graduate degree at Dallas Theological Seminary. Twitter | Instagram | Facebook