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Compliments Are Complicated When You Live With Anxiety

Compliments are spontaneous words of praise or admiration, but for me they are much more complicated than that.

I have lived my whole life with depression and anxiety. My self-esteem has never been strong. I often overthink someone’s words and intentions to the point where my anxiety is spun into a tight knot. I am either scared of a new perceived expectation or I dismiss someone’s words as unfounded.

When I was a child I hated going to the dentist. Not because it hurt or because I was scared, but rather because I had never had a cavity and the dentist, after looking over my chart, always called me his “superstar.” I was terrified I would let him down and he would find out his praise was unfounded. If I wasn’t his superstar every time, I was a failure.

Other types of compliments ring hollow. I once had a manager in a grocery store who was very upbeat and positive. He always said “great work!” numerous times throughout a shift. I never believed I was worthy of all that praise, definitely not that much in one shift. His words were baseless. He didn’t see me struggle with the apple display just moments before, so I dismissed his compliments.

On the flip side though if he didn’t compliment me the same number of times on another day, I interpreted it to mean I had let him down. I know it does not make sense to think his words are not sincere, but then miss them when he remains quiet, but that is how my mind works. I am either unworthy or a disappointment.

Therapy has helped me to identify this as distorted thinking. In the moment my self-esteem takes a hit, but later, when I have the time to consciously go through the facts, I can talk myself down. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) allows me to pick at the knot and put things into perspective so that I recognize that a compliment is often just a spontaneous comment, a nice thing to say. It is not a future expectation of performance or unfounded praise with some ulterior motive. It is just a kind word shared between two people. It’s not meant to define who I am or gauge my value. It’s just a smile that someone wants to share.

Getty image by Justin Paget