The Mighty Logo

Compliments Are Complicated When You Live With Anxiety

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

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

Originally published: January 14, 2021
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home