The Mighty Logo

Realizing My Self-Worth Is Tied to Why Compliments Make Me Uncomfortable

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Over the past few weeks, due to a large number of different circumstances and situations in my life, I’ve been receiving a lot of compliments and affirmations from those close to me. I’ve always hated people complimenting me, and I know there are others who feel the same way. But for the longest time, I never really understood why. I always figured it was because I was being put on the spot. And while that is a factor, I’ve realized over the past couple of days that isn’t the real story.

Now, one note I need to say. When people compliment me, I always appreciate the kind words because I know they come from a good place. I also don’t really associate with people who are flatterers, so I know that most of those around me wouldn’t just say things to make me feel good. But here’s the thing.

The real reason I hate compliments: they’re lies to me. Now, that might sound strange based on what I just said, but hear me out. I know the people around me aren’t lying to me when they compliment or affirm me in something. But when I hear the words, I just can’t accept them as being true, because I’ve never seen those traits and characteristics in myself. Some of the most common compliments I’ve gotten over the past few days are along the lines of:

You’re so strong and passionate.

You have such a good heart, and you’re such a good person.

You are a role model to so many people, and you have such a bright future ahead of you.

When I hear things like these, my stomach just twists and turns in funny ways I can’t explain. It also hurts my head because I simply can’t understand those words being associated with me. I guess the best way to explain this feeling is an example.

I’m a neuroscience major in college right now, and so I have to deal with a lot of math (unfortunately), so the best example I can come up with is a simple math problem. Let’s say a world-renowned math scholar came to you one day and made the statement “two plus two equals five.” How would you respond? You’re in no position to tell this person anything about math, but everything you know tells you that two plus two equals four. And it would create a lot of conflict too. Everything complicated in math (and believe me, it gets complicated) is still founded on the same math basics we learned in elementary school. So if this person who is clearly very familiar with the most complex mathematic ideas and theories is making any kind of statement about math, how could you possibly reconcile that in your head?

Well, that’s sort of what it’s like for me when I get compliments. When sometime tells me I’m a role model to them, who am I to say “no, I’m not?” When someone tells me I’m strong and brave and passionate, what do I do if everything inside me tells me that isn’t true?

A banner promoting The Mighty's new No Shame group on The Mighty mobile app. The banner reads, Struggling with self-judgment? The No Shame group is a safe space to talk about the things that tend to make us feel bad about ourselves and how to overcome those challenges. Click to join.

When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a role model. I don’t see someone strong and brave and passionate. I don’t see someone who deserves compliments.

But what is that founded in? I’ve learned it’s founded in my own negative self-image of myself. The mirror shows me someone who isn’t worthy to be a role model, someone who doesn’t deserve the label of strength, someone who isn’t worth people complimenting.

I would be willing to bet a lot of people feel this same way: compliments make them uncomfortable, because they just can’t believe they are true. But you know what else I’ve learned? The mirror can be an easy way to lie to myself, and it can make it easy to tear myself down. The mirror doesn’t show everything either.

We know our own thoughts and feelings better than anyone else, but we don’t always know the effects of our actions on others. That can be a bad thing, but it can also be a good thing. Our actions can help or harm people without us even knowing it. And just as much as we need to take responsibility for when our actions do lead to us hurting someone, we also have the right to accept when our actions have led to someone being uplifted or inspired. And you know what? We should accept it!

If you’ve received a compliment from someone because of something you’ve said or done, you’ve earned it! Because it doesn’t matter whether you meant to help someone with what you did, and it doesn’t even matter if you think it’s a big deal. You helped someone, and they are telling you that you did.

So here is my challenge for everyone reading this, especially if you have difficulty receiving compliments too: if you get a compliment from someone, don’t just thank them for it, but believe it! Believe you have done something good for the world, because you have. I will still struggle with this, likely for the rest of my life, but it’s not bad to know it consciously. Everyone needs to know their own inner worth and value, and one way to do this is recognizing when we’ve done something worthy of a compliment, and believing that we have done something good.

I once heard a corny quote that I think would perfect finish this, and I honestly didn’t think about it until just now. And I say corny, but in reality it’s true, empowering and I think could motivate a lot of people to strive to know their own self-worth and value:

You may not be able to change the whole world by helping one person. But by helping one person, you’ve changed their whole world. 

Photo by Thái An on Unsplash

Originally published: August 3, 2020
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