Many people struggle to take a compliment. It doesn’t matter if the compliment comes from a loved one, a stranger, or a trusted source, like a therapist. The struggle goes much deeper than manners, modesty, or cultural norms.
I’m talking about the inability to accept what therapists call positive affect. The issue for some is about feeling, deep down, that you don’t deserve it, that you can’t believe it, that as a person you are not worthy, and that you can’t allow or take in the experience of feeling good about yourself, or even believing someone else feels good about you either.
Why do some people find it so psychologically painful to take compliments? Why is the ability to accept compliments so important? What needs to happen to allow a person to truly take a compliment to heart and let it nourish them?
To be able to truly hear a compliment depends on being able to see good in one’s self. But unfortunately for some, deeply painful past relationships interfere with their ability to accept or see the good in themselves. Even so, with careful work, people can learn to understand their personal barriers, bring compassion to themselves, and learn to respond to compliments in more positive ways.
Why Value Our Ability to Accept Compliments?
Why is it important to be able to take compliments? When given without any ulterior motives, compliments feed the best parts of ourselves. Seeing and knowing the good in one’s self is essential to overcoming self-defeating activities, and to living a life more in sync with what is personally meaningful.
In a healthy relationship, compliments show that two people can recognize and enjoy the special unique individual that each person is. The ability to say thank you or smile when receiving a compliment shows that your heart is open to who you are – you are able to take in those moments when someone sees the best in you — and you see it too!
What Interferes With the Ability to Accept Compliments?
Deep down we all want love and recognition – to be understood, to be important, to matter to someone else, and to care about a loved one the same way. But for those who survive abuse or neglect, especially during childhood, the experience of trauma raises deep doubts about self-worth, and often fuels an engulfing shame.
Abuse or neglect forces the survivor to make a terrible choice to survive: how to make sense of danger, isolating disconnection and hurt brought by people who are supposed to be safe?
If the abusers are central to a child’s life, they can’t be wrong. The loyalty to parents and meaningful people that children internalize is huge! Children often protect the abusive caregivers out of loyalty, believing in them and therefore believing that the abuse is fitting and warranted! The abused or neglected person comes to think he or she must deserve the mistreatment.
The struggle to manage so much despair and distress often gives rise to a harsh inner critic whose judgments are vital to explain — and tolerate — why things must be as they are.
Why Do Some People Find Compliments So Troubling?
Receiving a compliment can be deeply triggering, especially for trauma survivors. It can touch off a great deal of anxiety and fear. Does the compliment come with strings? Does the person giving the compliment want something? Are there hidden motives? Is this just the first step down that awful path toward more mistreatment and abuse?
It can be very hard for a person with a history of trauma to internalize a compliment, even from someone they trust, because it comes from another world — a place they don’t understand – where someone sees something wonderful about them. This conflicts with the part of them that holds the internal view that they don’t matter, that they are worthless. It doesn’t seem possible that they could experience good feelings for themselves, because that doesn’t fit with the way they have learned to see themselves.
How Can the Inner Critic Begin to Heal?
Dr. Kristin Neff, author of the book Self-Compassion, advocates for greater understanding and use of self-compassion to calm self-criticism, and promote mental, physical, and emotional health.
When we are self-critical, she explains, our stress level goes up. This “floods our system with adrenaline and cortisol. And it’s a double whammy because when we criticize ourselves, we are both the attacker and the attacked. This type of chronic stress can eventually lead to anxiety and depression, undermining our physical and emotional wellbeing.”
She reminds us that our inner critic is actually trying to help. This is such an important concept! Inner critics are usually protective guardians trying to keep us safe. “We can be kind and compassionate to this part of ourselves, because at some level it has our best interests at heart,” Neff tells us. “And believe it or not, by giving compassion to our inner critic, we are moving out of the threat defense system and into our other safety system.”
The healing process involves bringing compassion to the inner critic with a desire to understand it, a genuine curiosity.
A Framework for Therapists to Understand and Treat Self-Criticism: The IFS Model
Other researchers and therapists have observed the power of compassion to help people find healing and self-acceptance. Dr. Richard Schwartz found that when he helped clients “approach their own worst, most hated feelings and desires with open minds and hearts,” their harsh self-critics became gentler, and they began to function more like helpers and collaborators in the work of healing.
Dr. Schwartz recognized the inner voices of shame, criticism, hopelessness, and pessimism as a system of “internal interactions,” or a “family” of emotional parts. He developed the Internal Family Systems – or IFS model — to help understand and work with people who experience turmoil between these inner parts or states of mind.
The IFS model also provides a very helpful framework to understand the genuine self; “everyone is at their core a Self containing many crucial leadership qualities such as perspective, confidence, compassion, and acceptance,” Schwartz explains. “Working with hundreds of clients for more than two decades, some of whom were severely abused and show severe symptoms, has convinced me that everyone has this healthy and healing Self despite the fact that many people initially have very little access to it. ”
The IFS model is a framework to help people see and manage their inner critic, inner pessimist, and other parts, so they can connect with the ‘core self.’ It is a way for therapists and their clients to see how their protective “parts are forced into extreme roles by external circumstances and, once it seems safe, they gladly transform into valuable family members.”
EMDR and Positive Affect Tolerance Protocol
Another therapeutic style or model is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR. There is even a particular protocol in EMDR called the positive affect tolerance protocol.
Developed by Andrew Leeds, it is a protocol for therapists trained in EMDR to help those who struggle to accept positive feelings or beliefs about themselves. It is especially helpful for many survivors of childhood trauma who learned to suppress or avoid positive emotional states to cope with neglect or abuse.
The Importance of the Trauma-Informed Approach
Trauma-informed therapy is an indispensable approach for all therapy. It is so important when working with clients who struggle with compliments and self-worth. The approach focuses on the underlying reasons why the person is unable to take in the compliment. There is a reason why the compliment is so painful. In trauma-informed care, therapists need to sit with clients and their discomfort to safely begin to look at it and help clients learn to ride out the feeling; like a wave – it will pass.
The work begins after we have built a relationship with the client that allows the person to feel safe and accepted for who they are, right where they are in life. The client knows that I’m not going to judge them; that I’m really present with them. I’m not half-hearing them and formulating my grocery list. I’m fully there with them walking this journey of healing.
Working on Accepting Compliments in Therapy
Once the person feels safe that they can be heard and not judged, the work can begin to address their issues, including trauma, inability to receive positive affect or compliments and understand how their parts developed in an amazingly creative way to keep them safe in childhood.
So we might start with, “I like your shoes.” Later I might comment on something that the client did well: “Wow, you did a really good job at this.” And for my clients who cringe, I might suggest, “Just see if you can hold it, my feelings, for three seconds.”
We work slowly, noticing where they feel the discomfort in their body, noticing what it feels like to hear a compliment from a person they trust, and also noticing the compassion for them, from me, the person giving the compliment.
It takes a great deal of work to process how the trauma in their life has stolen their ability to believe in their own worth. After a client begins to see the self that was in the protective custody of shame and pain, the work on compliments can begin. The pleasure of accepting a compliment may be brief, if it happens at all. But once we find a way to ask the inner protective part (the part that works to avoid hurt) to step aside, we can become more open to recognizing, enjoying, and sharing who we are.
Therapists can use a number of approaches to help people feel safe enough to open up to their core self and let others appreciate it too.
How Compliments Help in Healing Trauma, and Making Healthy Connections
Being able to know and accept your core self, and allow the compliments of others, is so important to healthy relationships. It is a way of deepening a loving bond with your partner, and can also support the process of healing from trauma.
“[Love is] the continual search for a basic, secure connection with someone else. Through this bond, partners in love become emotionally dependent on each other for nurturing, soothing, and protection, ” says Dr. Sue Johnson, clinical psychologist and author of several books and studies on attachment.
When a trauma survivor rejects a loved one’s compliments, the partner can become hurt and confused. Working in relationship with a trauma survivor means knowing how helpful it is to see this difficulty, and not to give up: “Well you don’t have to believe it, but I will for both of us right now.”
The ability to accept compliments does more than feed healthy relationships. It is also important to developing self-confidence and an awareness of how to enjoy life and take good care of yourself.
No matter how difficult it may seem, there is always hope that self-compassion and self-knowledge can play a larger role in the course of your life and relationships. By learning to manage painfully self-limiting beliefs with compassion, you can open yourself to the joy of simply being more fully present with yourself and others, and feeling more fully self-led and alive.
Training handouts from “Learning to Feel Good about Positive Emotions,” Leeds, A. (2007, September). Presentation at the 12th EMDR International Association Conference, Dallas, TX
Andrew Leeds Positive Affect Training by Robin Shapiro
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (book) by Kristin Neff
Self-Therapy with Your Inner Critic: Transforming Self-Criticism into Self-Confidence by Jay Earley, PhD and Bonnie Weiss, LCSW (I love this book! – very readable)
Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Sue Johnson
Internal Family Systems: The Center for Leadership, a website about the IFS model
Self-Compassion, about Dr. Kristin Neff’s research and findings about the value of self-compassion
Dr. Sue Johnson: Creating Connections, on the attachment bond and books and other resources for therapists