How To Accept A Compliment

“But this payment goes well beyond my generosity,” the monk responded.

“Don’t say that again. Life might be listening, and give you less the next time.”

The Alchemist

Back in 2007, I left a good web design job in Ireland and moved to the United States. I remember, in the few weeks leading up to my departure, my colleagues would often mention how much I would be missed. They’d tell me how they appreciated my positive attitude and attention to detail, and assured me that it would be a struggle to fill my shoes.

Every time I was told these things, I came back with a similar response: “Ah, you’ll find someone just as good to replace me, if not better.”

I might as well have been saying, “No, you’re wrong. In reality, I suck.”

Fast forward to the present day. I’ve announced that I’ll be leaving my current job in November. Deja vu: my colleagues tell me that I’m a valuable part of the team, that I’ll be sorely missed, that they’ll have a tough time replacing me. The comments are the same as they were three years ago, but my response is different. Now, I reply with a simple and sincere, “Thank you.”

Somewhere along the line, I came to appreciate my own self-worth. I came to see that I didn’t have to deflect praise, that I could accept it without losing my humility. In short, I learned how to accept a compliment.

Why we deflect

I have a female friend back in Ireland who still has trouble accepting compliments. The girl is absolutely stunning. She could literally be a model, and people often tell her so. I recall a middle-aged lady approaching her mother at a gathering a few years back, and offering sincerely: “You have a very beautiful daughter.” Overhearing this, my friend immediately gave a little laugh, shook her head and responded, “Oh no, not really!”

She’s not alone. Lots of people — my 25-year-old self included — respond in a similar way when offered a compliment. But why?

I believe we deflect compliments for one of two main reasons (and sometimes a mix of both):

  1. We don’t believe we deserve such admiration.
  2. We want to appear humble.

Both these reasons suck.

With the first, we’re simply selling ourselves short. If everyone tells me that I’m good at something and I refuse to believe them, all I’m doing is holding myself back, killing my self-confidence. I should wake up and give myself credit. I should try to see the brilliance in me that everyone else can see. It’s all well and good to be aware of your shortcomings and to work towards improvement, but if you don’t pause regularly to appreciate the person you’ve already become, you’ll always be miserable, never believing you’re good enough.

As for appearing humble, you can still do that while accepting a compliment. You don’t have to choose one or the other. You can simply offer your sincere thanks and then steer the conversation towards something less self-serving. “Thank you, I’m glad you like my painting. It took a lot of time and effort, so it’s nice to know people appreciate it. Do you also paint?”

Accept with gratitude, humility and sincerity

Next time someone offers you a compliment, let your default response be one of gratitude. Say thank you, sincerely. Realize that the world can never be a more giving place until we all become more receptive to the gifts we are offered.

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    1. I still have a hard time with compliments. A sincere “thank-you” is best. Trying to compensate for my inability to accept a compliment, I started expressing faux-confidence, which just comes off as arrogant. You don’t want do be “No, I suck” but neither, “Yeah, I’m awesome” either. The simple thank-you is perfect and rarely used and meant.

      I also like how you explained how excepting a compliment, sincerely, and making into an open conversation can do kill two bird with one stone. You can accept a compliment and be humble at the same time. Good stuff.

    2. Thanks, Tony. I find eye contact is also important when saying thank you. Gratitude comes across more sincere when you look the other person in the eye when expressing it.

    3. I have problems accepting compliments and I always tend to deflect, too!
      I’m trying to learn to just say “thank you”, but I feel my face turns red 🙂
      It’s not only a matter of desiring to appear humble or feeling that we don’t deserve admiration: for me it’s a matter of shyness, too. I’m embarassed when people’s attention focuses on me and I don’t know what to say… so I try to joke.

    4. Thanks for the comment, Sara.

      Isn’t shyness a symptom of feeling undeserving? I used to be extremely shy, and it was because I didn’t have confidence in my own abilities or opinions. When I started developing that confidence, the shyness went away and I was more comfortable accepting compliments.

    5. Hey Niall, perhaps you were right back then and we did find someone better 🙂 Kidding…

      I thought it was a very Irish thing to deflect and refuse praise. We probably worry too much about what other people think. I have always felt that accepting the compliment would almost appear cocky and self-praising rather than show gratitude for the gesture. Thats why I try respond with a humble appreciation..

      Sometimes I find the lack of gratitude, praise and thanks perhaps results in surprise when it does happen and leads to a confused, deflective and sometimes sarcastic response.

      Anyways, I am enjoying your ramblings, please do keep them coming and keep up the good work. Looking forward to seing you when you are home again..


    6. Thanks, Pete. My theory is that those 800 years of oppression by the English made Irish people feel sub-par and unworthy of praise. They always felt that they couldn’t be too happy or too grateful, because the English would eventually come along and put an end to it. That attitude seeped into the consciousness of the people somehow and stayed through the generations.

      Like Des Bishop said, only in Ireland is loving yourself considered a bad thing. “Look at yer man. I’d say he loves himself!”

      All that said, I’m looking forward to being back home at the end of the year 😉

    7. Hi Niall,

      This is a great post, it’s weird, a few weeks ago I was talking to a friend of mine about the exact same thing, accepting compliments and we both are trying to get better at saying thank you, instead of deflecting.

      Me personally I blame a Catholic upbringing, you’re not supposed to be good enough, they taught us…that’s reserved for God and saints.

      Keep up the great work.

      • Thanks, Shirley. I think my Catholic upbringing also made it difficult for me to accept compliments when I was younger. I was able to leave all that behind though, thank God 😛

        Digging the nail art pics on your blog, btw. Very cool.

    8. Hi Niall,

      Really awesome post!!!!!!!

      something really out of your now-a-days one-side concentrated articles………definitely appreciate it!!!!!

      I am working hard to achieve my ‘perfect self’ and growing socially is certainly one problem I will have to fight with,and this will help!!!.

      I am not good at talking with girls and if accidently strike up a conversation where I get a compliment I would deflect it,and that’s precisely because I want to present myself humble!!

      Hope i progress towards succes faster!!

      And Thanks for the article once again!!!…….Keep the good work going!!! 🙂

    9. Repost this every week Niall. We need to hear this regularly. I too frequently deflect compliments, though I’m working on getting better, and yet often tell others accept them gracefully. Our problem of course is accepting how wonderful we (that’s each and everyone one of us) are, and worse again displaying that. Did we have a similar chat recently about the ‘oddity’ in school.

      Anyway you’re beautiful. You’re brave. And your brilliant. Hope your smiling now and saying ‘Thanks Stan’

      Best of luck on the trip!