Dr. Happy: Next time someone pays you a compliment

Just the other day I was with a group of friends when one of them turned to another and complimented him on some success he’d recently achieved. In response, he blushed slightly, shrugged his shoulders and then said, “Oh, it was nothing really. I heard you’ve been doing great!” Shimmy, shimmy, wham!

This is what psychologists call “discounting positives” and “deflection” and it is, in my years of experience, one of the most common causes of low self-esteem and unhappiness.

I should note one thing. That person to whom I just referred a few sentences ago? He is actually me!

You see I’m an expert at self-deprecation, deflecting praise and focusing on that one person in the audience who didn’t like one of my presentations rather than the 99 or 999 who loved it. And this is why I can relate so well to my many clients who practice similar self-defeating strategies.

Most people see this is something quite innocent. Here in Australia, especially, we’re constantly keen not to appear to be arrogant or too much of a tall-poppy just waiting to be cut down. There’s no doubt there are cultural differences, and this tendency is less common in some other parts of the world, but it’s still common and it’s still far from innocent.

Those who engage in this type of destructive dance are guilty; guilty of bringing themselves down, which is one thing, but they’re also guilty of slapping the other person, he or she who went out of their way to pay a compliment, fairly and squarely across the face. By not accepting someone’s compliment you’re effectively saying “your opinion doesn’t count for much or anything; in fact, you don’t count for much or anything”.

And it was when I realised this, that I was not just protecting myself against immodesty but insulting my good friends and colleagues, that I decided there had to be a better way; and I’m pleased to note that there is, in fact, a much better way because accepting compliments need not lead to anyone becoming a big-headed, maniacal monster who thinks s/he is the best thing since sliced bread. Rather, appropriately and humbly accepting compliments is more likely to lead to improved relationships, with one’s friends and with oneself.

So next time someone says something nice to and/or about you, pause for a minute and reflect on why they’ve said what they’ve said. Consider asking yourself whether they’d intentionally lie to you or say something nice just to manipulate you?!?! Assuming the answer is “no”, then take what they say at face value, thank them for the positivity, savour the moment and then move on.

I’ve written many times before about the importance of avoiding extremely negative thinking and self-destructive put-downs; it’s just as important to avoid the bad habit of pushing away positive feedback and complimentary comments from others if you want to enjoy positive feelings and positive relationships.


University of Technology Sydney

Dr. Timothy Sharp is a clinical and coaching psychologist who’s sometimes known as Dr. Happy! He’s the Founder and Chief Happiness Officer of The Happiness Institute and you can find him regularly tweeting at @drhappy.



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