Why Some People Can’t Accept Compliments: The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in Examining Self-Related Evidence

Have you ever been complimented and wondered if the praise was a lie? Did you think that the feedback was too good to be true or so obviously far removed from reality? In cognitive-behavioral therapy, the process of examining the evidence for and against particular interpretations is often fraught with the client’s immense self-doubt, leading to a state of tension that’s frequently resolved by disqualifying the positive comment. So, why do we tend to do that?

Imagine that you were certain of your self-image, believing that you knew yourself better than others knew you. And, now, you receive a compliment. So, your only options for making sense of the comment are: 1. The person is attempting to manipulate me. 2. They’re just being nice. The comment can’t be real because it doesn’t fit your self-conception; you can’t fathom that you can perceive yourself in one way and someone else can do so in another. Cognitive dissonance is a term in cognitive science that indicates the state of emotional tension that we feel when our core beliefs don’t match up with the information from our environment; we feel uncomfortable and anxious when we’re told that we’re something we’re sure we aren’t. So, we latch onto one of the previously mentioned conclusions.

But, the question is: how likely is either one of them true? What’s the probability that your friends, who’ve been complimenting you for years are being duplicitous for some selfish ends? What have you been giving to them or doing for them that makes your relationship a necessity, or at least a luxury, for them? If you aren’t financially supporting them, providing them with access to a desired social network, or catering to most of their needs, what’s their incentive for lying to you? If you can’t discover it, maybe it doesn’t exist. However, that interpretation is often the easier one to dispel as, for the most part, people who struggle with self-esteem tend to have positive images of their friends.

The one that tells you that everyone is simply being kind is the more challenging interpretation to debunk. The first question to ask yourself is: what’s the likelihood that everyone is lying to me, especially those whose compliments are unprompted? Then, what’s the likelihood that all of those people can seem so genuine in their tones and gestures yet lie with such apparent sincerity? Wouldn’t they then have to be psychopaths, and if so, then aren’t psychopaths usually just manipulative, bringing us back to the initial interpretation? The question I find to be the most helpful for others is the one involving unprompted comments, particularly because they’re surprising: appearing from nowhere and seeming so genuine. And those compliments can reinforce the ones from friends. If your friends are lying, then so are the strangers.

Unfortunately, now we’re left in a tense state, in a conflict between the fear that tells us we’d be stupid for accepting the praise and the conclusion that it may be real. This is the part where you can ask yourself if both interpretations can simultaneously be true. Can you interpret yourself in one way and the other see you in another? If no, then why? Do you think your standards for beauty, intelligence, and goodness are the same for others? Do they hold you up to same ideals that you weight yourself against? Do they also see the world in a way that places a select few in each category or are their criteria for each construct less narrowly defined? What separates beauty for one as supposed to another may be the level of distortion in their respective thinking. For perfectionists, their pattern of black and white thinking makes them consider those concepts in a binary way, wherein perfection equates with each of them and everything else dismissed because it’s worthless.

Sometimes, we can’t accept praise because we zero in on the achievement’s flaws, as though anything worthy should be perfect. When others judge us, it isn’t that they don’t see our flaws; they just don’t care about them as much as we do. A blemish or a mistake don’t take away from the bigger picture of who we are, not to them and, hopefully, eventually not to us. One of the hardest things to accept is that you can be great without being perfect; fortunately, your flaws usually only disqualify you to yourself.

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