Accepting Compliments in Lasting Relationships

I have a friend I’ll call Ellen who is a really wonderful person.  She is intelligent, attractive, kind, and fun to be around. And everyone seems to know it but her.  Though how is a mystery to me, Ellen has low self-esteem (LSE).  When I told her that she was the subject of my next blog post she replied, “I am seriously not interesting enough to merit a blog post!” Exactly what you’d expect someone with LSE to say.

You no doubt know someone similar: full of great qualities but doesn’t believe it.  One of the unfortunate aspects of low self-esteem is that it is self-perpetuating.  That is, when someone says something mean to Ellen she takes it to heart as the absolute truth, and feels even worse. When someone compliments her, which, in her case, happens much more often, she either ignores it completely or dismisses it as someone “just being nice.”

The healthiest approach, of course, would be to accept compliments and disregard criticism.  Of course, never taking notice of criticism is not ideal because being able to recognize and accept constructive criticism is a valuable skill.  But even if this approach caused her to pay no attention to constructive criticism she would still be better off than she is now.

Or if Ellen treated all feedback in the same manner, either accepted it or ignored it, she would be better off.  If she accepted all feedback then at least the unflattering words would be offset by the kind ones.  And in the other case, ignoring insults too would offset dismissing praise.

It is unfortunate that we are so much less likely to dismiss an unpleasant comment by saying, “Oh, they were just being mean.” But, sadly, some people are just mean. Others are dealing with their own esteem issues, ones that that might cause them to belittle others as a way of making themselves feel better.  Given all this, we are more likely to be correct if we disregard a critical comment, blaming it instead on the person’s need to boost his self-esteem by reducing ours.  Even if we do not dismiss it outright, we should at least discount it as the result of someone dealing with his own esteem issues.

Being Ellen’s friend can sometimes be very frustrating.  I find myself trying to persuade her that the good things really are true.  But, of course, given the nature of LSE, there is no reasoning with her.  I think, in fact, she knows at some level that the good things are true.  She must; they’re obvious.  But knowing something intellectually and accepting it emotionally are two different things.

Having a partner with low self-esteem can be even more frustrating.  In a lasting relationship, where our life is intertwined with our partner’s, there are more opportunities for self-esteem issues to impact the relationship.  So wouldn’t it be great for there to be a way to help those with low self-esteem accept compliments.

Denise Marigold and her colleagues at the University of Waterloo may have found just such a way.  In their research they asked individuals to think of a time when their partner had complimented them.  Next, some participants were asked to think of the compliment in concrete terms:

Describe exactly what your partner said to you. Include any   details you can recall about where you two were at the time, what you were doing, what you were both wearing, etc. (p. 235)

Others were asked to think of the compliment in abstract terms:

Explain why your partner admired you. Describe what it meant to you and its significance for your relationship. (p. 235)

Marigold and her colleagues’ findings were interesting in many ways.  As expected, LSE partners reported less satisfaction and security with their relationship than did partners with HSE.  They were also less positive about compliments and had more trouble remembering compliments from their partner.  That’s the bad news; here’s the good news.  When LSE partners were asked to recall a compliment and then explain why it was meaningful and significant they responded just like HSE partners: they felt more secure about the relationship, had an easier time remembering the compliment and felt better about the compliment.

Though Marigold and her colleagues are not yet certain why these instructions changed how LSE partners thought of the compliment, they suspect that by telling LSEs to describe the meaning and significance of the compliment they subtly implied that the compliment was, indeed, meaningful and significant, and reflected the strong positive feelings their partner had for them.  These thoughts, then, replaced the doubt that LSEs typically experience when receiving a compliment.

So, how can this information help couples experiencing the negative effects of LSE? First, when being complimented, LSE partners should spend a few moments thinking about the ways in which the compliment is meaningful and significant.  Given that a compliment is an expression of positive feelings from their partner, LSEs should focus and accept on those feelings.

And what if your partner has LSE?  This research suggests that it is not enough to compliment your partner, you might also need to help them understand the meaning of the compliment. Perhaps even something as simple as beginning a compliment with a phrase such as, “Like I always say…” may help LSE partners see the compliment in broader terms, as representing ongoing and continuing positive regard from their partner.

Armed with this knowledge, I have new hope for my interactions with Ellen.  I feel confident that I can help her understand why she should accept and enjoy the nice things that everyone says about her.  I hope also that this new information will help her understand that the mean things that people sometimes say tell us more about those people than they do about her.

In case you are interested…

Marigold, D. C., Holmes, J. G., & Ross, M. (2007).  More than words: Reframing compliments from romantic partners fosters security in low self-esteem individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 232–248.

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.