It happens at least once a week in my therapy practice. Since my approach to psychotherapy involves focusing on strengths, I frequently will point out to patients, who may be struggling with various problems, that it is important to not lose sight of the positive things that they have or are accomplishing. The fact that they may have experienced a disappointment or a perceived failure or unremitting pain does not diminish their intelligence or good looks or caring nature or other attributes.
When someone is really into feeling badly, however, that person may have a tough time accepting a compliment.
A compliment goes against the self-definition of the person who puts him/herself down totally. At least once a week, I have to deal with a patient who is so used to feeling badly that s/he disowns the compliment. If I speak of the person’s intelligence, I’m told that it’s a meaningless concept because common sense is lacking. If I point out how, despite feeling depressed, that patient has maintained good grooming and appearance and weight, I get told that I’m describing something superficial. When I compliment parenting skill, I’m told that it’s an instinct rather than a true skill. Some people are really good at coming up with reasons for not accepting a compliment.
When that happens in the treatment office, I point out to the person that some people react to compliments by saying, “thank you”. Some catch on right away and actually start listening for compliments so that they can practice saying, “thank you”. Others struggle with the concept for a while. Once it becomes an acquired skill, however, it becomes more than an expression of gratitude. It changes that way that a person defines him/herself. It becomes harder to put one’s self down totally – because once you accept the fact that you have some good attributes, it means that not everything about you is negative. And that is a major step on the way to making changes.
We can all benefit from monitoring ourselves. How hard it is for you to accept a compliment and say, “thank you”? Is it easier for you to internalize criticism from others? This is a behavior change that is actually quite easy to make. All it requires is for you to be as fair to yourself as is the person complimenting you.