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To Boost Self-Esteem: Take A Compliment

Seven Steps To Accept A Compliment With Grace.

To Boost Self-Esteem: Take A ComplimentWhy is a compliment almost as hard to take as criticism?

When I was a kid my well-intentioned Mom taught me to discredit compliments. “Oh, no, I’m not pretty, clever, smart, nice…” To do otherwise would be conceited, a cardinal sin to a young Catholic girl.

Q: What’s the result of too much compliment denial?

A) A starving, shriveled self-esteem dying for some good nurturing,

B) A great big gap is left in your self-esteem (where the compliment would go) that is filled with bad, abusive junk,

C) You risk annoying your relatives and friends who just want you to see what they see,

or, (you guessed it)

D) All of the above.

If we refuse to let people tell us how fabulous we are where does that leave us? It leaves us with the abusive junk. If we swallow “You’re stupid, ugly, a failure, [fill in the blank],” often enough, whether from others or from our own head, somewhere along the way we start to believe it: “I’m just stupid, ugly, a failure.” The nasty, harsh voice takes over. Our true voice, the one that still believes in us, is drowned out.

I don’t know you, we’ve never met, but I do know this: You are not stupid, ugly or a failure. Deep in your heart you know this, too. Your true voice whispers, “I am good, I am smart, I can succeed.”

Embracing a genuine compliment means believing in yourself enough to trust the sincerity of the compliment giver.
How do we get there?

Step 1) Tune in to the voices in your head, like you would a radio dial. How are they sounding? Supportive or nasty? Sometimes we aren’t even aware of how cruel we can be to ourselves until we detach just enough to hear it as an observer. Write some of it down and let that help you realize the extent of the verbal self-abuse you’ve been sustaining. During an episode of depression I did this and was surprised to learn how unkind I was to myself.
Step 2) Whose nasty voice is it? It isn’t yours, because yours is thoughtful, even when you need a kick in the butt. Often the harsh voice is a parent or other adult caregiver from the past. When we’re kids our brains are sponges that soak everything up including the repeated criticisms. It helps defuse the negative voice further by identifying where it came from, to realize its origin was outside of ourselves. Then take a moment to filter through the ‘noise’ of other voices. What your ‘gut’ is telling you is your true voice.
Step 3) Talk back. Challenge the putdowns. Dialog boxes are helpful to exercise this new skill. On a piece of paper draw two columns. On the left write whatever the nasty voice is saying (try to keep it to a sound bite). On the right come up with a more reasonable response. An example of this might be: “You are such a loser!” vs. “I could do better and I will next time. That doesn’t make me a loser.” Go back and forth, from left to right, writing the dialog, until you feel a sense of mastery over the negative voice.
Step 4) Mind the absolute language, and I don’t mean the vodka. Avoid words like “always, never, can’t, forever.” These words leave no room for hope; they are toxic when applied to ourselves. Or, turnabout is fair play. Use positive absolute words like “Gorgeous, fabulous, winner, the best!”
Step 5) Turn the volume up on your true voice. A good friend pointed out to me that the way I was talking about myself was unacceptable. “No one talks to my friend like that!” she said. This was such an eye opener I took it a step further. If it were my friend and if she said she felt like a failure what would I be saying to her? It sure as hell wouldn’t be “Yeah! Loser!” Wouldn’t I be busy pointing out all her strengths and good qualities, bucking her up, showing support? Be your best girlfriend.
Step 6) Savor the compliment like tasting a good wine or fine chocolate! We are none of us perfect, we could all improve in some way. Instead of focusing on the unreasonable notion that we are always bad, doesn’t it make better sense to say, “I’m not perfect but I’m worthy of this recognition.” Let the compliment nurture your self-esteem just as a tall cool glass of water slakes your thirst.
Step 7) Reflect the compliment back in the spirit in which it was given. Even if you aren’t feeling it, smile and say ‘Thank you,’ gracefully, without embellishment. Just thank you.

Do these exercises faithfully by yourself, with friends or family if that helps, or with your therapist. As a consumer of my own advice I admit I have relapses. But like exercising muscles, I can guarantee you do get stronger bit by bit, day by day, until one day you will surprise yourself by smiling at a pretty compliment and, without even thinking, say,

“Thanks! I do look fabulous today!”

To Boost Self-Esteem: Take A Compliment

Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D.

Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, founder of Explore What’s Next, wife, and mom of two teenagers. Dr. Aletta is a writer whose articles have been featured on the New York Times Well blog, the Wall Street Journal Online, Parents magazine, NPR and the BBC London Radio. To learn more about Dr. Aletta and Explore What's Next, visit her website and blog, or follow her on Twitter!

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APA Reference
Aletta, E. (2018). To Boost Self-Esteem: Take A Compliment. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 28 May 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.