To Build Self-Esteem: Take A Compliment!


Why 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.

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

A. A starving self-esteem dying for some good nurturing,

B. The gap left in your self-esteem where the compliment would go 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 great 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 and it becomes us. “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, any more than I am. 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.  Say Thank you. 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. No explanations, no defensiveness, no demurring.

Step 2. 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 nurtures your body.

Step 3. Repeat.

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. Just the other day my daughter complimented me.

“Mom, you look really good.”

My response? “Are you kidding? My eyes are like pin pricks because I have this cold. I think I look awful.”

Honest to God, she replied, “Mom, you’ve got to learn to take a compliment better.”

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 the compliment and, without even thinking, say:

“Thanks! I do look great today!”


  • Humility is a virtue that many preach, but few know how to find.A humble person is generally thought to be unpretentious and modest, someone who does not think that he or she is better or more important than others.Humility is best demonstrated by focusing on meeting the needs and desires of others.

  • Dear Everything Counts,
    Humility is a wonderful quality, I agree. Not just wonderful, it is, as you say, what keeps us from thinking we’re better than others. Do you mean to say that humility and graciously accepting a compliment are diametrically opposed?

  • sdf

    every self esteem/trust article I read is great till the mention of what steps to take, then you lose me

  • Funny you should say that because I was just looking at this post today and I have to say, I don’t get it either. I don’t know what I was thinking. Clearly I should re-write this one.
    Thanks for your feedback. If you have any specific suggestions I’d love to hear them.

  • Dear sdf,
    I edited this post to reflect better what I intended, that accepting a compliment is good for our self-esteem and that we can take steps to learn how to do this. I hope you’ll take a second look and tell me what you think.
    Dr Aletta

  • Happy New Year to you Dr. Aletta!
    I like reading your stuff because it always makes me think.
    As an example, I write mostly for myself and if I can help people along the way, then yay me. I really don’t consider myself a writer at all, let alone a good one. Of course one thing I strive for is for people to enjoy reading my stuff, whether it be about fishing, suicide or working out. Writing for myself helps me get it out. Why does it make me uncomfortable when people tell me how much they love reading my stuff and how much they consider me a good writer? Why do I feel like a fraud? It used to be the same way when I played in a band that used to travel overseas too. Signing CD’s,and hanging out with and taking pictures with fans is what I strived to do, but when it happened, it made me feel odd. Why is that?
    Take care and thanks for writing the things you do,

  • Dear Rob,
    These are such great questions. You get me thinking too. I promise I’ll get back to you once I get this cold put of my head.
    Be well,
    dr a


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