How self-esteem influences our capacity to receive praise

Most people like hearing praise but some people bristle when they hear compliments and others downright hate them. What is it that determines whether someone enjoys receiving compliments or whether they turn sour at the first hint of positive feedback?

Compliments and Self-Esteem

More often than not, how receptive we are to compliments is a reflection of our self-esteem and deep feelings of self-worth. Specifically, compliments can make people with low self-esteem feel uncomfortable because they contradict their own self-views. People actively seek to verify their own perceptions of themselves, whether those are positive or negative. For example, in one study, college students with low self-esteem showed a stronger preference for keeping their current roommate if that roommate viewed them negatively, than if their roommate saw them more positively.

In other words, receiving praise from others when we feel negatively about ourselves elicits discomfort because it conflicts with our existing belief system. If we believe we’re truly undesirable, hearing compliments about how attractive we are will feel jarring and inauthentic. If we believe we’re unintelligent, someone lavishing us with praise about how smart we are will feel more like a taunt than a compliment. And if we’re convinced we’re incapable of success, receiving praise about our how capable we are can feel like a set-up for future heartbreak and disappointment.

The Challenge of Complimenting Relationship Partners with Low Self-Esteem

The resistance people with low self-esteem have to compliments can be especially pronounced when the praise comes from their relationship partners. One study found that giving people with low self-esteem praise about being considerate boyfriends or girlfriends was enough to make them feel more insecure about their partners and even to view their entire relationship more negatively.

Given that the compliment was mild, whether the participants were considerate or not could not have conflicted that strongly with their self-beliefs. Further, their partners know them well and were certainly in a position to comment on their relationship skills. So why would someone with low self-esteem react so strongly to such mild praise from their partner?

The answer is that any form of praise that comes from their partners, can make people with low self-esteem feel pressured to live up to the heightened expectations such praise implies. Because their confidence and trust in themselves is low, a person with low self-esteem fears they won’t be able to sustain their efforts and they’ll end up disappointing their partner. Further, they worry that their partner’s love and caring are conditional, such that if they do fail to live up to their expectations their partner will withdraw from them or exit the relationship altogether.

As a result of these internal pressures and anxieties, a person with low self-esteem is likely to use unconscious defense mechanisms when they hear compliments from their partners. Praise will only make them shut down and become more distant and withdrawn, as they hope (unconsciously) to lower their partner’s expectations by doing so. Sadly, such reactions can unwittingly provoke exactly the response they feared as their partners are indeed likely to feel frustrated and annoyed of their efforts to provide positive feedback are met with such seeming indifference and disdain .

Compliments and Culture

The correlation between low self-esteem and a resistance to compliments should not be over-interpreted. People with low self-esteem are often uncomfortable receiving compliments but not everyone who is uncomfortable receiving compliments necessarily has low self-esteem. Praise has a large cultural and ideological component. For example, it is much more acceptable to praise children in some cultures than in others and it is much more acceptable to express positive regard to adults in some cultures than in others. Further, some people with high self-esteem might have ideologies or world views that associate compliments with ‘coddling’ such that they experience praise as condescension rather than encouragement.

How to Increase Receptiveness to Compliments

It is possible to increase a person’s receptiveness to praise even if their self-esteem is low. One study found that asking people with low self-esteem to reframe a compliment from their partner in abstract terms and discuss what it meant to them and what significance it had in their relationship allowed them to accept the compliment and feel more positively about themselves and about the relationship as a result.

Other studies found that interventions to boost self-esteem also resulted in participants becoming less resistant to compliments ().

The bottom line is, give thought to the recipient when you voice a compliment and consider if and how to word it if you suspect their self-esteem is low.

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© Copyright 2014 Guy Winch, Ph.D., All rights Reserved.
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Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, keynote speaker, and author whose books have already been translated into thirteen languages. His most recent book is Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013). The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem (Walker & Company) was published in January 2011. Dr. Winch received his doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University in 1991 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in family and couples therapy at NYU Medical Center. He has been working with individuals, couples and families in his private practice in Manhattan, since 1992. He is a member of the American Psychological Association. In addition to the Blog on this site, Dr. Winch also writes the popular Squeaky Wheel Blog on Psychology, and blogs for Huffington Post.


  1. I have personally experienced this from people with low self-esteem. It’s difficult for both parties involved. As a giver it’s very frustrating since your compliment is genuine and heartfelt .It just seems so strange that you have to convince the compliment receiver that what you are saying is genuine and not flattery.

  2. In fact, our unconscious defenses are so powerful that we may twist a compliment or positive feedback into something negative. Other defenses include discounting the judgment or motive of the person giving the compliment. People with low self-esteem also have trouble with receiving attention for the same reason. Basically, underneath they feel inadequate or inferior in some way. Their shame undermines their relationships. The opposite is also true. People with high self-esteem feel it’s too jarring to be around someone who doesn’t treat them with respect. This is why self-esteem is an essential ingredient for healthy relationships. Fortunately, we can heal our shame and raise our self-esteem, as explained in my books and ebook.
    Darlene Lancer, LMFT
    Author of “10 Steps to Self-Esteem” and “Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You”