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Compliments and Self-Esteem

While having coffee with a friend, you briefly express doubt about your own physical attractiveness. It's something you've occasionally struggled with for months now, but no matter how hard you try, you can't seem to think of yourself as good-looking. "You have nothing to worry about," your friend says with a smile, "you are such an attractive person!" 'Yeah, right' you think. "I'm not just saying that," your friend says. "You really are a good-looking individual, and anyone would be lucky to have you". You smile and thank your friend for their support, knowing that they wouldn't lie to you. But deep down, you can't quite bring yourself to believe them.

Our society talks about self-esteem a lot. There are many different strategies and self-help books aimed at improving your self-esteem. Why? Because self-esteem is important! Before we move on, let's define what self-esteem is.

Self-esteem means that you have confidence in your own abilities and sense of worth. Other names for this concept include self-respect, dignity, self-regard, and pride. Self-esteem means that you own what you are good at (are you good at cooking? Great! Take pride in your ability and put it to use!); and it also means believing in your own personal worth. Self-esteem is vital to our daily lives, without it, people are at risk for depression ('Why do people like me? I'm not worth anything), falling short of their potential ('I can't do anything, so why even bother?), or becoming involved in abusive or dysfunctional relationships (I'm not worth anything, so I deserve to be treated badly). On the other hand, some people have too much self-esteem, which can be just as bad as having very little. Someone with too much self-esteem may be unable to learn from their failures, or have an extreme sense of entitlement.

People tend to struggle with accepting compliments for a variety of reasons, but most of them can be traced back to self-esteem. When someone suffers from too little self-esteem, they may be able to graciously accept the compliment, but they won't believe it. We also tend to raise boys and girls differently, which can have various unintended outcomes. For example, men can accept a compliment and may spend very little, if any, time wondering if the compliment was genuine. Males are raised to stand out and make themselves known. Receiving compliments may reinforce the expectations that men are held to."You look very nice today! Is that a new suit?" might signal to a man that he stands out in a good way. Confident men are viewed in a positive light, and being complimented boosts this sense of confidence. On the other hand, women are taught not to have too much self-respect or to believe too much in their own abilities. When someone compliments a woman, it creates an inner conflict: girls are expected to be humble, and receiving a compliment will usually cause discomfort. Women are viewed negatively if they are perceived to have too much self-confidence, so they seek to retain a sense of humility. Receiving a compliment (while it might be appreciated) can disrupt this sense of humility.

Unfortunately, societal views on gender expectations cannot be changed overnight. While we can't change the double standard on how men and women should act, we can help build their self-esteem. So how do you cultivate self-esteem in a child?

According to Jim Taylor, author of Your Kids Are Listening: Nine Messages They Need To Hear From You, self-esteem comes from three things: feeling loved, feeling secure, and developing competence. Parents are usually good at supplying the first two, but they often try to build self-esteem by constantly praising their child. While this might seem like a good strategy, it can be counter-productive. Building competence means stepping back and letting your child take risks, make choices for themselves, practice perseverance, and problem solve, all on their own.

Of course, you should teach your children how to graciously accept a compliment, even if they don't believe it. Building self-esteem and working towards believing a genuine compliment will take some time, but manners still matter. Saying 'thank you' is important: it shows gratitude and respect for others.

  • DO: Foster feelings of love Cultivate a sense of security Develop competence Reinforce manners

  • DO NOT: Criticize too often (too much negativity is just as bad as too much praise) Over praise (make it genuine, and make it count) Limit your child (give them room to practice what they're good at)

The following shows a well-drawn graphic detailing some of the same ideas we have discussed in this article. Although it is directed towards the person who has trouble accepting compliments, it can be just as helpful for parents as well. If your child is too young to read the graphic on their own, then you can put it terms they understand.

If your child has trouble accepting compliments, talk to them and find out why. Do the compliments make them uncomfortable? Do they have trouble believing what people say about them? These aren't problems that can be fixed instantly. They take time. Your child needs space to figure out what they are good at and then practice it. They also need to hear that they are good at something, just not always from you. While I always enjoy hearing my parents praise my efforts, it feels better when the praise comes from a peer or professor.

If you are worried that your child might have low self-esteem that is affecting more than just their ability to accept compliments, talk to your family doctor or consult a therapist. Depression is very treatable, and your child shouldn't have to suffer from a disease that makes them doubt their self-worth.



Emily Taylor is a graduate student in General-Experimental Psychology at Western Carolina University. She intends to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and it is her goal to work with individuals who suffer from affective disorders. Emily has worked with children of all ages for over 10 years; she has also tutored college students and served as a mentor.

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