Why we put ourselves down & can’t accept compliments

 Allow me to paint a picture of two successful women who still find it necessary to put themselves down: 

As a High School Counselor and Independent College Counselor, I visit 15-ish colleges a year to share firsthand knowledge with my students. Recently I was in line during one such college visit, while making small talk with the other counselors. The woman standing next to me wore a light blue vest that complimented her entire outfit. I admired how she orchestrated the look and told her. She immediately proceeded to tell me how she wasn’t crazy about the vest and thought she should have selected something else. 

Then she told me I had beautiful skin. What she doesn’t know is that I have eczema and psoriasis so bad that it often looks like polka dots on my back, breasts, and even my vaginal area. TMI? At that particular moment, though, my face was clear, and I truly appreciated the compliment. Is that what I said to her? Nope. I immediately put myself down in return and proceeded to tell her my foibles, polka dots and all. The truth is, my eczema and psoriasis don’t bother me that much anymore, but I still felt compelled to put myself down. 

WHAT THE WHAT? Does any of this resonate? Why, why, why do we do this? I’m glad you asked. Let’s dive in. 

Why we put ourselves down: How many times has someone complimented you about your hair, outfit, or shoes, and you respond with something like Oh, I got it off the clearance rack for $8! Or My hair color is just from a box from Target. Um, why are we doing this to ourselves? When was the last time you heard men respond like that? I don’t know about you, but I don’t hear their dialogue play out like this: Hey, I heard you got a promotion. Great job! Response: Well, you know, there weren’t that many candidates. Maybe I was the best of the worst. 

Crickets. Because that doesn’t happen. I know I’m generalizing here, and some men put themselves down, too, but I’m sure we agree that this is overwhelmingly a woman thing.  

Many of us were brought up to be humble, so we might internalize accepting praise as being a braggart. Therefore, we often go to the opposite extreme and put ourselves down. We don’t want to be seen as bragging. We pay others compliments, though, right? Why don’t we deserve compliments? Do we not value ourselves? When I was in graduate school for my counseling program, a professor told me that at our core, most hang-ups boil down to feeling like we aren’t good enough. I agree with that. 

But, if we are receiving compliments, we are literally hearing from others that we are deserving. Why, then, are we dismissing that? It’s as if we are telling the other person that they are wrong, and that we, in fact, know better. You said I look pretty today? Nope, nope, you are wrong. I have a dog face. Do you see how we are going out of our way to insult ourselves? When you read all this, it clearly doesn’t make sense.  

Here’s a twist: Do you ever give someone a compliment and secretly think ill of them if they don’t respond with self-criticism? Drops the mic and walks away…If they don’t put themselves down, are you secretly jealous? You might be reacting this way and not even realize it. We are often our own worst enemy, but sometimes women are the harshest to each other. Food for thought.  

Unintended consequences: When we randomly put ourselves down, we often communicate unintended messages and therefore create unintended consequences. For instance, when we say I’m so dumb, I’m no good at math; I can’t even balance my checkbook, or What a stupid mistake (insert your own insult here), we are assigning more value to others. We are putting others above us, unnecessarily making them superior.  

Additionally, this might be an unintended message….Wait for it…Are you fishing for compliments? Tough love, here. Reflect for a moment on the last few times you’ve engaged in self put-downs. Were you fishing for compliments? If you do this too often, the other person might feel like they are being manipulated, and no one enjoys that.  

Another unintended consequence is that we start believing our negative self-talk. Our brain internalizes the messages we send, we start to believe them without even thinking them through, and it becomes a vicious cycle. I’m willing to bet you aren’t purposely sending these messages or intending for these consequences.  

 What does it mean when we accept compliments? If someone pays us a compliment and we simply say “Thank you,” it doesn’t mean we attention-seeking. It doesn’t mean we are boastful or expectant. If we accept a compliment, it means we are confident and comfortable in our skin. We can accept the praise for how it was intended, and in turn, be more likely to give genuine compliments, too. You won’t expect anything in return. So, if you tell someone “That skirt is so cute,” and they respond with “Thanks!”, you feel happy, too, It’s a win-win. You feel confident, and you want others to, as well.  

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Next time put yourself down, STOP. This will require you to pay more attention to your inner dialogue. But if how we speak to ourselves is not a priority, then what is? How we speak to ourselves translates into how we view the world, how we interact with others, and how we model behavior to loved ones. So, really, I’m not giving you a choice whether to accept this mission. I’ve officially assigned it to you.  

When you recognize you are putting yourself down, STOP, DROP, and ROLL. For our purposes, picture a STOP sign in your mind to literally stop the thought or stop you from completely the sentence out loud. Reconsider the situation and reframe your thought.  

For example: If you start to say, I’m no good at public speaking. STOP. Visualize the STOP sign in your head. Reframe it in a positive way. Instead, you could say, I am working on my public speaking skills and am improving with practice. The end result is you feel more uplifted, in a cheerier mood. Whereas, if you let yourself end on the “no good” sentiment, you will naturally feel down about yourself. I know these sentiments sound obvious, but we obviously don’t practice them because some of us still put ourselves down.  

Bottom line: Do your assignment!  

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