Noticing Shame Around Receiving Compliments, and What To Do With It

I recently asked on our Instagram how you feel when accepting praise or compliments. Can you actually accept it? What emotions come up and where do they come from? More importantly, I think about whether my reluctance to receive praise is part of a bigger issue of self-image and keeping myself small. I'd love to hear what you think and your experiences.


For me it's really different whether the feedback comes in person and I am 'visible' when receiving kind words, or whether I can read them unobserved!


Positive feedback, especially about my work, is so wonderful to receive, and I value it so much as an inspiration and driver to keep going. However, having to be 'present' to hear things said about me is something I find so, so awkward and hard! Reading a testimonial is so much easier.


Getting curious about where this comes from, my initial response is a general awkwardness and embarrassment at being told I'm good at something. Even writing those last four words make me feel uncomfortable, because I have it deeply ingrained in me that it's not okay to feel good about yourself and your work. (This isn't on a rational level, I'm talking about the uncontrollable gut reaction.)


Some of this surely comes from being brought up in a British culture of 'staying humble' and being polite, self-depreciating and modest. Other elements feel more personal: I remember at school it being completely humiliating to have praise from the teacher. Even though I loved getting complimentary written comments and 'merits' in my books, I hated being singled out in class if I'd done something well. This was so extreme for me at secondary school that I would never put my hand up if I knew the answer, and often turned my face away to avoid being asked. I had such shame around receiving praise, and somewhat understandably, because there was such a culture of bullying around 'cleverness' or 'being a nerd' at my school. I think this is a pretty common experience, unfortunately.


These shame triggers are so subtle, but I could feel the pressure and judgement from around the room if I ever did anything right. It seemed impossible to me that anyone could be both 'clever' and 'liked'. Being academic was such a fundamental part of my personal and family identity, but it suddenly wasn't accepted in the world where I had to spend a large amount of my time. At home, my academic parents and grandparents made me feel valued and 'good enough' because of my work achievements, and the school ignored me because I ticked all the right boxes and didn't cause any trouble.


Learning to make myself small and secretive in this way, in order to survive in my social world, must have had a lasting impact. Only when I got to sixth form and then undergrad was it safe to succeed. The nurturing environments I experienced there began to rebuild confidence, but there is still work to be done in re-wiring my belief that I will not be liked if I do too well. I wonder if anyone else is feeling the same? For me, this work starts to look like:


  1. Recognising and becoming aware of my behaviour and where it might have come from.

  2. Being kind to my child self - what I did made sense to keep myself safe.

  3. Consciously deciding that I don't need to do this any more. I have curated an environment as an adult where I do not need to protect myself against people who don't want to see me do well. Proportionally, there are very few people like this, and I don't need to engage with them.

  4. Start small, have a 'scripted' response for receiving praise. 'Thank you, that's really kind .'

  5. Try and feel safe in these experiences. Notice when my tummy squirms and breathe into it to relax. Smile and try to maintain eye contact. I could even have a mantra: 'it's safe to receive praise'.

Over time, it's likely that I'll start to become more comfortable. Tara Brach has a 'R.A.I.N' acronym for this work, following the sequence: Recognise, Accept, Investigate, Nurture, which is loosely what I've done here. If you have similar situations or behaviours that you struggle with, you could try writing around it and perhaps make a plan. If you do, let me know how you get on!


Emily x