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‘Thanks! It Was Like $5!’ Why Are We So Obsessed with Hedging Compliments with How Cheap Things Are?

About a month ago, I got a new bag—a small, fire-engine red, faux–patent leather number in the shape of an isosceles triangle (yes, I passed ninth-grade geometry, thank you so much). I’ve worn it a handful of times, and each one of those times, without fail, someone has told me how much they like it, from friends and coworkers to strangers on the subway and my own mother.

Instead of just saying “Thank you so much!” and moving on, I’ve done something that, in my experience, most women do. I sheepishly grin and exasperatedly declare, “Oh my God, it’s from Forever21, it was literally $5…”

We know by now that many women are not particularly adept at taking compliments, but I wanted to examine a specific way of reacting to praise: Deflecting a well-wisher by making a self-deprecating remark about how cheap something was (or, in my case, how cheap it was and where it’s from).

First, I thought about why I respond this way. Is it because I don’t want to be perceived as frivolous for buying an admittedly silly item? Is it because I’m projecting my own judgment of myself for shopping at a store targeted toward teens and tweens even though I’m a 28-year-old woman? Is it because I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying too hard to be stylish? Is it because I’m uncomfortable with compliments in general? Is it because we, as women, have been conditioned to downplay our successes for fear of seeming too aggressive, assertive or un-feminine? Is it because I’ve seen Mean Girls too many times and have an irrational fear of someone snapping back at me, “Oh, so you think your bag is really fun too?” Honestly, it’s probably a little of all of the above.  

Let’s compare this type of compliment to, say, a comment on physical beauty. If someone says “You look so pretty!” a woman might deflect out of negative self-esteem. If we don’t love an unchangeable part of ourselves, it’s uncomfortable when someone draws attention to it. In the case of compliments on a bag, shoes or a pair of earrings, however, we’re talking about something you absolutely can change and were fully complicit in choosing.

“One explanation,” writes Maria Baratta, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., “might be that our culture places inordinate importance on appearance and women spend inordinate time and energy in that pursuit, and when finally acknowledged, feign indifference, perhaps a leftover Victorian notion of modesty.”

Here’s the weird part: I love compliments. I crave outside validation of my work, my sartorial choice and, yes, my physical appearance. So why am I unable to embrace these compliments when they come? Baratta continues, “A compliment validates the effort of trying to look good; and with that comes the complicated relationship with that validation, which includes discomfort with compliments while paradoxically craving them.” Translation: There’s some shame that comes from wanting validation, so when we receive said validation—even if deep down we want it—we’re made to believe there’s something wrong with wanting that reaction. 

So my question to myself is this: If I like compliments, why can’t I graciously receive them? The answer is, I can. An important first step is accepting the fact that just because you like being complimented doesn’t mean you’re vain or shallow. Then, just say thank you. As psychotherapist Richard B. Joelson, D.S.W., L.C.S.W., more eloquently suggests, “Rather than expressing yourself in a way that challenges or repudiates a well-intentioned other who seems to have nice things to say about you, a simple ‘thank you’ will always do very nicely while you privately attempt to figure out why a compliment or flattery stirred conflict within you in the first place.” 

In the paraphrased words of the great Ariana Grande, “You like my bag? Gee, thanks, just bought it!”

I Challenged Myself to Give One Compliment a Day and It Made Me a Happier Person