The bully inside: Women who can't take a compliment

by Brian AlexanderBrianAlexandermsnbc.com contributor /  / Updated  / Source: TODAY contributor

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I recently approached a woman in my local gym, admiring her turn at the weight machines. "Wow, you are really strong," I said. "That's an awesome amount of weight." She looked at me blankly. "What's wrong with it?"

"Nothing," I responded. "It's just impressive."

“What do you mean by that?," she asked, eyeing me.

"Uh, I don't know," I stammered, flummoxed. "I mean…It’s great. I just…anyway…O.K. then.”

And I backed away slowly.

This sort of thing happens all the time. I once complimented a retail clerk’s hands  --  no kidding, she had gorgeous hands  -- and you would’ve thought I had just handed her a mash note.     

Recently health writer Leslie Goldman addressed the issue of female discomfort upon receiving a compliment in her Healthbreaksloose blog. When another woman complimented Goldman’s legs Goldman said “‘Oh my God, are you kidding me?! My legs are covered with spider veins!’”

Why, Goldman wrote, do women have such a tough time graciously accepting praise and simply saying thanks? In Goldman's view, the pressure to reject a compliment is ingrained in women from an early age.

"I think women are just kind of raised to seem humble," Goldman told Kathie Lee and Hoda on TODAY Wednesday.

Developmental psychologist Dr. Robyn Silverman suggests that at least when it comes to compliments about a woman’s appearance, an “inner body bully” makes women deny that the flattery could be true. "[It] tells us we're not thin enough, we're not good enough and not worthy enough to take the compliment and so we downgrade it," Silverman, author of "Good Girls Don't Get Fat" told TODAY.

Women with high self-esteem may tend to reject the compliment because they want to be seen as modest and self-effacing, social psychologist Laura Brannon, who has studied the interaction between compliments and mood, told TODAY.com. Women with lower self-esteem “are more likely to genuinely not accept the compliment because it is inconsistent with their self-concept and they find it threatening.”

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And then there is the problem with the woman at the gym and the store clerk.

Brannon, a professor at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., refers to it as “attribution theory.” Both men and women may want to know why somebody is giving them a compliment. “If somebody thinks the complimenter wants something, they are less likely to believe it,” she explained. “And we might also make an attribution based on our own beliefs. If we are insecure” about the subject of the compliment, be it looks or work or weight lifting, “that can lead us to interpret a compliment differently than it was intended.”

This can actually be bad for our mental health said professor Chris Segrin, head of the University of Arizona Communication department. Compliment-giving is part of “pro-social” behavior, the ways we make each other feel good. “People rejecting compliments are turning the tables on themselves. They are thwarting part of who they are as human beings which is the desire to appear competent, credible, intelligent.”

While Hoda commented that "we like people more who don't think as much of themselves," Goldman notes there's a difference between a compliment "based on something physical versus something about your character and personality."

So, where does this leave men?  

Brannon didn’t have an answer to the enigma but she did have advice for men in relationships. “Just remember that if you want to say ‘that color does not look good on you,’ say it while the person still has time to change. But if it’s too late to change, just tell them they look nice.”

Words to live by.

Follow Brian Alexander on Twitter at  http://twitter.com/#!/brianralexander

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