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Why are we terrible at accepting compliments?

Many women can't take a compliment without putting themselves down. A psychologist calls it a "fascinating cultural paradox."
/ Source: TODAY

A female colleague tells you she likes your new haircut. Do you:

a) say thank you

b) smile and share the name of your stylist

c) tell her she’s insane and that your hair looks like somebody used it to scrub out a gas station toilet.

For many women, the answer is C. As in, can’t take a compliment.

A recent New York magazine story explored how many people associate praise with embarrassment. While a compliment is supposed to be a happy moment, it's also an awkward moment.

Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., told TODAY it has to do with the mixed messages women receive about what behaviors are desirable or acceptable.

“We’re told love yourself, but not too much. Be confident, but practice a style of humility this culture never requires of men. Believe in yourself, but never admit it out loud, lest you make another woman who doesn’t feel good about herself feel bad,” she says. “If you’re raised to think it’s arrogant to ever say something positive about yourself, it makes it hard to accept a compliment.”

As for self-loathing one-upsmanship — the too common habit of putting yourself down (I'm so fat!) when someone says something nice — Engeln says that has more to do with trying to convince others we’re better at humility.

“We’re convincing them that we win at the game of crushing our own self-confidence,” she says. “I don’t think that’s a win, though.”

Acknowledging our self worth

Our awkward pride mixed with self-loathing is a “fascinating cultural paradox,” says Engeln.

Women receive one set of messages telling them to love themselves, to accept themselves and to look in the mirror and see how beautiful they are, to know their worth and lean in and ask for what they want, she says.

“But we still live in a world that isn’t quite comfortable with women who do acknowledge their worth,” she says. “We see them as arrogant and often as unfeminine.”

Men, on the other hand, aren’t held to the same standards.

“Men don’t care so they don’t do it,” agrees Maisonneuve. “And I give them credit for that. I would love to be able to walk into a room and not even once consider who’s in the room, who’s looking at me, who’s not looking at me, if my shoes are as good as hers. I don’t think men walk into a room and say ‘Look at his shoes, I have to start dressing better.’"

Maybe men have a solution to the problem: "They don’t care, and that’s a good thing.”

This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated.