One of the strangest things we observe in therapy is that people who doubt themselves often cannot accept compliments. One would suppose that if people have low self-confidence, they would be eager to accept accolades. But it is the opposite: if their self-perception is off and they dislike the way they are, they will not be talked out of that self-view, no matter what people try to say. When someone criticizes, they hear every word, but compliments drift over them.

Here is the way it works. We appear to have an inner filter that allows only certain data in. That is, you hear only the remarks that conform to your view of yourself. Let’s say you believe the following things about yourself:

  • I’m pretty good at sports.
  • I’m poor at math.
  • My IQ is about average.
  • I’ve got a pretty face but a terrible figure.

When new data comes toward you, it is run through this filter. If it fits what you think you are, then the filter lets it in. If someone says, “You’re really good at tennis,” that’s allowed in, and you thank the person for the compliment, because the remark conforms to your belief system (I’m good at sports). But if someone says, “You’re sure looking nice and trim,” that is screened out, because your inner picture is of someone with a terrible figure.

A few years ago I saw a dramatic instance of such skewed self-perception in one of our therapy groups. We were going around the room talking about body images, and when we got to one woman, she said, “Well, I see myself as fat and pimply.” At that, the group broke into laughter, because she was about 5’8″ and slender as a model, with beautiful, long hair and clear skin. What had happened was that in adolescence she had been fat and pimply. People had let her know how unattractive she was-probably with great cruelty. This internal picture of herself did not change when she changed. Hadn’t anyone been telling her in the meantime that she was beautiful and slender? I’m fairly certain they had. But her filter had successfully screened those compliments out.

Alan Loy McGinnis. Confidence: How to Succeed at Being Yourself (pp. 24-25). Kindle Edition.