Think about the last time someone in your life paid you a compliment. How did you react? Did you smile broadly, thank them effusively and go about your day with an extra spring in your step? Or did you say something self-effacing to bat the compliment away, in case you got too ahead of yourself? Chances are that it was the latter – it is the case for so many of us, and there is a real possibility that, in the main, we don’t even know why.

Negative self-talk is a bane on many of our lives, and it doesn’t need to be in response to a compliment, either. Many of us have managed to find a way to be self-critical even when no one else is around. As we will see as we go on, there are actual, scientific reasons why we are drawn to talking and thinking in this way. However, we need to be aware of its drawbacks and know-how – and when – to relegate negative self-talk into the background. Below, we’ll take a look at the psychology that makes it all too easy to think this way.

We talk ourselves down because we have evolved to do that

When we give ourselves a verbal slap on the wrist – either out loud, or in our own minds – we are producing a brain chemical known as cortisol. This is a neurotransmitter that calms us down, a counterpart to the dopamine that is released by happy thoughts. Cortisol has its benefits, which include the part it plays in formulating memories and suppressing inflammation, but its most common mental impact is to govern our “fight-or-flight” response. Cortisol is released in large measures when we are at our most stressed.

We release cortisol when we perceive a threat of some kind, and humans who have a pronounced tendency to produce more cortisol are more likely to see threats where they exist (and sometimes where they don’t). Throughout time, the humans who have been better able to perceive threat are those who have survived to pass on their genes. Those who didn’t perceive the threat as much were, in many cases, eaten by something that they really should have found more threatening.

So when someone compliments you, and you bat it away, your mind is behaving as it would in a situation of threat. Why it does this is complicated, and the most understandable way of explaining it would be that when we accept a compliment, we lower our defenses and can become complacent. By releasing cortisol at that point, our brain is telling us not to get ahead of ourselves. There is some justification for this – flattery can be a very effective way of overcoming people’s defensiveness – but it does have its drawbacks.

The key is balance

If you believed and internalized, every compliment you ever received, then the chances are that you would become extremely conceited and pretty much immune to self-criticism. That’s not a good state to be in – it’s got a lot in common with narcissism, and although that kind of self-regard may seem like a positive to some, it’s very fragile. Narcissistic people can seem braggadocious at times, but if their self-regard is punctured, their ego can collapse with unpleasant results. However, it’s not desirable to go too far in the opposite direction.

The condition of imposter syndrome is an example of what happens when negative self-talk and aversion to compliments is allowed to take control of a person. You may achieve great things, be loved by friends and family, and have genuine expertise in a range of areas, but your aversion to compliments will not allow you to believe that you are an impressive person. You can end up believing that everyone around you who compliments you is wrong, and that you are – as the title implies – an imposter.

Worst of all, imposter syndrome tends to lead to poor mental health, most commonly anxiety and depression. Listening to compliments and taking the good from them, along with digesting thoughtful mindset quotes and sayings, can act as protection against the worst impacts of imposter syndrome. You may not think you deserve to be up on a pedestal, but people will not recognize your good qualities so often and so vocally if they’re not genuinely good. Sure, you have flaws, and it’s not unhealthy to recognize that – so long as you recognize that the same is true of literally everyone else.

How to tell when you’re taking modesty too far

Reluctance to take a compliment is seen as a positive by many people, who point out that along with your other qualities you’re also modest. And there is nothing wrong with being modest – after all, without a touch of modesty, the threat of narcissism is ever-present. 

However, it is best to see modesty as something that you can reach for if you’re uncomfortable with effusive praise, and not as a permanent state of being. There are healthy ways to accept a compliment. You can accept it without centering yourself, for example – replying with a slight deflection is one way of doing this. If someone compliments you on a job well done, you can simply say “I just wanted to do my part, if I can do a good job then it’s better for the team”, or words to that effect. Simply denying the compliment, in that case, is twisting reality and set an impossible standard for yourself and everyone else.

It’s natural to want to push yourself and avoid resting on your laurels, but let’s give one final reason why negative self-talk has to be countered. If people who are working for the improvement of the world are beaten down by imposter syndrome – as signs suggest they are – then the effect of their efforts will be negatively impacted. Meanwhile, you can be absolutely sure that the people who are only looking out for themselves will not be hobbled by the same self-doubts. So – as difficult as it may seem – it really is important to not fall into the trap of negative self-talk.