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"You're Just Saying That To Be Nice": How Individuals With Low Self-Esteem Can Learn to Accept Compliments As Truth

For those of you involved in a relationship where one person has low self-esteem, compliments can have a significant, positive impact on the connection that you share with your mate. You see, individuals with lower self-esteem tend to underestimate how much their partners love and care for them, even though research shows that individuals with low self-esteem are loved just as much by their partners as individuals with high self-esteem are loved by their partners. 

Psychologists at the University of Waterloo (Drs. Denise Marigold, John Holmes, and Michael Ross) conducted three studies to investigate how low self-esteem individuals could increase their own relationship satisfaction and feelings of relationship security after receiving compliments from their partners. After an extensive review of past literature, the researchers decided that in order for low self-esteem individuals to truly “believe” the compliments given to them by their partners (because remember, low self-esteem individuals tend to not believe that their partners love them as much as they actually do), they had to reframe how they viewed and understood the compliment. And, it worked. The researchers had some low self-esteem individuals discuss a compliment from their partner more concretely (“Describe exactly what your partner said to you. Include any details you can recall about where you two were at the time, what you were doing, what you were both wearing, etc.”) and had other low self-esteem individuals discuss a compliment from their partner more abstractly (“Explain why your partner admired you. Describe what it meant to you and its significance to you relationship.”). They also examined individuals with high self-esteem and had them do the same thing. Results showed that individuals with low self-esteem benefitted from describing the meaning and significance of the compliment as opposed to describing every little detail. In particular, low self-esteem individuals “can reframe affirmations from their partners to be as meaningful as [high self-esteem individuals] generally believe them to be and, consequently, can feel just as secure and satisfied with their romantic relationships.” 

In sum, when low self-esteem individuals receive compliments from their partners, they tend to brush them off as their partners “just being nice,” “not telling them the whole truth,” or even “fibbing just to make them feel good.” But, when these same individuals are asked to think more deeply about the meaning and intention behind the compliment, they feel more loved and secure and they actually value their relationships more than when they don’t engage in any reflection about the praise. So next time your partner throws a compliment your way, think about it for a little while before you simply chalk it up to partner politeness.

  • Marigold, D. C., Holmes, J. G., & Ross, M. (2007). More than words: Reframing compliments from romantic partners fosters security in low self-esteem individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 232-248.

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