Why do women find it so hard to accept a compliment?

Ellen Widdup with baby Zeb

Ellen Widdup with baby Zeb - Credit: Archant

Like so many other women, I find it impossible to accept a compliment gracefully.

“Wow! I can’t believe you gave birth four weeks ago! You look radiant!”

“Errr, are you crazy? I have bags under my eyes so large I can save on the 5p carrier charge and it will take me 100 years to shift this baby weight.”

This is an actual exchange that occurred between a friend and I last week.

As is this (a conversation I overheard while slurping an eggnog latte in a Woodbridge coffee shop):

“You dyed your hair. It looks gorgeous!”

“Are you blind? I think it’s gone a bit yellow. I look like my mum’s golden retriever. But check you out, Mrs! Have you lost weight?”

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“God no! I’ve put on about 10 stone this Christmas. I can’t resist a mince pie. Did I hear you had got a promotion at work, by the way? Congratulations!”

“Pah! I will probably be fired before the week is out. I totally haven’t got a clue what I am doing!”

It sounds faintly ridiculous written here in black and white, doesn’t it? But this is really quite normal for women.

God forbid anyone should say “I love your dress” and you would answer with a simple “thanks”.

“Oh, this old thing? I found it in the back of the closet” is the usual comeback, which, I suppose, is an attempt to fend off attention, stifle embarrassment, or appear humble.

That or we think that anyone who pays us a compliment must be either lying, misguided, or feel sorry for us.

The “you’re so pretty,” “no, you’re so pretty” loop often plays out among circles of female friends.

Men, on the other hand, don’t have this issue.

“That was a superb presentation,” one chap will say to another in the workplace.

“Thanks, mate,” comes the reply. “The graphics were great, weren’t they?” End scene.

Between two women, it’s a different and far more complicated story.

We are programmed to reject praise and psychologists reckon it’s a habit we pick up as kids.

At school, girls start to see a sense of safety in being average – especially in their peer group. Get a compliment and suddenly you’re on a pedestal ? it separates you from the crowd.

Verbally accept the compliment? Well, get you! You must think you’re worthy of such a placement.

Attack the praise and neutralise it and you show humility and, most importantly, solidarity with the group.

After a while, this polite self-loathing becomes so deeply ingrained that our response becomes automatic.

This means we know how our conversations are meant to go.

You’re supposed to say “My hair looks awful today,” then the other person is supposed to say “No, your hair is great.”

It’s scripted. And, quite frankly, it’s rather boring.

Just as another example of showing dissatisfaction with oneself is – New Year’s resolutions.

This is when it is customary to make an internal list of everything that’s wrong with you, and publicly vow to better yourself.

It is when you make a promise to emerge from the chrysalis of the horrible, useless person you’ve only been pretending to be all these years.

Sadly, despite my long-running campaign against them, resolutions are still a thing.

And people all over the world will be striving to stick to them this week onwards.

Why? Well, firstly because we have a very human need to mark the passing of time, be it personally ? with birthdays and anniversaries ? or in a wider social and cultural context.

This year it was the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 bombings, for example.

It was 70 years since the end of the Second World War, 25 years since Nelson Mandela walked to freedom.

It also marked 30 years of EastEnders, a decade of marriage for Prince Charles and Camilla and 2,015 years (or thereabouts) since the birth of Christ.

This sort of notching provides an opportunity for individual and collective reflection and a chance to refine our goals for a new year.

Secondly, it’s about recognising there are things you are not happy with in your life – and pledging to do something constructive to change these.

This might explain why the most common resolutions are to lose weight and exercise more – both things I could do with attempting.

But after a year of abstaining due to pregnancy, I can’t see myself forgoing the leftover cheese and biscuits from NYE – or a nice glass of red wine.

And as for the workouts – I’m struggling as it is to get enough sleep and I can’t see how getting up and going for a run at a time of day so dark that it could quite easily be rebranded the middle of the night will leave me feeling invigorated.

January is the time of year known for tax returns and peak divorce rates.

If there is a month of the year when you most need a crutch, this is it.

As such, I am going to make a concerted effort to love myself more in 2016.And this will extend to accepting praise when it is lavished upon me.

Feel free to email me or tweet me with compliments on this, yet another excellent example of my writing.

I shall accept them all with gratitude.

Happy New Year!

@EllenWiddup See more from Ellen here