The Next Time Someone Compliments You, Ask Why

One step to overcome impostor syndrome

Photo: Charlotte May/Pexels

It happens to me more than I’d like: I finally finish a big, complicated story, or have an A+ parenting day where everyone’s happy and fed and no one has any meltdowns — and I’m so focused on the things I did wrong that I can’t even let myself enjoy the win. Well-meaning compliments from my husband or a close friend don’t help much, either, mostly because I don’t believe them. They have to say that, I think. They’re just being nice.

That’s just how impostor syndrome works: No matter how many accolades or compliments you collect, you still don’t feel like you measure up. But it turns out one of the best ways to combat that feeling is to focus less on just accepting a kind word, and more on actually internalizing it.

I recently did some research for another article on impostor feelings, and this was one of the biggest takeaways from my conversations with 10 different psychologists: If you want to feel more confident in who you are and what you’ve done, stop dismissing people’s compliments and start fixating on them.

That could be as easy as keeping track of all the nice things people say to you, and looking at them when you need a boost. (I love the writer Lauren Sieben’s brilliant suggestion to create a Good Shit board.) For me, it helps to dig a little deeper when someone tells me something nice about myself, starting with one simple question: Why?

Here’s why it works. For people who feel like frauds, self-perception isn’t always reliable. Hell, I’d still think I was mediocre even if I won a Pulitzer. But tapping into another person’s view of you — investigating why, exactly, someone thinks you’re a great friend or parent or colleague — can provide the facts you need to feel more confident in yourself and your abilities.

If this feels weird, keep in mind the goal isn’t to get people to wax poetic about how amazing you are. (Those of us with impostor syndrome would never.) Rather, investigating compliments is about seeing yourself like others do — aligning your thoughts with reality.

Focus on praise that’s identity-focused — stuff that feels connected to who you are as a person. If someone stops you on the street to gush about your outfit, for example, a quick “thank you” will suffice. But if, say, a co-worker texts you about how great your presentation was, go for it! Say thanks, then ask for more details. A few ideas:

  • What was the part that seemed to resonate most?
  • Do you have more specific feedback?
  • How did it affect you?

For compliments more rooted in being than doing, you may want to take a different approach. Say someone tells you how much they value your friendship. First, say thanks or reciprocate appropriately, then ask:

  • Can I ask what prompted you to say that?
  • Do you have a specific memory or example?
  • Could you share some of your favorite things about our friendship?

It’ll still feel awkward, for sure, to put yourself on the line. Complimenting the other person first or coming clean about why you’re asking can help ease that. Just remember: The other person put themselves out there by opting to praise you in the first place. By the end of the conversation, they’ll become a more precise communicator — and you’ll have some much-needed hard evidence about why you’re great at something that matters to you.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.