Last year, when I was in those parenting classes that we were hosting for the PTA, there was an entire week’s session solely designated for discussing how to praise children.
As weird as it sounds, the longer that I sat in the class, the more sense it started to make.
Children oftentimes grow up and never hear what feels like a genuine compliment. The actual intent of the person delivering the compliment doesn’t matter – it doesn’t feel genuine, and therefore they must begin efforts to thwart whatever praise comes in their direction.
Say little Mini-You comes into your bedroom with a sheet of paper, full of color. They’ve crayola’d an entire sheet of paper full of every color in the crayon box, so much so that you’re entirely certain that there’s no more crayons left. They’ve colored those crayons to dust.
Now. You proceed to compliment the little one. “Oh, your drawing is so awesome!”
“No, it’s not! It’s stupid!” flies out of the child’s mouth, and they move to toss the thing in the trash as they storm out of the room.
According to How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, and Listen so Kids Will Talk (my personal purchase link), a child might do one of four things with your compliment:
- The child might doubt your ability to give the compliment. (Think: “What does she know anyway?!”)
- The child might immediately deny their ability, finding it easier to focus on their failures than celebrate their achievements. (Think: “Yeah, well you should’ve seen it ten minutes ago. It was so bad!”)
- The child can consider the compliment a passive form of pressure. (Think: “But what will the next drawing look like? Will it be this good?”)
- The child will, instead, focus on their weaknesses instead of – as mentioned before – celebrating their achievements. (Think: “Awesome? Yeah, but I still can’t get my math done in time.”)
The book makes it clear – the response is natural. They don’t yet know what to do with the compliment, and because youth is a time where insecurities run rampant, it triggers anxiety that prevents them from being able to focus on the praise they’re getting.
Now, let me ask one simple question: raise your hand if you’ve done this as an adult, or if you’ve seen an adult do this with your own eyes.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen grown women fall into a compliment fest because neither one knew how to take a compliment, or how to deliver one, for that matter. Or – even worse – one person delivers a compliment to another simply because they’re hoping the other person will respond in kind with a compliment of their own. It’s fishing for compliments, with hyper-effective bait.
In a society that encourages insecurity in adults – all the more to profit off of you, my dear! – it is no surprise that people struggle with giving and receiving compliments. I can remember when I first started venturing out into old circles with old friends who were used to my old figure, and I was overwhelmed by the compliments. I felt like I spent a large majority of the night with my hand in the air, bent at the wrist, telling people “Oh, stop…” and trying to downplay what people were telling me (“Oh, even with these thighs?”) and going back and forth complimenting other women on even the most mundane parts of their outfits (“Oh, and I love how you matched your pink and green eyeshadow to your line jacket! Such a neo!”) because that’s how it goes.
…or so I thought.
As women, compliments also become a bit of a minefield. They’re dangled over our heads as a form of manipulation – how often do we cringe at compliments from strange men or men in work-centered environments because we presume they’ll be followed with a request for a date? How often do we think our friends are complimenting us to lull us into complacency, so that we’re not ‘competition’ for them? (“Oh, girl, you don’t need to change clothes! No one’s going to notice that your clothes don’t fit worth a quarter damn!”)
Basically, it gets exhausting. I’m tired just writing this.
If you’re wondering how to receive a compliment, though, the answer is quite simple: “Thank you,” with a smile, and maybe a “I really appreciate that!” tacked on the end. You owe nothing more than that, if you even feel like you owe that much.
There are some kinds of people who make this hard, though. Far too often, like I mentioned above, people fish for compliments by giving effusive praise to others. It results in disingenuous conversation, and makes the person come off as fake. And, if this person is fake, they should be avoided at all costs. Our friends, who we assume have ill intentions when they tell us that we’ll be fine in our too-tight jeans and neon pink crop top with the bright cherry red and blueberry-striped lipstick, probably shouldn’t be our friends if they actively give us bad advice and false encouragement just because they’re afraid we might ‘compete’ with them, whatever that means. Men*, who use compliments as bait to bed you, are predatory at worst and ill-mannered at best. At any rate, still should be avoided.
Why am I talking about this? Because self-esteem is a hard thing to develop, and living in and working with a changing body is a primo opportunity to be taken advantage of because of waning self-esteem. If, on the way to your coke bottle shape, you make a pit stop at “ruler-ville,” having someone compliment you on your body could affect how you see yourself or even endear you to that person in an unnecessary manner. Reminding yourself that you never owe more than a “thank you, I appreciate that!” keeps both you and them in check. Friendships and connections with others should be genuine, not based on whether they can build you up. (And please, rest assured, they realize that if they can build you up… they can also break you down, and do either as it suits their needs.)
It becomes a challenge because – for many reasons – you’ll find yourself being inundated with compliments, many of them backhanded. While I could talk about backhanded compliments all day, all I’ll tell you is this – what has worked best for me is to choose to not think about the motive behind why someone would make the backhanded statement, and simply still respond with a “Thank you.” Some people don’t realize they’re being rude, and other times they simply want to troll you to see how you respond. A “Thank you” protects your mental space while putting them in check. It’s a metaphorical, “Nah, not today, boo. Not ever, for that matter.”
What if your loved one is doing well with their journey, and you want to compliment them? Delivering a compliment, here, is also easy: Instead of saying, “Boy, you’re looking great lately!” get more specific. Describe what you’re seeing.
“Wow, I noticed you were running faster out there, lately! How are you doing it?”
“Oooh, I see that those lifts are getting easier for you! Congrats on going up in the weight!”
“You were rowing your a– off out there!”
“You’ve gone to the gym at lunch every day this week. You’re so dedicated!”
Notice that I’m not complimenting on a person’s body. I know that’s a tough one, because people work hard and want to receive compliments on their hard work, but body compliments are a minefield. They can feel invasive, unwarranted, and sometimes offensive. I remember being told, “Dang, girl, it looks like your muffin top is going away!” and thinking, “Going away? I still have a muffin top?”
When I wrote “Is it Okay to be Vain?” a while back, part of that was me realizing that the compliments others were giving me were getting to my head in a way that I was unfamiliar with, and I was calling it vanity. Sure, I have my vain moments, but did I really want to be so easily affected by the compliments of others, or did I want to be solid in my own view of myself? This required thought. Lots of it.
I realized that I needed to step away from other people’s compliments and focus on pleasing and praising myself, and the best way to do that was to respond with a genuine smile and a thank you, and leave it at that. You just can’t let the words of others affect you on your journey, be those words positive or negative. Your journey is for you, and you alone.
Because bodies are such an anxiety-riddled space for so many people, it’s very hard to avoid triggering anxiety in someone. If you’re noticing that the hard work they’re doing is paying off and they’re losing pounds, a simple “I can tell you’re working very hard lately, and your hard work is paying off!” should do the trick. If you’ve got an intimate relationship where you know that person well enough to know what sets them off and what doesn’t, then hey… do you. But otherwise, I’d avoid it like the plague if I could.
Something that can be a genuine source of praise shouldn’t be so thorny, but it’s important to protect your own self-esteem as well as do what you can to avoid pinching away at the self-esteem of someone else in a tough situation. In the end, you’ll be grateful you did.
Tell me – have you had a rough time with compliments? Have you
*I know that saying “men” ignores those of us who are in non-heterosexual relationships, and that’s mainly because those have been my experiences. As always, I’m always interested in differing experiences, too. Please don’t be discouraged from sharing!