The lost magic of compliments

Ours is a competitive culture. Somehow the vast majority of people have come to believe in hierarchies so much, that a compliment is automatically considered to be an acknowledgment of superiority. And then there are all these unhealthy inhibitions around them.

When someone does something you admire, before you open your mouth, you are already calculating if this person is “worthy” of your praise. Even if you feel it. If the driver’s wife said something profound, will you be inflating her ego by acknowledging that you learned from it? If someone you meet is unbelievably handsome, will you be giving an unintended “green signal” if you tell him so?

Part of this hesitation is also because we have very rigid thinking. A momentary statement is usually taken as a lifetime declaration. If you love someone in the moment, and say it, you are often expected to love everything that creep does. Forever, unless you disown your original appreciation. No good deed goes unpunished.

That is some heavy commitment over a moment’s dazzle. Better keep shut.

Of course, compliments are easy with those we already accept as “superior” and “respect”. They are even okay with “inferiors” – because we are such patronizing shits. Our seams of insecurity become visible with those we call “equals”.

The other side of this mess is that living in a world with such frameworks and unspoken protocols, we don’t enjoy compliments. Someone compliments, and we quickly evaluate if that person means it, and there are very few situations where we are able to take that compliment and enjoy it.

And guess what? Throwing heartfelt words, particularly compliments, is a relationship killer. Someone acknowledges something nice about you, and you don’t believe it! What? You don’t think they are capable of understanding you correctly? Or are their compliments not worthy of being treasured?

I remember an incident when I was in a Human Processes lab. I had these huge issues with accepting compliments. Always looking for hidden intentions – particularly from men. I didn’t realize it, but the facilitator caught it. And at some point, he looked at me, and flooded me with praise, compliments. Voice, hair, eyes, figure, personality…. the works. He just wouldn’t stop!

I was like a dog looking at the car about to run it over. By the time he stopped, I was too speechless to get into my canned dismissals. And then he asked me how it felt. How it felt that here he was, a man, appreciating so many things about me, and he meant every word. I….. liked it. But there was this other thing. It was “immodest” to like being praised by a man. I didn’t even know I thought this shit till it hit me in my face in that moment. These conditionings run deep.

After a loooooong time, I was able to admit the simple truth – I liked it. And he interrupted my “but” that I was following it up with, and told me to just shut up and feel what I was feeling rather than running from it.

And it felt great. It felt so absolutely fantastic, that I had a silly grin on my face all day! I felt beautiful. I felt almost euphoric that my caring nature, intelligence, and all the things I value about me were being noticed. I was liked for who I was!!!

It might sound silly to read it in so many words, but observing people and their response to compliments has been a muse for a long time now. I find that most people do the following on receiving compliments:

  • Say a quick thank you and change the subject.
  • Look away and change the subject
  • Make explanations about how “it is nothing” – good looks are genetic, etc.

And I can say with certainty that those who have rich relationships, who attract people left, right and center, who make people WANT to be with them… are those who are able to hold the gaze, let the pleasure of the compliment be visible and share what it does to them to receive it with honesty.

And I don’t mean developing another canned response of a grin and good words, but really experiencing the words you receive, and letting however they impact you be visible. This might mean feeling troubled and sad on receiving a declaration of love you simply don’t reciprocate or it might be a reluctant smile breaking free of a troubled mood. Whatever it is, if you are authentic, it evokes authenticity in the other.

So my invitation to you is to try this.

The next time someone does something nice, share its impact on you with the person.

The next time someone says something nice about you, and you doubt, believe it. If you are skeptical, give it theĀ benefitĀ of the doubt.

Accept without making it an eternal fact, that in this moment, you are treasured…. and watch your life fill with joy.