Good compliments are food for the soul. They satisfy our hunger for attention in a positive, healthy way and can be immensely sustaining. Mark Twain said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment” and I feel exactly the same.
Starved of compliments, we wilt and seek out anything we can find to keep us going, which is why some people end up so belligerent. Unable to elicit positive strokes (as compliments are known in Transactional Analysis), they decide any attention is better than no attention and do what they can to provoke negative strokes. A neglected child behaves badly in order to be noticed, and we adults are really no different.
The reason for the qualifier ‘good’ is that the compliment must be right for the recipient if it is to have a positive effect. In the same way as some food disagrees with us, we have adverse reactions to ‘bad’ compliments, whether intentionally backhanded or simply misjudged.
There are all sorts of reasons a compliment may go awry, but these are some of the common ones:
Weight of expectations. If you tell me I’m great at something, I may feel pressure to live up to your high opinion and be afraid you will think less of me if I fail.
Solution: I need to know your regard is unconditional. If I don’t seem pleased with your compliment about what I can do, try shifting your affirmation away from what I do to complimenting me on what/who I am.
I may not believe you. This may take one of two forms: 1) I may feel obliged to deflect or demur because my experience is that if I don’t the compliment will be retracted.
Solution: Gently challenge the deflection or demurral and encourage me to accept the compliment, assuring me you mean it and were not going to qualify or undermine it in any way.
2) My self-esteem may be so low that your compliment jars with my view of myself, making me feel insecure by shaking my outlook.
Solution: Patience! Keep on telling me what I need to hear and try not to mind my ungracious response. With enough time and support, I will come to hear you one day.
Your compliment may be misplaced. Being complimented on how sensible and reliable I am may not have the desired effect if what I long to be is fiery, adventurous, wild and unpredictable.
Solution: Think about what the recipient wants to hear, rather than what you would like to hear or what seems to you a trait that should be encouraged.
How to give a good compliment
The main ingredient in a good compliment is sincerity. An insincere compliment, whether over-protective or smarmy, will probably stick in the recipient’s throat. Telling me I’ve done well when any objective observer would acknowledge my performance was way under par will, at best, make me doubt your judgment in future. At worst, it’ll sound patronising – or even sarcastic – and compound my misery. Of course, don’t be brutal in your honesty but it’s possible (and much more effective) to be supportive without denying the manifest truth.
A good compliment is freely given, without strings attached. A compliment offered in order to get something back is a bad one, underhand and manipulative.
Although I think it can be nice to offer compliments to strangers if one feels moved to do so, the better you know the recipient the less risk there is of your getting it wrong.
If your well intentioned compliment is badly received, please remember it’s not a personal rebuff but a manifestation of the recipient’s issues and don’t be put off. Bearing in mind some of the stuff mentioned above, think about how you could approach it differently next time with this person and offer them a compliment they might more easily be able to accept and be pleased with. If the relationship allows, the best thing is probably to talk to the person about it and ask for guidance.
How to receive compliments
If someone’s line of complimenting is really not working for you, the most productive response is to find a tactful way of explaining how you feel, so they can get it right for you.
Even if it’s not exactly what you want to hear, if a compliment is sincere and kindly meant, I recommend you say thank you and accept it. Rejecting a compliment can be quite a slap in the face and it’s not fair to take your insecurities out on someone who is trying to help.
If you find yourself resisting compliments you’d like to accept, give some thought to why this is and find ways to handle it differently, to let the positive thoughts in and to allow the other person the satisfaction associated with giving something that’s gratefully received. If the people in your life are telling you you’re better than you think you are, it’s time to start listening to them.