Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

What Do You Mean, I Look Pretty Today?

What's in a compliment?

April* was furious with her boyfriend. “He told me I looked pretty this morning. It ruined my day!”

What?

You probably know what it’s like to get a compliment that should make you feel better but actually makes you feel bad. Maybe it doesn’t feel genuine or it feels like a back-handed criticism. When this happens, does your reaction reflect your own insecurities and anxieties or is it an accurate reading of an underlying message?

Here’s a really common example. Say you’ve lost a lot of weight and someone says, “You look fabulous! Did you lose weight?”

You might feel thrilled by the evidence that your hard work has paid off and people are noticing. Or you might feel that it’s a purposeful reminder that you did not look good before. You might also resent being under the scrutiny of others – your weight and your appearance is your own business and no one else’s, right? And why do you have to have lost weight to look good? Even worse, you may have no idea why you don’t like compliments, but as soon as you get one, you go off your diet.

 These reactions capture an important feature of giving and taking compliments: they are a lot more complicated than they might seem. Teasing out some of these hidden meanings can make it easier to give compliments that will be accepted and to take in genuine compliments even when they’re given awkwardly.

 Low self-esteem: My PT colleague Guy Winch discusses this important reason that some people have difficulty. If you feel badly about yourself, it is almost impossible to take in something good that someone says about you. You don’t believe it, so how can they?

Competitive feelings: Are you afraid of competing or of being seen as competitive? Do you feel that the person giving you a compliment is competing with you? Or thinks that you’re competing with them? All of these very common worries can make it hard to hear and take in a compliment. And interestingly, worries about these same things can make it hard to give a compliment that sounds sincere, even when you really mean what you’re saying.

Anxiety about what others think about you: Numerous authors have looked at the very common issue of gaining weight (or doing something else to destroy your good feelings and good work) as a result of getting a compliment. In the classic book Fat is a Feminist Issue Susie Orback says that we equate our bodies with our very essence. When you get a compliment that seems to say that only the pretty parts of you are acceptable and admirable – something you might actually believe yourself – you become distressed. You might secretly say to yourself, “But what about the other parts. Are they so bad that they have to be hidden forever?” And you may reject the compliment, the person giving it, and the behaviors that have led you to it.

Fears of intrusion: Mary Elizabeth* is a beautiful young woman who carefully selects her clothes everyday. She has elegant taste and an eye for bargains that fit her beautifully and make her look like she has spent a fortune on her wardrobe. But she becomes enraged anytime someone looks at her or compliments her. Her clothes are for her, she says, not for anyone else. Her fear is that she will be taken over by someone else’s taste or judgment. “What if they don’t like something that I really love. Should I stop wearing it just because they don’t like it?” She doesn’t believe that she should, but she is afraid that she will be influenced by their comments.

Even a lack of compliments can be a problem. Mary Elizabeth says that if she gets used to compliments, and then someone doesn’t say something about a particular outfit, it will change her feelings about it.

Here’s the deal: any compliment can have many different meanings. But if someone goes to the trouble of giving you a compliment, why not take it at face value? They have gone to the effort to communicate something to you. Even if you feel that it is not valid, or that it has a competitive component, or that it might influence how you feel about yourself…why not do as my mother used to instruct me when I got a compliment as a child: Just smile, say, “thank you so much,” and let it go.  If you keep turning it over in your head, or feeling that your day has been ruined by either a  compliment or a lack of a compliment, remind yourself that you’re responding to some of the underlying meanings that a compliment can have, not necessarily to the real intended meaning.

And if you want to give a compliment, you can know that there are many ways it can or will be taken. But if it’s genuine, even if it is rejected, it reflects your good will and effort to give someone else a gift. If they can’t take it in, you can try to find other ways to give compliments to that person in the future. But it doesn’t mean that you’ve done something bad. And remember this: you can’t always know it, but even when someone turns away from your nice words, they actually (and sometimes secretly) enjoy it later.   

What do you think? I'd love to hear about your experiences giving and getting compliments!

*all names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

Teaser image: istock 

F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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