By Angela Noel
August 10, 2017
Dragons, according to some myths, hoard gold and shiny things. They gather the stuff up into a big pile and sleep on it. They can’t spend it. They’re giant flying serpents for heaven’s sake. If they wanted something they could take it, no need for a wallet or coin purse. Why would a giant, powerful creature feel the need to find, store, and jealously guard shiny things it cannot ever use?
Then again, why do people hoard things like compliments? Why do humans find it so difficult at times to offer genuine praise or admiration? Or to accept it graciously when offered?Could dragons and humans suffer from the same affliction: protecting things we cannot possibly make use of because of some fear that without that thing we’ve lost our power?
The Art of Compliments
In an article in Psychology Today, The Art of the Compliment, the author, Hara Estroff Marano, describes why compliments are critical to a well-functioning society. Not only must we learn to give them, we must also learn to receive them. But this isn’t as simple as it may seem.
To give a genuine compliment several things must exist:
- Something praiseworthy has to happen
- Someone has to be aware of that praiseworthy thing
- The person that sees the praiseworthy thing has to feel good enough about him or herself that he or she can praise someone else without feeling “less than” him or herself.
- The person being praised has to feel good enough about him or herself that he or she doesn’t try to blunt the impact of the compliment by negating it, or minimizing it’s value.
- Words OUT LOUD (or in print) must be spoken.
Complicated? Yes, indeed. (And I’m totally leaving out timing and circumstances like seeing something awesome and you’re in a car and the other person is walking on the street. Pulling over to the side of the road to deliver an authentic compliment might just be weird in that case.)
Let’s clear the first point up right away. Praiseworthy things happen all the time. But, let’s not get carried away. A child correctly signing his or her name deserves praise. The typical adult doing the same thing, does not. A co-worker turning his or her assignment in on time might be normal course of business. But a co-worker turning a particularly difficult assignment in on time, under budget, and while battling a nasty case of food poisoning, deserves at least a nod, if not a happy hour in his or her honor. In other words, praiseworthiness is relative to the situation and the person in it.
Now let’s tackle the second point.”Compliments,” Estroff Marano says,”derive from taking notice of praiseworthy situations and efforts. So they are a mark of awareness and consciousness. We need to cultivate awareness of the good developments that are all around us.” When you see something, say something. But cultivate the ability to see it by looking for the good.
Simple enough, right? Two down. Numbers three and four, however, might need a little more context.
The Really Hard Parts
Brené Brown speaks extensively about her research on shame and vulnerability. Thirty million people and counting know this. Though she doesn’t directly make the connection between complimenting others and feelings of vulnerability, the inference is clear. If we don’t feel good enough, loved enough, WHOLE enough, we can’t truly see the goodness in others. (Or ONLY see it in others and never in ourselves.) But her research tells us people who do feel worthy are different. She says in her TED talk, ” . . . these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because, as it turns out,we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly.”
To see others clearly, we must see ourselves clearly–and that means accepting, even loving, our own imperfections. And, if we can see our imperfections without flinching, we can also see and affirm our own strengths without worrying we might appear arrogant or full of ourselves. Treating ourselves with objective kindness, means we can now do the same for others.
In the same vein, genuine compliments come without thought of return. They do not demand reciprocation, or come with strings attached. They are, what Estroff Marano calls, “gifts of love.” I have given compliments to others in the past that came not from a place of wholeness, but from a place of envy. What sounded like praise, was really a complaint or lament of my lack of something. Here’s an example–a painful, personal one.
Once, about twenty years ago, a friend of mine wrote a beautiful poem. She was invited to perform it live at a poetry slam.
Here’s what I said at the time: “That’s really amazing! So cool, you deserve it. I wish I could be there.”
Here’s what I meant: “I can’t believe they thought that was amazing. You got lucky. I wish it was me doing that.”
I didn’t talk to her much after that. She deserved my genuine support and love, not my jealousy. I couldn’t give it to her, because I didn’t have enough for myself.
In the years since this time I’ve learned a great deal. One of the most important lessons arrived in my head while driving to meet a friend for a drink some twelve years ago. Here’s what I realized: It costs me absolutely nothing to love someone else and to think they’re wonderful. I do not fade because they shine. Life is not a zero sum game; we don’t win because someone else loses. And we don’t lose when someone else wins.
In some situations, of course, winners and losers exist. Only one person wins first place in a swim meet, for example. And only one person from the pool of candidates can get the job. But there are other jobs and other races. We can all win if we pick the right game. Seeing praiseworthy efforts and calling attention to them doesn’t diminish our own praiseworthy efforts. No giant score card exists in the sky that tallies up who got the most praise, or who won the most awards.
Similarly, I cannot control the praise I receive for my contribution. I can, however, control how I value and praise others. So, I’m gonna. I can spend this currency freely. No limit exists for the number of good things I see or compliments I offer. But–some people, just like the mythical dragon, think differently.
A former co-worker, who I happen to like a lot, once said to me, “Angela, your compliments are, you know, maybe less valuable, because I know you think other people are great too.” This comment had me dizzy for a few weeks. Much like The Big Bang of Self-Awareness, I wanted to be open to the possibility she could be right. Were my compliments less valuable because I offered them more freely?
In the end, after thinking about this, and talking with some wise people, I concluded: The world is full to bursting with amazing wonders. We’ve all seen a sunset but that doesn’t stop us from pausing on an evening walk and marveling at the colors lighting up the sky as threads of clouds skitter past. Each of us has seen a flower, and a child smile. Unique and perfect moments abound. Praising the contribution of an individual in a specific and meaningful way bears little resemblance to saying “good job” like you’re handing out sticks of gum. As I mulled over this person’s comment I considered whether or not I delivered authentic and specific praise. I decided I did, and I do.
Though I believe she had a scarcity mindset at work at that moment, I think her point has some merit. Blanket compliments are transactional and a poor substitute for the real thing.
The problem is brain time and energy consumption. Our brains are built on efficiency. Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow explores this concept in great detail. We use the minimum amount of energy needed to achieve any one outcome. But that’s when we’re on auto-pilot.
We can control, most of the time anyway, when we use what system in our brains to make decisions. For example, instead of looking at someone and judging them on their appearance, my brain is capable of discarding my stereotypes and consciously re-evaluating my snap judgment to come up with a better one. The problem is, this takes time and energy. So we don’t do it all the time for the same reasons we don’t eat salad and drink green smoothies all the time. First, it’s not always practical and second it’s much harder than grabbing a Big Mac when we’re in a hurry and our tummies are rumbling. The point is, we have the ability to slow down, notice things, and offer sincere and specific compliments to others. But sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to do it. Or we just plain choose not to.
We can also slow down and accept compliments graciously. It’s embarrassing sometimes to both give and receive compliments. I received a compliment recently and had a hard time maintaining eye contact with the giver. I wanted to push the nice words away like refusing a second helping of carrot cake (“No, I couldn’t possibly . . .”). But I didn’t. I allowed her to say something nice about me and I said thank you. My point: Being embarrassed or feeling goofy when someone compliments me is a small price to pay for the very real, very beneficial effects of knowing I’m valued, and my work is valued by amazing people.
So, that just leaves the OUT LOUD part. Blurt it out. Say what’s in your heart. Write it down in a card or a comment on a blog or a social media post. Tell people what they mean to you and how they changed you. Just do it.
I read a book in my twenties by Richard Bach called The Bridge Across Forever. Bach was a pilot and he took his girlfriend, Leslie, up in his airplane. He told her that she should point out any other aircraft she sees while they flew, even if she knows he sees it, too. For one reason or another, that idea struck me as being more than just about safety in flying. Even if I think someone already knows, or should know, how much I value him or her, I shouldn’t assume. Maybe they do know, but maybe they’re having a bad day filled with self-doubt. Maybe they need to hear it again. Sure, I ate breakfast yesterday, but I still need to eat it again today.
However, we all know there are limits. Complimenting my husband for emptying the dishwasher every day will sound condescending, even if I’m truly grateful for the effort. Or complimenting someone because somewhere along the way we learned that flattery makes another person feel good, and we need something from that person so we compliment them not because we genuinely want to but because we need them to think we do is also terrible. Don’t do that. Duh.
But, do say it when you feel it. Open the flood gates and let it happen. Give yourself permission to feel good about recognizing the gifts others offer, and telling them so.
We must give away our treasures–those positive things we see and sit on today. They buy us nothing locked up in the mountains of our minds. We are already powerful, capable of creating whatever we need in our lives. We have no need to hoard these shiny things. But we can use a kinder world filled with authentic gratitude and thoughtfulness; where energy is spent on creating goodwill and not judgments.
We can do it.
Your turn: How do you feel about compliments? What tips do you have for others on how to spread more love and appreciation?
Photo Credit: The people pictures are all from Unsplash where credit isn’t required, but is appreciated. Click on the pics to see other photos from these great artists.
The gorgeous dragon art is by Bambi Khan. She sells these prints here. Just because dragons aren’t good role models doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful to hang on your wall.