In the past few weeks, I’ve received some compliments that, while I’m sure were meant well, called for some self-care and forgiveness.
On the other side of forgiving the compliment giver as well as myself for my reaction, I’ve decided to bring the truth about “cruel compliments” out into the public eye. This is something I see happening at least once a day when I’m out in the community. Most people aren’t aware of doing it, and it hurts us all more than we realize.
I believe this is the key to communicating to people in a way that uplifts them instead of oppressing them. I hope this article will make you a better mother, father, friend, lover, daughter, son, niece, and employer—all just by changing the way you compliment. After all, a compliment, in terms of influencing human behaviour, is much more powerful and long-lasting than a criticism or an insult.
Here are three kinds of common cruel compliments which, as opposed to doing something wonderful for the person, actually suppress their freedom, authenticity, and self-love.
If you’re currently using any of the compliments below—forgive yourself first, and then kindly consider stopping and using the alternatives. It will forge a better world for us all.
Cruel Compliment #1: “I love your makeup/clothes/watch”
A twist on this one I received twice last week was, “I liked you so much better with black hair.” What they essentially communicated to me was, “I liked you better fake.”
By giving these kinds of compliments, you’re praising the mask. You’re feeding the ego. You’re telling a person, in shorter words, “What I see as being valuable about you is this bunch of crushed rocks on your face, these compressed garments on your skin, that assembled metal on your wrist. That is what I value about you.”
So what can you say instead?
Tell people how they make you feel. Tell them what they’re good at. Tell them how beautiful their smile is. Tell them what you appreciate about them.
Compliment people on their choices, their passions, their values. If you compliment their body, make sure it’s something about the body that won’t degrade and fade over time. Compliment their smile, their eyes, their natural hair.
There is so much power in telling a person that you notice who they really are and even more power in telling them it’s beautiful. Just one of these compliments alone can turn a human life around. Do it and you’ll see. Genuine complimenting is a revolutionary act.
Of course, to surpass this sort of complimenting, we must be able to see ourselves beyond the mask as well. We must be able to see beyond the outer shell into the beautiful, authentic being within. The path from cruel to genuine compliments must begin within.
Cruel Compliment #2: “You’re so much better than Jake/Cathy/your mother”
A crueler sister of this one is, “Wow, you’re almost as good as Peter.”
These sorts of compliments are also ego-feeders. They let a person know that, in having compared them with someone else, you think they’re on top. It might elate the person for a moment, feeling like they’re superior somehow, but that elation does not last.
All that these sorts of compliments do is introduce a competitive thought process into the person’s mind. Now, they are aware of being “better than” or “less than.” Now, they want to compete.
This is especially dangerous when done to children. It happened to me. I was told I was smarter than everyone. I was told how high my IQ was. And so, I spent my time in the school system proving myself to everyone, always wary that I could lose my place at the top of the pyramid at any moment. Even the way I was measured—percentile—is inherently competitive and comparative. I compared myself for a long time, becoming devastated when I couldn’t be better than others and feeling the need to either diminish them or elevate myself. As you can imagine, this did not win me many friends. It made me unbearable.
A much kinder compliment is to tell a person that their current behaviour or skill level is superior to that of the past. Tell them you can see the difference in their consistent efforts at cooking. Tell them you can really see a difference in their mood since they took up yoga.
Notice how the person is improving, growing, evolving, and comment on that. Then, you are paying a genuine honour to their persistent efforts, rather than placing them into a dog-eat-dog competitive race for their own self-respect.
Cruel Compliment #3: You’re So Talented
Any musicians or artists out there will know, immediately, what I mean. As will any skilled professionals, passionate hobbyists, entrepreneurs, and risk-takers.
When you suggest that something is a matter of talent, you’re presuming the person was born with it. To someone who practices for hours each day to master their skill, this is a slap in the face. We’re not born with it—we work on it. We practice it. We work hard for it.
When you say something like, “Wow, I can tell you’ve been practicing” or even “Wow, you’re so good at that”—the compliment is complete within itself. It is genuine and it pays homage to the real culprit: work ethic.
Why We Give Cruel Compliments and How To Stop
The reason we compliment each other like this isn’t because we want to be cruel. Most of the time, it’s because we deny ourselves genuine compliments as well. Let this awareness be your guide for forgiving yourself and forgiving others for any pain caused or incurred from cruel compliments.
Forgive people who give you cruel compliments. Realize that they see themselves in a limited breadth, and they are simply projecting that onto you. There is nothing personal in their comment, except that it reflects their personal relationship with themselves. Forgive them and wish them well. Communicate to them compassionately and clearly. They probably have no idea they’re doing it. Then, if you can, pay them a genuine compliment.
Forgive yourself for giving cruel compliments in the past or present. Realize that you were doing the best you could. There is no need to feel bad or guilty. Choose, instead, to feel responsible for changing this pattern in your life.
Forgive yourself, also, if you react to others’ cruel compliments, even though you know why it happens. Each cruel compliment is like a whiff of poison. It’s alright to experience those emotions—just don’t become attached to them or repress them. Accept them, feel them, and let them go.
Dedicate yourself to paying genuine compliments to the authentic self. Do this to yourself. Do it to others. Look beyond the shell and see the interconnected, powerful, beautiful being underneath.
In a society where everyone is hiding, terrified of being themselves, the kindest thing you can do is notice that secret self, hiding behind the curtain, and invite it on stage with a warm smile.
You have the power to change these patterns which, in turn, have the power to change the world.
You can start right now! Whom will you pay a genuine compliment to today? Share in the comments below.
If you’ve ever received a loving compliment that stuck in your head, share that with us too. Then we can have some ideas for what we can bring to our own human interactions.
(Photo by hobvias sudoneighm)