By Amanda Jones
The best intentions can be fraught with disappointment.
We have all been paid compliments that make us laugh.
“You are the happiest person I know! You’re always smiling!”
“You’re gorgeous, smart, funny, and hard-working. You’ve got it all together!”
“How do you do it all?”
We tell ourselves that these compliments are lies. We tell ourselves: They’re just being nice. They don’t mean that. Our self-esteem can plummet from time to time: maybe because of a promotion you got passed up for, or a breakup, or the good ol’ quarter-/third-/mid-life crisis. When someone compliments us, they’re showing a small act of good will. Most of the time, these aren’t lies. As far as they can tell – you do have it all.
Think about the last person you said something like that to. Maybe it was your old college roommate who got that corner-office job downtown. Or your sister-in-law, juggling 3 kids with a full-time teaching job. They probably didn’t accept your compliment. They probably said something like “oh, it’s not as easy as it looks.”
Isn’t it frustrating when you’re met with that attitude? After all, it seems so easy, watching them float through life. Our own life feels so full of tension, stress, and pain.
But they’re right.
What very few of us realize is that chances are, your coworker’s balancing act is your perception, not something based in reality. When we have limited interaction with someone, we only have access to certain aspects of their life. They are struggling with something: because conflict is a natural part of existence. We often forget this, and are wrapped up in the fantasy: dreaming of a better life.
Scenario: Your friend tells you she just closed a huge deal at work.
Bad: “God – you’re beautiful, so talented in so many ways, and you somehow manage to maintain this gorgeous home and keep Tyler around. How do you do it all?!”
Better: “Congratulations on your presentation at work. I know you worked really hard on it. You and Tyler should go out to celebrate – you deserve it, beautiful!”
When someone hears this, they are probably thinking, “Oh, shit, they’re right. I have all of this balanced perfectly,” which is likely immediately followed by “I better not screw this up. Uh-oh. I am going to screw this up.”
Scenario 2: You’re shopping with your friend who is a few dress sizes smaller than you. She holds up a shirt and says “This would look great on you!”
Bad: “Ugh. God, no. I’d look hideous. I’m so fat. You’re like a little twig, everything looks great on you. You could be a model, seriously.”
Better: “Mm, I don’t think it would flatter my figure. I usually go for something a little different. I think you’d look great in it, though. Try it on!”
Body image issues are incredibly sensitive, especially among women. You never know someone’s thoughts or feelings about their own body, even if they’re a size 2 in impeccable shape.
Even worse? Putting yourself down. It doesn’t matter if your waist is 24 inches or 44 – mocking yourself is what’s really unattractive. (More on that later.)
You can’t win with bad compliments like these. They put a pressure on others to maintain an unrealistic image and expectation. They’re human, just like you.
While catching up with an old friend recently, I found myself talking ad nauseam about, well, myself. I stopped myself mid-sentence, and said the worn-out, “But enough about me- how about you?”
As I took a bite of my sandwich, she cocked her head to the side and smiled at me. “Your life is really interesting. Don’t sell it short.”
I froze, and the gears in my brain starting whirring. Wait how does she know I’m interesting… AM I interesting?!?! I don’t think I am, I mean- all I do is basically stare at a computer screen for anyone who doesn’t actually know what I’m doing… I mean yeah- I write things and I create things but it’s all crap anyway… God I really need to send my resume in to that place downtown or I’ll never break out of part-time retail merchandising…
I had to say something. I’d been sitting there staring at her, my mouth full of sandwich.
“Uh… ha. Thanks. I guess. It’s whatever. Your 20s aren’t meant to be successful I guess, but I’m doing ok.”
What?! What was I even trying to say?
Look – I’m known for not being great at receiving compliments. I wave a lot of them off. Or I blush and stare at my shoes before changing the conversation topic entirely.
But what I’m realizing this past year of my life: when someone takes time to tell you that you look great, or that they really liked the song you just put out, or that your apartment looks beautiful, they’re being gracious. They see something about you that they not only thought positive things about, but they decided to open their mouth and share those thoughts with you!
As I mentioned before, insecurity is really a turn-off. We hear it constantly from magazines, from relationship articles, our infinitely perky co-workers- you name it. But it’s true.
Imagine this- you’re at a bar waiting for some friends, having a drink by yourself, and that guy you’ve been eyeing at the coffee shop for 2 years comes up to you. You gulp down the rest of your vodka tonic as he says “hi, I don’t think we’ve met before, but I see you around. My name’s Ryan, what’s yours?” What are you going to say? Because “Uh hi, I’m Christine but I hate the way my boobs look in this dress tonight so don’t even bother, hot stuff,” is not a great first impression, obviously. You’d probably smile, introduce yourself back, and maybe even flirt a little.
If you’d be so receptive to a stranger approaching you (basically a compliment- they could have just sat alone in silence, too, but they wanted to talk to you), why would you shoot down kind words from a friend?
Rather than comparing ourselves to standards we idealize in our minds, maybe we ought to go a little easy on ourselves. No one “has it all.” This world we live in can be very ugly. But it’s small moments of joy that can keep us going. Truly kind words from one human to another could be more impactful than you know.
Cover photo: Erin Arledge
Inside photo: Shots By Tess