Understanding compliments

Everyone likes a compliment. I know I do.

Like oil in an engine, praise eases the parts, and just for a moment, makes life seem easier, kinder, more hopeful.

Generalised ‘card industry’ compliments such as ‘You’re amazing’ are a bit cheap and meaningless and dissolve quickly.

But specific compliments, (which cost the giver more) such as ‘I thought you defused that situation brilliantly, both firm and kind’ – these are both encouraging and stepping stones for further growth.

Of course, a lot of personal compliments focus on temporary qualities such as beauty or athletic ability or organisational ability or intelligence, even.

These are temporary qualities, however, and not fundamental to me; in twenty years, I might have none of them.

But more pressingly, they are seldom qualities we have actually earned. They were given to us.

(Though yes, someone might compliment us on what we have done with them – again, specific praise.)

The relationship between compliments and resilience is an interesting one – and a growing issue in schools at present, where some now feel it is better to compliment effort above achievement.


If a child is praised for scoring twenty out of twenty in a maths test when it is very easy for them, they don’t grow…it’s an insipid emotional transaction.

It’s like praising me for being a man…when I haven’t done a great deal to make it so.

And later in life, when more difficult tests come along, these students have no inner resources.

They have been praised again and again for what is easy; but have not developed the inner resources for when life is difficult…when effort and struggle will be demanded.

Praising effort over achievement helps people to grow, prepares people for overcoming difficulty.

It is easy to thrive at school with careless compliment and struggle with life thereafter. The one who scored four out of twenty in the maths tests may be much better equipped for life, if they have found support in their struggles.

And below the temporary qualities which often garner praise in the world lies our truer nature, our substantial self, our divine nature.

This nature is eternal and can neither be inflated by compliment or deflated by criticism.

But it can be nurtured and create a climate both in us and around us.

My sense is that the best compliments are founded on an appreciation of this; an noticed in an appreciation of how a person made you feel.

This is the big one.

Beyond their words and their actions is how someone’s being makes you feel. Do they make you feel anxious or understood? Inadequate – or safe? Fearful – or loved? Bad – or good? Confused – or free? Restless – or joyful?

If you sense life in their presence, and say so, then that is a compliment of infinite value.

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