Non-appearance-related compliments

Our culture focuses so much on appearance that it can seem like a fact of life. For some decades now, thinness has been considered the ideal for how people should look. Lighter skin tones are still quite honestly considered a basic standard, but not skin that’s very pale: a nice “healthy” tan is desirable. Clear skin is best. Straight hair is currently “in.”

We focus so much on appearance that it can be difficult even to give someone a compliment that’s not looks-based. Take a look at your social media feed and you’ll see what I mean. Anytime someone posts a new selfie or changes their profile picture, there’s a barrage of comments all saying “you look great!” “beautiful!” “haven’t changed a bit!” That’s so common, in fact, that Facebook makes “beautiful” and “gorgeous” automatic reactions on stories. You don’t even have to type it! Just click on the words to react.

But doesn’t the ubiquity of those words ever make you want something different? Do they ever feel a little insincere? Do you want to stand out from the crowd by receiving or giving a compliment/reaction that isn’t the same as usual or that at the very least captures more of who you or someone else is than how your/their face or body looks?

It’s time to up the compliment game. First, challenge yourself to stop commenting on others’ appearances, or at least to make it just a 1 in 10 occurrence. Second, dig deep. If you are reacting to someone’s photo on Facebook or Instagram, for example, you are likely friends. You know something about them and like them (if not, you may want to consider paring down your “friends” list). What are qualities you treasure? My friends are, among them, kind, strong, courageous, faithful, wise, well-read, knowledgeable, patient, generous, loving, outgoing, thoughtful, fun, hilarious, clever, persevering and talented. And that’s just a few of their admirable qualities. They’re great parents, hard workers, experienced in all kinds of work and non-work capacities, dedicated volunteers. In short, they’re people I adore.

I like to say these kinds of things:

  • “I love seeing that big, friendly grin.”
  • “You always do such fun activities with your kids.
  • “The way your eyes light up makes me smile.”
  • “Your style is always so fabulous and reflects you so well.”
  • “Seeing your face reminds me how good it feels to be around you.”
  • “Your goodness just radiates from your face.”
  • “I love the twinkles in your eyes.”
  • “You have such great taste in clothes.”
  • “I’m so blessed to know you.”
  • “Your smile is 100 watts of happiness.”
  • “I admire so much how caring you are.”
  • “I can see that fun mischievousness I like so much reflected in this photo.”

It’s even possible to compliment people you don’t know, out in the real world. You can compliment a harried mom in the supermarket on how kind and patient she is being with her toddler. You can tell someone their scarf is gorgeous or the color of their shirt is stunning. You can compliment a stranger on their smile.

Just think how much you can lift someone’s day by taking a minute (or a few) to figure out a different way of commenting besides saying how beautiful or gorgeous or thin or young they look. Pick a compliment with staying power: it sticks because it’s different, and it sticks because it reflects something about them that is more real and long-lasting than what’s on the surface. Go and have some fun crafting your own. (Or you can use some of my ideas; it’s OK.)

Share some of yours with me, too, if you like.

Compliments that last forever

So I’ve written occasionally about beauty and self-image, but I haven’t said much about how we compliment each other. Have you noticed that most of the time we tend to compliment others on how they look in some way? “You’ve lost weight! Lookin’ good!” “Love that new outfit.” “Nice new hairdo.” “You look pretty today.”

I have to admit, of course I love receiving these kinds of compliments. Yes, I do like feeling that I look good. And I think compliments are pretty much always a good thing. But what happens when we’ve gained weight or we’re having a bad hair day? Are we going to automatically remember the times we were told positive things when we were thinner or fresh from the hairstylist? (and then think poorly about ourselves right now in comparison?) Just something to consider.

I was reminded twice recently just how wonderful it is to be complimented on attributes that will last. One, I spent a morning editing, which is my only paid job. And honestly, it’s not work for which one gets a lot of high-fives. Writing is more visible; editing, though, is basically a way to ensure someone else’s writing either gets noticed or doesn’t get attention in a bad way (“you misspelled my name?!” or “I’m going to sue you for libel!”). So as proud as I am of my editing work, it’s largely thankless and something about which I can only congratulate myself.

But during the course of this busy morning of work, I fixed a mistake, and the writer was appreciative. That writer either brought the important catch to a publishing editor’s attention, or that editor saw it in the notes on the story. Either way, that editor contacted my boss and said how much she appreciated my good work. My boss passed it along to the other editors with whom I work, so we all can know that sometimes, our hard work does get noticed. And bam! I’d gotten appreciation. Actual praise for the work I do regularly. Woot!

The other compliment recently that really meant something to me came from someone I’d never met before. I was doing volunteer work at the Fresno temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We Mormons go to church services on Sundays in our local meetinghouses/chapels/church buildings (we refer to them variously as such). But our temples are extra-special places, where we learn and make covenants with God and then can provide those same opportunities for our ancestors who have passed on. They’re particularly quiet, holy, and sacred, and going there to do work for our ancestors is such a blessing. Early one Saturday morning, I spent an hour there, working in close proximity to a few other women I didn’t know but drinking in the peace that exists there. In the course of our time together, I felt particularly warmed by the kindness of the women who were volunteering there with me. They smiled beatifically (absolutely true!) and were thoughtful and helpful. One told me that she loved how my eyes danced, among a few other observations about how I came across as a person.

Now that was a compliment to remember. Lately, I might have been feeling incredibly stressed and exhausted and worn down by all kinds of things that have been going on in my life, and I might have been feeling bad about my weight (I admit the stress has led me to eat very poorly, a habit I’ve been trying to break but have been not terribly successful in fighting recently). I was wearing no makeup; my hair hadn’t been fixed for the day other than receiving a quick brushing. I wasn’t even wearing anything nice. But this compassionate lady told me that she appreciated my soul, my spirit: who I am inside. And I thought, “You know, it doesn’t matter today how I look. Because who I am is shining out through my eyes and my face. And somebody noticed.” If I stay the kind of person I want to be (well, hopefully, become better), my eyes will always dance. I will always smile genuinely and with warmth and friendliness. Even when I’m 90 and my body looks very different and my face is wrinkled, my eyes and my smile will be the same.

Yes, I like it when people tell me I look pretty. But when someone compliments ME, who I AM, it really sticks with me and warms me from the inside out; it has staying power. If all of us just made more efforts to recognize the best qualities — the forever, enduring ones — of those around us, the world would be a nicer place. And maybe, just maybe, we could be less concerned about how our outer “shellves” look.

My starfish friends

Thanks to my girls, I’m pretty familiar with the tween movie “Aquamarine,” about a teen mermaid who gets some time out of the water. In one scene, she introduces her new girlfriends on land to the earrings she wears, small starfish that “compliment her.” And no, she doesn’t mean “complement her.” She says, “They literally give me compliments. They talk to me. Starfish are notorious suck-ups. They love to give me compliments.” She picks out a few great specimens from the sea and proceeds to attach them to her earlobes and those of her friends. The starfish latch on and very pleasingly spout many sweet sayings into the girls’ ears. “Aquamarine is soooo lovely. She is awesome. And she is so smart, yes, like tuna.”

I’ve often thought it would be perfectly wonderful to have my own set of starfish earrings. Every woman, especially busy, harried mothers, needs that kind of encouragement on a very regular basis. Some men are good at being starfish for their wives or girlfriends; many are not. This doesn’t mean that women don’t need to hear good things to buoy them up through their busy days.

Me, I like to hear that I’m still pretty, though I’m older and thicker around the waist. I like to hear that I’m smart and talented and capable. I especially need to hear that I’m doing OK, that my efforts for my family and my community and my own interests aren’t unappreciated or just going to waste. I want to know that I’m needed, that what I do matters, that my choices have been good ones, even though sometimes the outcomes haven’t been what I’d anticipated. I need those encouraging words like … well, like a fish needs water.

I have some friends who are particularly great starfish. They give me that encouragement, those sincere words of appreciation and caring that keep me going. I just wish that I could carry those wonderful friends around with me in my pocket or attached to my earlobes! But I’ll take what I can get. Their love and support keep me breathing, keep me moving on, keep me strong enough, just barely, to persevere through busy and frustrating days and weeks. I salute you, my dear starfish. You are my lifeblood. I hope I can be as useful and loving a starfish to you as you have been to me.