Ever just go up to perfect strangers and tell them they’re beautiful? No? Challenge Accepted!

There is a lot in the media these days about how Facebook and twitter have changed our (social) lives forever. Unfortunately, most of the articles I see are based on their negative impact.  It is relatively easy to identify the ways in which social media cheapens and perverts human relationships. Describing one’s character and opinions in under 140 characters certainly does much to objectify and commodify human experience. The level of deception and misrepresentation on these platforms is also astronomically high and most status updates and comment threads lack substance. Finding something genuine can feel like an elusive quest as one’s eyes dart around over sexual innuendo, bad jokes and political apathy disguised in social commentary rants.

Despite all these ways to critique social media, I have taken it upon myself to find some redeeming facet of Facebook/twitter culture to use as a constructive catalyst for change. Surely there must be something that Facebook teaches us about human nature that we can use to manifest great ideals, practices and relationships? Well, I searched long and hard and this is what I came up with.

Be it pictures of cats, YouTube clips of “what I’m listening to right now”, pseudo-political rants or carefully selected photos, Facebook is a platform for self-expression. Granted, most of these are recycled through the internet so many times over that any individuality or idiosyncratic nuance is most likely eradicated. BUT the point is users of Facebook INTEND to express themselves via the posting or re-posting of various material on their and friends’ timelines. So why is this? Well, people inherently want to be seen and to be acknowledged by others.

The self-psychologists such as Kohut have spent their entire academic lives mapping self-development and this is ultimately what they say. In order to develop into a self – a coherent and whole human being – you need others in your world to recognise and validate your existence and inherent value.  This starts in infancy but continues to be a primary need throughout the lifecycle. As we grow and develop we gain these self-validating experiences via different sources. Through childhood and adolescence our sense of our selves is confirmed via positive experiences with peers, in sporting activities and academic achievement. In adulthood we make use of our experiences in the workplace to build our self-image. Throughout our life-span, however, the single most affirming and validating self-experiences come from our interpersonal relationships.

If being in relationship with another human being can have such an impact, it is thus important for each and every one of us to acknowledge the meaning our interactions hold. Just like on Facebook or twitter, people express themselves with the hope that those in contact with them will ‘like’ what they put out there. With just a simple, instantaneous click of the mouse your reaction to a friend’s post can provide immediate validation and praise that is basically effortless but not without meaning. Before reifying the like button too much, the point of this example is to demonstrate that Facebook users are participating in the process of validating others’ self-expression, which can help to build self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.

Whether this is always true for every user and every ‘liker’ is debatable of course. It is after all, an ideal. But I feel we need to run with this further. Sure, it is easy to press a button or click a mouse but how many of us truly express our appreciation for what our friends do, say or wear when we see them in person? From my experience, people are far too parsimonious with compliments. Whether they are afraid of sounding like they are “sucking up” or if it is because they are not aware of the potentially positive impact, it is clear that our social interactions do not produce enough self-validating compliments.

This, in my opinion, is a shame. We all have the ability to validate and affirm those around us, at absolutely no cost to ourselves. Believe me, seeing a person’s face light up with pride when you acknowledge their work or tell them their outfit is cute is hugely satisfying. For years, I have been actively engaged in the practice of complimenting and I can tell you it’s a great gig! It literally spreads positivity and good vibes around. I challenge you to try it too.

This is what you should know before accepting this challenge. Compliments are only meaningful if they are genuine. This means that you really do need to appreciate something about the person before dishing one out. Just as you might carefully select the pages, status updates and comments you “like” on Facebook; you should be completely committed to that which you compliment in person. If you don’t appreciate something, then don’t say anything. The reason for this is it is quite easy to tell when someone is not being genuine when complimenting you and it can have the reverse effect if felt to be condescending or disingenuous.

Also, don’t look for something to compliment in everyone. Your brain will spontaneously alert you to that which you appreciate in your environment.  It may be something that you are visually attracted to or something which amuses you and connects with your sense of humour. It may be a cute expression or an inspirational adage. Just let your natural sense of style and taste direct you here. In that way it won’t be forced or put on.

This might all sound quite queer to you and indeed I suspect that many might find this challenge…well…challenging  but once you get the hang of it, it’s really very simple and quite fun. One of the most likely barriers to fully accepting the challenge is your own shyness or difficulty connecting your feelings with your words. This would mean that you find it easy to determine that which you appreciate about a person but find it difficult to (or ‘forget’ to) communicate it to the person. This does take a certain degree of confidence but you will find that if your compliment is genuine and your intention pure (i.e. not used as a cheesy pick-up line) then you will mostly get positive reinforcement that will encourage you to repeat it in the future.

There is also another barrier that I have frequently encountered. I call it compliment-resistance and it is mostly found in the female of the species. There are certain people who just refuse to accept a compliment. Perhaps it is out of defensiveness or maybe it is because accepting a compliment puts one at risk of looking ‘vain’. Either way, these people provide another obstacle to this challenge. The best strategy with these folk is to persevere, but only to a point. There is no use in trying to convince someone that your compliment is genuine. Say it clearly and matter-of-factly, but then leave it. It’s important though that these kinds of interactions don’t get you down. Whether the person responds in the way you desire or not, the point of the exercise is to communicate your appreciation. It is safe to say that the majority of people WILL feel validated by this and that is why it is a worthwhile cause.  So, happy complimenting!

 

I wrote this a few years ago. It’s an oldie but a goodie! I think it is worth re-visiting because it is still something I wish to encourage in people. I also really want to hear from you what you think. There are many issues with the notion of giving and receiving compliments. Some of these are discussed below. Can you think of any others? Why do you struggle to give or receive compliments? Get hold of me on twitter, Facebook or comment on this post. Let’s keep talking #onthecouchwithcarly