I can't give a compliment to save my life!

My withholding of praise goes deep, I know -- but I want to change!

By Cary Tennis

Published February 12, 2009 11:15AM (EST)

Dear Reader,

Friday I will be answering Canadians' most fervent Valentine's Day questions on CBC Radio's wonderful arts-and-entertainment program, "Q." You may ask your own questions on the "Q" blog, or e-mail them to q@cbc.ca. Singer-songwriter Jason Bajada will join us and may have a question or two of his own, perhaps regarding all that "love shit" we hear so much about. My love goes out to all Canadians, who are such great fans. The program airs at 10 a.m. EST, 7 a.m. PST, and is, I believe, repeated later; CBC programs can also be heard on Sirius Satellite 137 and are available via podcast.

Hi, Cary,

I'm a 50-something male, the father of two mostly grown girls. I'm happy to say that both my parents are still kicking. I'm on good terms with my brothers and sisters most of the time. Am blessed with good friends and other relations, and tend to get on well with my co-workers. I am fortunate in so many ways, but feel like I consistently disappoint everyone I know. Here's why:

I cannot, for the life of me, give a genuine compliment. It simply doesn't come naturally. When I try, and I do, in order to maintain all the aforementioned relationships, it feels forced, more a matter of obligation than a gift that might put wind in the sails of someone I truly care for. I feel strongly that giving should spring from joy, or at least from a heartfelt desire to see the recipient enlivened by it. When I have nothing to offer in response to a job well done, or I can't cite the intrinsic value of those I love, everyone loses. I feel like I've warped the emotional and social development of my children, alienated any number of perfectly wonderful lovers, and generally kept the world at arm's length.

I can recall certain compliments given to me through the years. Some of them made all the difference, whether in attaining some goal or simply affording me an elevated sense of self and my rightful place in the world. The value of timely acknowledgment is obvious.

After years of psychotherapy and the obsessive self-examination endemic to my generation, I believe I know where this stinginess of spirit comes from. I am the eldest of six. At a very tender age, there were five younger, cuter kids standing between me and the object of our affection. Mama was driven to distraction, to put it mildly, by the demands placed on her, but it was the 1950s and she set a selfless and stoic example. I had complete sympathy for her plight, even at the time. The fact remains, however, that, as a young child, I needed more than I got. I craved my mother's attention. I needed to know that she valued me as more than her helper, her strong little man. I clearly recall, at the ripe old age of 7, coming to the conclusion that I would never get it. "That's OK," I reckoned, "I can get by without it" -- "it" being her love.

You can imagine the sibling rivalry in all its permutations. Eventually I took refuge in the written word -- books were my escape. But even before I learned to read, I had realized that giving any sign of approval or encouragement to my brothers and sisters could only serve to increase the gulf between me and my mom. Does that make sense? I can rationalize otherwise, of course, and now we're all "one big happy family," but the damage is done. I want to be gracious and giving. When I even think to reach into that purse, however, it's pretty much empty.

Do you have any thoughts on this? Would appreciate whatever you can offer.

Can't Give a Compliment to Save My Life

Dear Compliment Impaired,

Sure, I can see how the family dynamic you describe could still be affecting your relations with others. But since you have done the hard work of finding this out for yourself, I think you are ready to change. It's time to put some new behaviors into action.

The therapist I'm working with now makes it really simple: Once you can see which behaviors are serving you and which ones are holding you back, you can begin shedding the ones you don't need. Just like that. She uses a very gentle metaphor, like leaves falling in autumn. You just let some things go. You don't need them. You bid goodbye. Like when the leaves fall, it allows for new growth.

Now, that may sound a little New Age, but, hey. What's wrong with a little gentleness? We sometimes feel that we have to stamp out or grind out or burn away these old behaviors, or punish ourselves every time we engage in them. But behavioral change doesn't have to be so grueling a process, nor do we have to be extremely programmatic or explicit about what exactly we are no longer doing. We can just start letting things go and replacing them with new behaviors.

But, aha! When you start letting a certain behavior go, what happens? Suddenly you are fearful! Because at the time, that refusal to give away any compliments or admit that anyone could do anything well or deserved any praise was protecting your position in the family, protecting your access to your mother's love! So you may feel fear when you begin to let these old behaviors drop away. You need to reassure yourself.

In connection with that, this business of the purse is interesting. You say when you want to give a compliment, you reach in and the purse is empty. While "purse" can refer to a gender-neutral container for money, as in the "congressional purse strings," or in fairy tales where merchants have purses, in my childhood only Mummy had a purse. Daddy had a wallet. There was money from Mummy and money from Daddy, but they were different kinds of money. I guess a contemporary scholar might say that money was gendered. In fact, wow, right now I am remembering the powerful emotions of fear and excitement and guilt when my mother would open the purse and dispense money. Wow. It was a charged moment. And, as I consider it, I see that the money that came from my father had a different feel, a different set of assumptions about it. (Sorry, I will take that up with myself later! We're on your dime now!)

But I would like to ask: Whose purse are you reaching into? Are you reaching into your mother's purse? Or your own purse? Is it always empty? If it is your mother's purse, perhaps it will always be empty. That is, some things are in the past and cannot be changed. But if it is your purse, you can then fill it. That's where the reassuring-yourself thing comes in: You need to fill that purse. You need to load it up with compliments so you can give some of them away. You may start by giving yourself some really good compliments. Find some opportunities during the day to give yourself a compliment or two. How does it feel? It feels pretty good, doesn't it? Hey, give yourself a pat on the back. You deserve it.

Then start giving compliments to others. Of course it's not going to feel natural at first. It's like flipping pancakes with your left hand. But do it anyway. You'll get used to it.

There are lots of ways to start. You don't have to be incredibly timely. You could just think back to the last thing one of your daughters did that you were grateful for. What was it? It doesn't have to be profound. Giving a compliment doesn't have to be praise, which implies relative judgment and thus the possibility of future failure; it can just be gratitude. You can just say, "You know, a couple of weeks ago when we had all those things to do to get out of the house on time, and I was afraid maybe we'd be late? I was very impressed with how you got everything done on time and we got out the door. It might sound like a small thing to you, but I appreciated it, and wanted to tell you."

In learning to give compliments, you're giving up an old orientation to the world, in which giving a compliment threatened your position. You were competing with siblings for your mother's love. You're not doing that today.

Today, you can afford to give your daughters every blessed little ounce of appreciation and admiration and love and encouragement that you have. Nobody's going to step in and usurp your role. Today, you don't weaken yourself by giving a compliment. In fact, you strengthen your position with them in that way. You strengthen the bond.

Now, it does take some courage to start doing this. They may not react the way you hope they will. If they are not used to getting compliments, they may think it's weird at first. But give it time. Stick with it. I think you'll be pleased with the results.

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Cary Tennis

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