I would never say that I’ve lived my life being put down for my physical appearance, but there are moments that loom large in my mind.
Like when I’m minding my own business on the bus home from middle school when a younger boy tells me I’m fat, I have thunder thighs, and I’m ugly. Discovering that a guy I was hooking up referred to me as “Chubs” in his circle of friends.
Add to that the daily reminders that flit in and out of my various social feeds, reminding me that I’m a middle-aged white lady and not the target market anymore.
But here’s the thing: I know none of it really f*cking matters. External beauty is subjective, arbitrary, and temporary (well, unless you’re a Kardashian with deep pockets for all the plastic surgery, fillers and Brazilian Booty Lifts your body can handle). Complimenting someone on a facet of their external beauty is an implied critique. If someone is praised for being skinny, are they no longer beautiful if they gain weight? If they’re told they have beautiful hair, do they stop being beautiful if they lose their hair in chemo treatment?
So if I know all these things, why do these insults still live rent-free in my mind?
There’s a psychological reason, of course. These kinds of put-downs lower our status in an imaginary hierarchy resulting in a negativity bias:
Because negative information causes a surge in activity in a critical information processing area of the brain, our behaviors and attitudes tend to be shaped more powerfully by bad news, experiences, and information.
The good news is that we can help rewire our brains by establishing new patterns. And one way to do that is to start seeing and appreciating the intrinsic traits that you admire in people.
Giving non-physical compliments is something that I know to be important, and yet it doesn’t come naturally to me. I have a self-deprecating sense of humor that, I’ve learned, can be a little disarming to people, and I often come off as overly sarcastic as a defense mechanism. I’m practicing, though. I’m working on listening and paying attention and being present in ways that allow me to give compliments that are sincere and relevant and meaningful.
There are so many listicles out there of canned non-physical compliments. And maybe this plays into my own insecurities, but I honestly find many of them so cringey. Because they’re not sincere, relevant, or meaningful in most cases, right?
But like I said, I’m trying. Here are my tips for creating compliments that are all of those things, and also serve as a reminder that no one’s worth should be tied to their external appearance.
>> When you find something about someone truly enjoyable, tell them. My little sister has a loud, sudden, resounding laugh, and it’s so bright and earnest that it never fails to make others smile. You have the best laugh.
>> Praise a skill or effort that someone has put into learning or doing something. My tattoo artist/friend has had a crazy year but they came out on top emotionally and professionally. You are thriving!
>> Show appreciation for how someone makes you feel, especially those people who truly “fill your cup.” An old coworker is one of my favorite people to meet for coffee. She’s always doing something interesting, has an abundance of life experiences to share, and illustrates concepts so creatively. I learn so much from you every time I see you.
>> I do still give some physical compliments. My husband has been working hard on his health over the past year. He gets up early for work, usually before I’m up, so I think of something new to tell him every morning via text. I hope you’re having a good morning. <3 Love you, the new v-neck shirts look great on you!
Physical compliments can feel good in a skin-deep kind of way. But non-physical compliments show that you are truly seeing someone—and appreciating them—for who they are.