photo by Eva Elijas for Pexels
by Andrea M. Darcy
Has giving compliments become a habit for you that you don’t question? Always dishing them out to your children, your partner, your friends? Endless praise isn’t always a good thing.
Why do we give compliments?
It’s natural to give a compliment when something has really impressed us. A meal was fantastic at a restaurant so we send compliments to the chef, or a friend achieves a life goal and we are proud of them.
But sometimes the truth is we give compliments for other, less salubrious reasons. Whether we admit it or not, we have figured out that compliments can sometimes get us what we want.
Giving compliments can help us to:
Does praising for praise’s sake work?
Even if your compliment giving doesn’t hide ulterior motives, it’s worth trouble shooting how often you are dishing it out.
A seminal study on praise in classrooms was carried out back in the 1980s by educational psychologist Jere Brophy. He noted that teachers who endlessly praised were often doing it in an automatic, reactionary way, assuming its effectiveness.
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And most teachers were found to be resorting to ‘global’ praise, praise that was unspecific to the person, such as ‘good work’ or ‘a job well done’.
While this sort of praise was shown to create a general, feel good environment, it didn’t take the individual student into account.
And it was found to be otherwise ineffective, not helping students learn or change behaviours.
Turns out that well thought out praise, praise done well over often, matters.
The power of contingent praise
Which brings us to ‘contingent praise’, the opposite of global praise. This is where we are concise with what we are complimenting. So instead of saying, “thanks for your hard work”, we say, “thanks for calling all those people for me”.
Contingent praise is generally more effective. But even here, we need to be aware of our intention. Educational consultant Gill Robins, in her book, “Praise, Motivation, and the Child” red flags the endless use of this sort of praise in classrooms, where it is often a targeted approach for children with behavioural difficulties.
She points out that it can cause a dependency, where the student relies on the praise to feel good about themselves, and can also leave the recipient feeling controlled.
Of course we are adults in the real world, not the classroom. But the same can apply.
If we are deep down giving compliments to try to influence the other’s behaviour, they can feel controlled and become needy for our praise, neither of which is healthy.
Avoiding the real issue?
Robins also points out that if we are using praise to control behaviours, we are not actually dealing with the root issue of why the behaviour exists in the first place.
Addressing the core issue is more effective than endless manipulation in the form of flattery.
What are your intentions?
So as well as remembering the golden rule of “praise well over praise often”, it’s important to truly consider our intentions.
- What is behind my need to compliment this other person?
- Do I have an agenda? Or do I actually just want to share my appreciation?
- Do I feel like I have to compliment them, or do I really want to?
- Is what I am saying truly what I feel, or what I think I should feel?
- Do I actually want them to like me? Or compliment me back?
- Am I trying to hide my own negative feelings and seem fun?
- Or offering a compliment to keep them behaving in a certain way?
- Am I using praise in a general way to keep the peace, or do I care enough to make it specific?
- Is there a need for an honest conversation here over yet another compliment?
- Is there a secret fear driving my endless compliments I need to address?
What giving compliments too much can mean
So in the end, our compliment giving can be far more about ourselves than the other person. It can also be hiding a mental health issue we need to deal with. This can include:
1. Control issues.
If we are using compliments to make others do what we want, this can be control.
This means we rely on others liking us to feel we have value. If your compliments are to please, codependency could be the issue.
3. Intimacy issues.
Use compliments to hide your bad moods, to turn the tables onto the other, to seem what you really aren’t thinking or feeling? Then you might have a fear of others seeing the real you. This can include fear of rejection.
4. Personality disorders.
If compliments are part of your arsenal for controlling others, and you also do so to avoid being rejected, because being rejected makes you feel crazy? Or use compliments to pull someone back after pushing them away? Then it might be worth learning about borderline personality disorder (BPD).
Does complimenting others amuse you? To see how they respond, how much more they then like and revere you? Does it deep down feel like a game to you? It’s possible you have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Have a friend or partner who never gives compliments?
Endlessly giving compliments as you are deep down waiting for a friend or partner to praise you in return? It can help to understand why they might not be in the habit.
For some people, compliment giving causes anxiety, or confuses them. A set of studies found that people have a tendency to underestimate how positive the person receiving their compliment would feel, instead overestimating that their compliment might make the other person uncomfortable.
Also note that we all have different ways of showing our esteem and affection for another, or different ‘love languages’. Sometimes a friendly conversation about what your love languages are, what makes you feel seen and appreciated, can be very helpful.
Struggle to stop trying to manipulate in relationships? Therapy can help. We connect you with one of London’s most highly regarded teams of talk therapists working min central locations. Not in London? Use our sister site to find UK-wide and online therapists ranked by client feedback.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert and writer. She also runs a consultancy helping people find their perfect therapy and therapist. She’s meditated for over twenty years and it’s the most life-changing tool she’s found! Follow her on Instagram for useful life tips @am_darcy