Can Refusing To Give Compliments Be an Act of Love?

Assay: My spiritual master is St. Therese of Lisieux, so when a thoughtful reader emailed me about Heather King’s 2011 memoir, Shirt of Flame: A Year with Saint Therese of Lisieux, I was thrilled—and astounded that I hadn’t heard about it yet. I’m always trying to get my hands on more St. Therese material, plus I can never resist a good “year-of” memoir.

I couldn’t wait to read Shirt of Flame, and I found it fascinating, for many reasons. One passage struck me in particular.

In the study of happiness, I’m always fascinated and moved when I see a person choose to react in a way that boosts happiness or love or forgiveness, when circumstances made that choice difficult.

In her spiritual memoir Story of a Soul (which was one of the book-club choices for this month, by the way), St. Therese gives many examples about this from her own life—for instance, the moment of her “complete conversion,”  where she acted selflessly by showing a greedy joy in her Christmas presents. In her circumstances, that was the loving way to act. Sometimes we can be generous by taking.

Often, to allow himself or herself to respond in a different frame of mind, a person re-frames a situation.

Heather King recounts an interesting example of this. She writes, “I’m mortified to admit that I was still miffed because [my mother had] never told me as a child (or an adult, for that matter) that I was pretty.”

Then she recounts how St. Therese has interpreted the same situation with her own upbringing. St. Therese’s mother died when she was four, and her older sisters, particularly her sister Pauline, helped to raise her.

St. Therese writes, “You gave a lot of attention, dear Mother [meaning Pauline], not to let me near anything that might tarnish my innocence, especially not to let me hear a single word that might be capable of letting vanity slip into my heart.”

As King points out, St. Therese chose to understand a lack of compliments to be a sign of loving care. That’s not the only interpretation, but that’s the one she chose to have.

I see that this is an area where I fall very short. Too often, I respond to a choice by feeling aggrieved or resentful. Sometimes, perversely, I almost enjoy feeling aggrieved or resentful! –and don’t even try to put a different cast on it, or look for other explanations.

I’m reminded by an observation by Flannery O’Connor, from a letter she wrote in 1959. “From 15 to 18 is an age at which one is very sensitive to the sins of others, as I know from recollections of myself. At that age you don’t look for what is hidden. It is a sign of maturity not to be scandalized and to try to find explanations in charity.

“Finding explanations in charity” is another way of putting it — the aim of choosing to interpret actions in a loving way.

I feel like I just came across another great example of this, in some book or movie, but I’m blanking. Stay tuned, maybe I’ll think of it.  Have you seen examples of this kind of choice, yourself?


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  • Megan Gordon

    I believe this is part of not taking things personally. It’s not an easy thing, but it does help you in “finding explanations in charity.”

    For example, my brother and one of my cousins make a huge fuss over another cousin’s wife. She’s gorgeous, look at that dress, OMG. Neither makes such a fuss over me. Once I asked my cousin why he does that for her (she is all those things he says, btw) but not for me. The answer? “I didn’t think you needed it.” Knowing this made a huge difference in how I felt about their doting on her.

    • gretchenrubin

      A great example.

  • We tend to assume that others’ motivations are negative while we forgive ourselves of our own trespasses. One of the best lessons I received from my mother–with whom I have a somewhat tumultuous relationship–was the idea that I should always look at situations from the other person’s point of view. Sometimes I don’t want to see things their way. I want to be angry. But seeing things from another point of view and as an emotional reaction rather than a rational and mean one help me to be a more compassionate person and a happier one. I know that the world is not out to get me this way. People are all doing their best and I should assume that they mean well by me, even if it does not feel good on my end.

    • Anne

      My husband used to do this–point out the other person’s point of view to me if I was mad at someone. He might have been just the teeniest bit smug about how helpful it was. It usually just made me feel like he was on anyone’s side but mine.

      He didn’t understand the problem until I started doing it to him. He didn’t like it either, when the tables were turned. Now we joke about it–when one of us is angry at a third person, the other will ask, tongue in cheek, if it’s time to explore that person’s point of view.

      Of course it CAN be helpful to consider the other person’s point of view, but timing can be important in these things.

  • Anne

    There are compliments, and then there’s encouragement. They’re both positive remarks, but depriving another person of encouragement is less likely to be good for them.

    When I was in high school, my parents never reacted one way or the other to my report cards, which were generally stellar. But if I made a bad grade, no comment either. I asked my father once why he did that, and he said, “We don’t want you to think you’re doing it (i.e. scholastic achievement) for US.”

    I was pretty annoyed. I didn’t want to be fawned over, but some acknowledgement or encouragement would have been natural for most people. I minded that, for my parents, it wasn’t.

    I’m an old lady now, and I realize that they were very limited and troubled people who did the best they could with what they had. And that was for reasons that undoubtedly went back to their own parents, and so on.

    Anyway, my main point is that withholding encouragement may not be for the good of a child, or anyone.

  • Jeanmarie DiTaranto

    Can Refusing To Give Compliments Be an Act of Love? Yes! I remember reading several years ago about a mother not praising and gushing over every drawing or coloring book page that her daughter would show off to her

    This mother’s point was that if she didn’t provide a little constructive criticism — in a loving way, of course — the child would not be motivated to strive for improvement.

    This really struck me, because sometimes it was a knee-jerk reaction to say, “Oh, that’s
    great, Honey!” whenever one of my children showed me something he or she had
    made. Offering a distracted compliment was easier than really looking at their handiwork and discussing it with them. So I understand the benefits.

    But when I’m on the receiving end of constructive criticism or not getting “gold stars” from people, successfully “finding explanations in charity” is a challenge, but certainly a worthwhile one. Not only can it reframe a negative situation in a more positive light, but it’s also fascinating and cathartic to experiment with controlling my own emotions and reactions.

    • peninith1

      I totally get that it’s not great to hand out compliments in a cheap way. But I think it is vitally important for parents to ‘catch their children doing right’ and to notice and praise those things. Children are very hip to reality–they know what’s empty, or what is praise out of proportion to the real achievement. They also, as many of the adult comments here reveal, know immediately and intensely what is cruel, cold, punishing and ungenerous. Children get their integrity and self-esteem built up by hearing about what they do well. Compliments are important! Therese was not praised for being pretty–no virtue in itself–but my impression is that she was able to win approval for the things that mattered to her family.

      • Jeanmarie DiTaranto

        I think you’re right on that kids are VERY perceptive, even if they’re unaware of their own capacity for discernment. And “catch your children doing right” — love that.

  • Deirdre

    There’s a great, little movie called “Beyond Silence.” It’s about a German family where both parents are deaf and their daughter, who is hearing, navigates the world of silence and speaking. The scene that had the biggest impact on me was when the younger daughter is caught making fun of the mother a little with a friend—the older daughter expects her mother to be rightfully outraged and instead the mother makes the choice to laugh, to see it as innocent. I’m curious if the director slowed down the film just slightly there because it really does feel like she made this conscious choice to not be offended. My mom often seemed to be looking for opportunities to be offended and I have a bit of that in me too—so this one moment had a big impact in showing me there are other options.

  • corinne

    the idea of refusing to give a compliment to me has just the same effect as not giving compliment at all: negative.
    based on my experience, it always left me perplexed because i had to always figure out whether they were happy with both good and bad grades or they just didn’t care at all. that act made me insecure and developed low self esteem because there were no affirmations or confirmations. although i want my kids to do things because it is the right thing to do and that they are really doing it for themselves and not for us. but these things can be fixed if you communicate this to your children properly.this is what i believe in: if you have nothing good to say to others especially to a kid, just keep your mouth shut or try to construct a good criticism if you can. if you have something good to say about other people’s work or anything, why should you deprive that person of knowing that piece of information?

    • J R

      You should re-assess the question. It is *not* ‘is refusing to give compliments an act of love?’ but ‘can it be’ As in, in some specific circumstances, not every single time. Obviously doing it all the time cannot be good, since, as you say, it would lead to low self-esteem and doubt but if someone has an agrandized perception of their own intelligence and you don’t mention it when they say something clever, you can be helping them realize the true extent of their abilities, which will help them deal with RL situations better.

      • I think the answer is that it depends on the situation and the person and can’t be a blanket rule.

        If someone’s primary love language is words of affirmation, never giving compliments is depriving them of the ability to experience love from you. It seems to me that creating insecurity in love is a greater evil than potentially giving someone the possibility of developing vanity.

        It’s not pride to accept the truth of who you are–it’s actually psychologically and emotionally and spiritually healthy integration of thoughts and reality.

        Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • emd04

    Heather’s book is one of my favorites regarding spirituality, period. The fact that it uses St. Therese, who’s my patron saint, is a bonus. 🙂
    My mother was the same way: she didn’t tell us we (me and my siblings) were talented, pretty, good at X, Y, Z. At the time, it hurt a lot, and if I’m being honest, sometimes I still want that gold star compliment from her. When we asked her recently why she did that, she said that it was so we didn’t get big heads and think we were “all that”. In a roundabout way, it was to teach us humility. I’m 30, and I understand that now, but I still would’ve liked to hear about the things I do *right* from her, instead of “Why are you wearing that?”, etc.
    I definitely thin ka line should be drawn, because you don’t want to make your kids think that everything they do is wonderful and special and grand! But I also believe in credit where credit is due.

  • peninith1

    We spend so much of our lives interpreting what other people’s statement, behavior, and silences ‘mean’. If we ask, we might as easily get a defensive and dissembling answer as an honest one. So we can either NOT interpret (I’m a big believer in reminding myself, ‘you don’t know’), or we can choose to interpret a meaning that supports us.

    St. Therese, determined to shape her own character toward saintliness, was a more consistent and directed interpreter of signals than most–and she did come from a family that cultivated spiritual gifts the way Mozart’s family cultivated musicality.

    I doubt most of us are as conscious in the trend of our interpretations, which tend rather to be led by our anxieties, fears and secret wishes.

    I have spent considerable and rewarding effort in recent years NOT to interpret what other people ‘mean’ by what they do or don’t say, or do. The child of a mother who believes to the bone that she knows her children and their wants and needs better than they know themselves, I first had to learn to trust my feeling that her claims to know me were often mistaken, and then not to fight her self-regarding interpretations openly, and then to refrain from over-interpreting other people’s signals, meaning, and intentions myself.

    We are a lot more caught in the web of our own feelings and perceptions than we think. Consciously choosing, like Therese, a positive way to interpret what comes at us, to shape the person we want to become–what an unusual ability, particularly in such a very young person.

    • BreadPuddn

      Very well said. It feels inconsiderate and almost rude to attempt to “read between the lines” of people’s words and actions. When someone takes what I’ve said and continues to extrapolate from it what isn’t there, I get so frustrated that they’ve chosen to put conversations, emotions and options upon me which I haven’t voiced and that often aren’t mine.

      There have been situations within my family where one took offense or got angry at someone for what they assumed someone meant, NOT by the reality. Even as a child of about 9, I remember my dad exploding at me ’cause he thought I said something rude to him. But, with my mom as a witness, I hadn’t. I’d said something very innocent, yet he chose the path of anger and the assumption that I was being rude, and I had very little history of that. Even when my mother confirmed that he’d heard me incorrectly, he continued to stew — why assume this of your own child and be so quick to fury and rage? (Granted, he had rage issues.) I’ve never understood behavior which chooses (negative) drama. Consequently, one of the reasons I was attracted to my husband was that he never raises his voice, rarely gets angry – only frustrated at times – and is quick to laugh, and quick to forgive.

      To interpret others’ actions – if one must – in a loving, compassionate and sympathetic manner, can be a very generous act. It leads to more positive interactions, and less conflict. I have seen people harbor frustrations and resentment – retelling the same stories year after year of “the time when X did something thoughtless,” or the time when “Y forgot my birthday,” etc. It’s like chewing on the same indigestible bone for ages. Why? What is the benefit to the story teller? There MUST be a benefit, or why retell it? Is it to feel superior to them? Like Gretchen said, sometimes we enjoy feeling resentful – or wronged, etc. I’ve been there too.

  • SunnyDay

    I think you can give love and support in many ways and compliments may or may not be one way. I think that if you want to dettach from the ego (and it’s slavery) , it’s great to not receive much compliments. You don’t have to be good because other people will praise you, you should do it because it’s the right thing to do, indifferent of golden stars. I guess Pauline made more fior her saintity than we would ordinarily think… ; )
    You should come to France this year, btw. Most of the churches are celebrating her! Lovely!

  • Mike

    “Finding explanations in charity” and choosing to interpret actions in a loving way, doesn’t mean justifying your own actions that lack charity. In general, I find that compliments promote excellence more than criticism does. I’m often reminded of the challenge of trying to treat others better than I have been treated. Otherwise I don’t see how we ever progress.

  • judy

    It is nice to get a compliment. I know it makes me feel loved and valued to get a compliment. Complimenting and child on some art work that isn’t outstanding is about making the child feel that the work they have put into it is valued and that you like it and I think that gives them satisfaction. I like the idea of being in the habit of interpreting actions (i.e., no compliments) in a loving way. It definitely makes you happier to do this than to try to figure out where the other person is coming from that never compliments you and what that means about you.

  • Lori Biesecker

    I just started listening to the audiobook of Happier at Home, and I find myself nodding again and again. Thank you already.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thank you! I’m thrilled to hear that it’s resonating with you.

  • Lori Biesecker

    I just started listening to the audiobook of Happier at Home, and I find myself nodding again and again. Thank you already. I have been writing about how homemakers’ thinking affects their actions at: think all of us want to be happier at home. For me, an orderly, pleasant living space makes a huge difference in my productivity, contentment, and happiness.

  • christine

    Oh compliments. I think we have a hard time seeing ourselves clearly. Sometimes compliments have helped me when someone tells me they appreciate this or that in me. I appreciate that they can see things about me that I have a hard time seeing clearly. At times compliments that I have received have been valuable indicators to me that things I’m working on improving in myself are slowly getting better.

    Saying thank you for compliments is also important for me. I know for me when I say thank you for a compliment that it quiets the negative inner voices that start saying, “Oh no, I’m not what you say, I’m this or this instead.” Saying thank you helps me acknowledge the positive things and push aside needed negativity. Plus, I know how I felt in the past when others have contradicted my compliments to them.

  • Jess

    Love the article – I also find it very easy to become aggrieved and resentful, and have to remember that I have NO idea what is going on in someone else’s life. If my friend doesn’t call me and I keep having to call her to hang out, I could stress out that she’s not that bothered about seeing me, or I could remember that she’s working lots of overtime and has a new boyfriend and choose to interpret it that way. I know which way makes me feel better!

    On an unrelated note, I just ordered Happier at Home! I’m in the UK, so it’s not out til later in the week. Can’t wait to read it 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      Excellent point. And happy reading!

  • Victoria

    “Too often, I respond to a choice by feeling aggrieved or resentful. Sometimes, perversely, I almost enjoy feeling aggrieved or resentful! –and don’t even try to put a different cast on it, or look for other explanations.” This is me in a nutshell and the biggest challenge to my happiness. I went through a period where I put a positive spin on things and emerged from it with a false belief that it was healthier for me to see things ‘realistically’ rather than what I termed ‘candy coated.’ However after just coming out of a very difficult period in my life that was exacerbated by a tendency to see thing, ‘realistically’ (which spiralled into negatively), I realized that seeing things from a positive and charitable point of view and realism are not mutually exclusive. When person x says something unkind to me the negative swing is, ‘What a prat. He is a jealous jerk blah, blah” The positive swing could be, 1) They must be having a bad day 2) They chose their words poorly 3) For some reason I must bug this person maybe we are not made to be friends 4) For some reason this person is miffed with me how can I resolve this? The positive options are plentiful. I have realized several other things. One is it is easier not to take things negatively if you look at the situation from an objective point of view. Think what you would say to a friend if they were asking your advice about the same thing that happened to you. The other thing I realized is there is no blanket truth, no ‘real’ truth that positive thinking cloaks. How we perceive things/situations is coloured by our lifetime experiences and our personalities. Everyone sees things differently so the belief that there is an absolute truth that I must ascribe to when interpreting situations is faulted. Finally looking at things from the least offensive way possible leaves my mind free to wander to better places rather than brooding on some slight that may never have been intended.

    • Karen

      Nicely summed up Victoria! That resonates with me too 🙂

  • A while ago I reflected on one of the happiest parts of my childhood, my playing chess with my father, and our playing with other people. I considered that part of why that was so special was the lack of expectations (compliments or critiques) but high standards and enjoyment. One feature of the experience was that my father never deliberately lost a chess game to me or called me talented or yelled at me for losing. We just did this thing together. Until we didn’t.

  • Janet

    I am thinking of the book, “The Chosen” by Chaim Potok

  • becky.

    I think compliments on appearance need to be treated somewhat differently to other compliments. It’s not necessarily bad to tell little girls they’re pretty, but we need to be careful about what message we are sending them on their worth.
    In that sense, not complimenting people on their appearance might be an act of of love.

  • Andrea in Australia

    I am currently nursing a minor wound in that a close friend forgot my birthday, when I made a mammoth effort for hers earlier this year. You have reminded me to find explanations in charity, and to move on. I will try to remember that it doesn’t matter. I will try to find a way to see that. I will try…

    • BreadPuddn

      Sorry to hear about that. Perhaps for her, birthdays aren’t as important as they are for you. Did you put your image of an ideal birthday celebration upon her when for her birthday? She may have loved your efforts, but they may have been your vision, not hers – or, on the flip side, did she ask you do throw her big party – ? A friend of mine once directed me (albeit, lovingly) through that once – how she wanted her party to be. That was different, but it worked. Maybe she needed you to let her know what you wanted – ? We need to ask for what we need, rather than ‘test’ those around us to perform to our expectations, when they may be clueless about them. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t care.

  • peninith1

    Can’t quite let this go . . . the issue of complimenting a little girl for her prettiness. On the one hand, sister Pauline had a great truth on her side. Beauty says nothing about virtue or character, and is not to the credit of the person, but to the credit of nature or God.

    On the other hand, I don’t know many girls between the ages of 3 and 20 or so who don’t want reassurance about their appearance–worrying they won’t be beautiful enough to be loved. I think it’s important for parents to THINK how they talk to children about their appearance. “Handsome is as handsome does” is perhaps the most common aphorism about this.

    I do think it’s important to actively teach children that their inner character and qualities that are not surface qualities are the most important. I also think it’s important to the confidence of any child — sadly, especially girls — to feel that they are pretty or attractive. To pour cold water on this very natural urge without any mitigating explanation can be a path to convincing a child she is unlovely and un-loveable. I would not wish this on any child. I would hope parents would encourage their children in every appropriate way to present their best selves–and no I do NOT mean in the tiny beauty queen or little ladies of the night manner–I mean by being kind and personable and responsible, and by choosing appropriate clothes and styles that are right for the childs age, in flattering colors and styles. Children should get to feel pretty in at least somewhat the way they understand pretty!

    • Carly

      I remember reading about an actress who attributed her confidence to, amongst other things, her parents telling her and her sisters that they were ‘beautiful’. All of a sudden it hit me that there is no escaping the human tendency to assess the appearance of themselves and others – and, unfortunately, judge the book by the cover (even if only in part). I had previously thought that praising a child’s appearance would promote the idea that their worth was bound up in their appearance; now I realise that a child’s/adolescent’s/adult’s appearance is important to them anyway, and I tell the children I love that they are beautiful (as well as adventurous, and thoughtful, and fun, and strong, and curious etc) every chance I get. Hopefully my gorgeous sons will have a little bit more of a defence against the onslaught of insecurity that comes with adolescence.

  • Gretchen S

    An example from a movie… I don’t know if this is along the same lines, but I think so. In the movie “Freedom Writers” Hilary Swank is a teacher who is really struggling to get her very disadvantaged students to respect her AND learn how to read and write. She is their last hope, but she really struggles, and I have to admit I felt for her more than for the students (at first). Anyway, in the movie, when she is about to go crazy, somebody tells her: “You have been blessed with this burden”. I watched that movie about 5 years ago, but I will never forget that line. Again, it is all how you “frame” it.

  • Allison

    Interesting post! Of course, it was a different time – quite the opposite of our current ‘build their self-esteem every minute of the day’ way of thinking – and her sisters may not have been complimented themselves, so they wouldn’t know how to, or see any benefit to doing so. But it is so amazing that St. Therese pulled a Pollyana and saw it as gift. Wish I had an ounce of that ability. If you come from a place thinking others are mean or have an ulterior motive, then it is so hard to see anyone as actually doing something for you, completely for your own good. Sad that that is how the majority of us think…
    I am reading your new book, Happier at Home, and am loving it! One thing…back when I was in college I spent my summers on Cape Cod working as a maid in a motel. We were told, if you go in the room and one of the beds is made up and doesn’t look like it was slept in, then there was no need to change the sheets on that bed. So when you wrote that you are the type of person who makes the bed in hotels on vacation, even on check-out day, I cringed! :o) The book is awesome – just today I thought of two folks I can buy it for as a gift!

    • gretchenrubin

      I make my bed, but it doesn’t look as good as the professionals do it! so I think they can tell that it has been slept in. Am so happy to hear that you’re enjoying the book!

  • EB

    I’m enjoying all these thoughtful responses to this and other posts. But judging by many comments, I think Gretchen’s next book should be “Happier with Your Parents.”

  • OurGalFriday

    I do think that you shouldn’t just compliment a child on every little thing, so that they become addicted to praise. I also think it is good to create charitable explanations for another person’s behavior. All that said, I love compliments. Peninith said that most girls 3-20 would like reassurance regarding their appearance — I’m 43 and appreciate that. If you buy the notion of love languages (I believe Gary Chapman came up with this), different people hear “I love you” through different things — gifts, acts of service, touch, quality time and… words of affirmation. Frankly, I appreciate all these things, but I have to say that, while enjoy touch, it doesn’t speak to me like a genuine compliment. So refusing to give me compliments is NOT an act of love — one of the most loving things you can do for me is to say something appreciative. I shouldn’t be addicted to verbal gold stars, but they do make my day.

  • Mary

    I don’t believe refusing to give compliments is ever an act of love. I don’t send enough positive comments to other people as it is, even if I think them. I just don’t always take the time to tell people, but I’m working on that. The key to compliments is that they are specific and sincere. “I really like the way you….” “I wish I could do (this) as well as you do.” “How are you able to be so patient (fill in the blank). There is something positive you can say about anyone and to anyone. You may just have to look a little harder or deeper to find it for some people. Why tell an overweight person that he/she is fat. You don’t think that person knows it! And maybe she/he has a positive body image and is happy with their body? It could be you that has the weight issue. But perhaps they are wearing a particularly fetching blouse (that color really brings out the blue in your eyes) or their hair has a special glow. Notice even little positive things about others and let them know. We all enjoy hearing nice things even if we don’t like to admit it. That doesn’t mean that as parents we don’t correct our children’s inappropriate behavior, but there’s always a way to put a less degrading or hurtful spin on the comment. Instead of focusing on what the child shouldn’t do, focus on the positive behavior you want the child to learn. Better yet, model that positive behavior yourself.