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The Darkside of Compliments and Positive Feedback

Compliments are wonderful. It allows a person to show appreciation for another through words. We probably don’t compliment each other as much as we should. This only comes to be when the compliment is genuine and the nicety in speech doesn’t come with a hidden motive, especially when it comes to power dynamics.

When a parent, teacher, spouse, or manager provides positive feedback, it can typically come with the expectation to maintain the behavior that led to the compliment. It becomes the incentive to keep doing what you’re doing. If someone were to compliment you on your shoes, you now have the incentive to keep wearing those shoes. If someone likes your haircut, you know what you’ll be asking for when you go to the barber or salon again.

The same thing occurs if someone compliments how much of a team player you are. That compliment will eventually turn into the expectation that you step up for the team even if it causes you suffering. It becomes a bit of an everlasting lust for approval. We do the thing that gets us a compliment, so we focus on doing more of the thing, so we can garner more compliments. All of a sudden you find yourself at the office at odd hours, doing more work than your peers because everyone compliments you on how reliable you are.

Identifying with Compliments

The problem comes when we attach compliments to our identity. Think about when you were a toddler and the people around you were in awe of how cute you were. That sense of identity traveled its way up to your formidable teenage years when everyone in the class had a crush on you. Some people wanted to be you, others wanted to be with you. However, attractiveness does have an expiration date. What do you do when all your life you’ve known as an attractive person, but you start to lose what made you look good? You try to keep up the look by any means necessary. That involves grueling workouts, restricting diets, and maybe some botox to fix those wrinkles. It will eventually all end in grief because looks will fade, but you are nothing without your looks.

To avoid this pain, we must know who we are before someone can tell us who we are. The gesture of a compliment is a nice gesture, but nothing anyone can tell you can perfectly describe who you are. If anything a compliment provides a limitation. When someone compliments you as smart, they aren’t seeing the other aspects of your life. If you allow that to be an identity, you are limiting who you are to what you know. You are much more than your knowledge, your prestige, your money, or anything else we use to define who we are.

Feedback and Awareness

It would be good for us to be aware of how the feedback of others affects our behavior. Even though we don’t actively fish for compliments, we may be doing so indirectly with our intentions. We commit to work, not because we find it personally fulfilling, but because it will please another person. The reward for pleasing another person is praise and recognition. We are a social species and we care what other people think of us. This care can be manipulated in the form of making sure that what we do is seen from a positive perspective. By identifying with the approval of others, we start to mold ourselves in the image of other people, thus killing our authenticity. We should make sure that the feedback aligns with our values and that we see ourselves as people.