How to compliment a modest person

After a lifetime of problems with compliments–they often make me uncomfortable but sometimes I crave them–I’ve decided that the problem is not compliments per se but the kind of compliments I’d like to receive. Maybe this is true for other people. If so, we need to get more sophisticated in how we dish out compliments.

Let’s oversimplify a bit and say compliments can express three kinds of sentiments: admiration, approval, or affirmation. Since we spend most of our lives filling childhood deficits, let’s oversimplify again and say the child who didn’t get enough attention needs to be admired as an adult; the one who never measured up seeks approval all his life; and the kid who believed she was not understood craves affirmation even as an adult.

I fall into that last category and it has shaped a personality that is decidedly on the modest side. (For more on the virtue of modesty see this post.) I do not seek attention/admiration because I got plenty of messages that I was special (the only girl child in the family, smartest kid in the class). Admiration sets apart. Admiration can be lonely. I do not seek approval since I never had the sense that I didn’t measure up. I measured up and above the norms set by my parents and teachers. That, too, can be lonely.

But I didn’t feel like the adults in my life understood me well enough to see me for who I really was or even to give me direction. I felt set apart and disconnected from other kids as well, with their noisy games and popularity cliques, I didn’t know how to talk to them or get them to play with me.

The response to the affirmation deficit in childhood is modesty–the quest, not for admiration or approval but connection. The modest person does not want to shine separately from others or bow to others’ standards but to be herself in relation to others. To communicate, to commune, to respond and be responded to. She needs to be affirmed.

Admiration compliments are easy. “Wow. You are a really good writer. I could never say it as well as you do.”

Approval compliments are what we give to kids and to adults at milestones. “Good job!” “Congratulations!” They are necessary but often pro forma.

Affirmation compliments are much harder because they require knowing the person you are complimenting, or really understanding something they have said or done. Affirmation compliments express your connection, your resonance, your understanding, or your agreement. They connect you to the person you are complimenting.

Not “You are a wonderful writer” but “I resonated with every word you wrote.”

Not “That is a beautiful scarf” but “That scarf matches your eyes. Where did you get it?”

Not “You are a wonderful hostess” but “I feel at home in your home.”

Not “You are a brilliant speaker” but “I agree with the point you made about ….”

Not “Great job on the PhD defense” but “Your thesis topic makes me think you should teach a class on …”

See? These require some thought. But don’t worry. Compliments are generally less important to modest people or, shall we say, quantity is less important than quality. And, for us, actions can speak louder than words. Read our blogs, buy our books, fund our projects, join our groups and we will feel affirmed.

And here is our little secret: we adore “likes.” This is the pro forma way to compliment modest people. It is meaningful because it suggests connection: You agree. You share our tastes, our opinions. Better yet, put yourself out and give comment love. Or hate. Either way, you’re responding, and response is what we crave.

Still, quantity is not important here, either. I think we’d be suspicious if everybody “liked” us. It’s enough to know that we connected with a few really wonderful people like our (modest) selves.


6 thoughts on “How to compliment a modest person

  1. I always wished my mother would just say how much she liked something I did or wore, but I can’t ever remember that happening. My husband was so good at it, one of the many reasons I fell in love with him. Now I am sure to compliment my children whenever I can.

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