“I can live for two months on a good compliment” – Mark Twain
I shy away from compliments (not that I get many), and when I do receive one I usually downgrade them to mere suggestions. I don’t think highly of myself, I don’t believe for one second that I am attractive and definitely do not regard myself as the sharpest tool in the shed. I usually receive compliments from my husband and it frustrates him whenever I look away and disregard what he had said. He often puts his hand on my cheeks, turn my face so that I look him in the eyes, and then repeats his compliment, making sure that I ‘hear’ what he is saying. My children always shower me with praise: “Mommy, you’re the best baker ever!” “Mommy tonight’s dinner was delicious. You are such a good cook”. “Wow mommy, you look very nice today”. As much as I adore them for these kind words I still have to force myself to say thank you.
Today I received such a compliment, or at least the person who said it thought she was making a positive remark, but the words really stung: “…seeing as she’s just skin and bones”. Obviously she doesn’t know my past struggles with eating disorders. Perhaps she thought she was complimenting me because what woman doesn’t want to hear that she is seen as skinny (or skinnier) than the average female? Certainly not this one! But what I find most puzzling is that I am not skinny AT ALL! Yes I am a recovered anorexic and bulimic. Yes I still have my inner demons who at times rear their dreadful heads, but I have a ‘healthy’ weight. I do not starve myself, I do not purge and I eat daily meals. I think that is what is upsetting me the most about her comment. Am I not seeing what she’s seeing? Did she say that merely because it is what we say when we think we are complimenting someone? Does she think that I need to hear such a comment? And this brings me to a question I had thought about many times but not really had it affect me: can a harmless compliment actually cause more damage than good?
My opinion on this topic is that yes, the wrong compliment can cause more harm. “Keep it up, you are looking awesome”, “What are you doing to loose so much weight?” and “I wish I was as lucky as you”. These are just a few of the comments received during my battle with anorexia. The majority of the people and students who said this were not aware of what I was going through. They noticed an athlete who was not happy with her weight, lose this weight and really fast. They saw me in the gym every day for two hours, see me run on the athletics field every day, watched my restricted consumption of food and thought it was pure determination instead of destruction. Anorexia made me feel proud and kept me motivated to lose the weight rapidly: See, other people are noticing you, you are popular again. The less you weigh, the more you will be noticed. You don’t need food, you need these compliments, you need me. Obviously I didn’t expect people to know that something was wrong, and I didn’t want them to know because if they found out they will try to separate me from my disorder and at the time just the thought was suffocating.
I’m wondering if it is more important to rather show compassion rather than wanting to give superficial compliments (not that the beautiful words I receive from my family are superficial, I know their hearts and I know that it is said with love and admiration). My English teacher at the time said something to me that made more of an impact than most of the comments combined. It was after my prepared speech during our mid-year exam that she asked me: “Are you okay?” “Yes, why?” “I can see that you have lost a lot of weight recently and I can’t help but wonder if there is another reason for this weight loss”. “I am fine, really”. “At least promise me that you will talk to someone of things get too much for you, and know that I am also here if you need to talk”.
I never did go back to her to talk about it, and things did get much worse and I didn’t ask for help, but I do appreciate that she stepped forward and instead of making superficial compliments, said something meaningful. I think that is what the comment made by Mark Twain suggests, that we should rather invest in making meaningfull and deep-seeded conversations (not necessarily compliments) to show that we care about the person on the receiving end, because without knowing we could just change someone’s life, we could just help them live for another 2 months