I was visiting a housebound relative when she suddenly decided that she needed some straws. Even after being shown a full package of straws already in her drawer, she demanded more, shouting for her caregiver.
"Misty!" my relative roared. "Miiiisty! Go out and buy me some straws."
It took Misty a moment to set down her cooking tools, wipe her hands and rush down the hall to the bedroom. All the while, my relative kept shouting.
"Miiiisty! Miiiiiiisty! Why won't you help me? Do you call this caregiving? This isn't caregiving! I need straws! Right now! What's wrong with you? What makes you so slow?"
"I'm here," Misty said. "What kind of straws would you like?"
"You're selfish," my relative raged. "You're incompetent."
Suddenly I heard myself telling Misty: "You have a beautiful voice."
She paused, eyebrows rising.
"Yes. I never noticed it before. It's warm and rich."
In that split-second, we both stopped hearing my relative. Then everything sped up again, Misty received instructions and left for the store.
Replaying that day later in my mind, I realized that my importune remark had worsened the incident by prolonging it. But that remark had leaped out of my mouth as if propelled.
I knew what it was: a yearning to lessen Misty's suffering, to undo the abuse being hurled at her, to employ whatever magic I possessed that might recalibrate the energy in that room, diluting its chaos and contempt.
And what magic did I have? Only a sincere, authentic, spontaneous compliment.
False compliments are not actually compliments, but instead are tricks, traps, seductions, sales pitches and lies. Realizing this, recipients feel hatred, mistrust, resentment and shame.
True compliments are precious gifts that cost us nothing but a moment to compose them and the courage to convey them. Yet they often last forever, shining evidence delivered by impartial witnesses who might even be strangers, and who have nothing to gain from saying or writing Good job or You are fun to cook with or I love your sense of justice or Cool coat, yet say or write it anyway.
Self-hatred makes us especially skilled at giving sincere praise. Overly sensitive to criticism, because that is probably what harmed us in the first place and because—as if in lockstep loyalty to our tormentors— we still criticize ourselves viciously, we who struggle with self-hatred are also hyperaware of anti-criticism: any morsel of authentic praise from others feels to us like freedom, power, validation, inspiration, mercy, medicine.
That's why we seize upon such morsels with an urgency and gratitude that ordinary folks could never comprehend.
Why not pay true praise forward? Self-hatred makes us feel impotent. But here is something we can do—exquisitely:
We can make a personal mission of spotting praiseworthy things in others and, however possible, letting them know.
All compliments will do, as long as they are true, but here's a friendly tip: The more specific and detailed your praise, the more effective it will be. Not just Nice party or You handled that meeting well but Those decorations set the perfect mood and You deftly diffused the conflict between Isaac and the boss.
You need not blurt out the details and specificity at once, but offer them after breaking the ice. Detail and specificity lend compliments more credibility and heft because they prove that you have paid attention, you have noticed—thus that the recipient achieved, or has, or is, or does something worth noticing. Compare such specificity to simply clicking "like."
With every sincere compliment we offer someone, we can also compliment ourselves: Yay, I made So-and-So feel better/smarter/worthier right now and maybe in the long-term. I turned my own sensitivity and self-awareness into special X-ray specs that help me see praiseworthy things in others—aspects of themselves of which they are mistakenly ashamed, or of which they are unaware. My special X-ray specs give me the confidence to express what I see.