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How to deal with well-intentioned compliments

Posted February 1

"Well you look well-nourished!" said an older man whom I hadn't met before as I entered the group room to begin teaching a nutrition during recovery group class.

I immediately felt my ears get hot and I could tell my face had turned bright red. I didn't want to make eye contact with him because the awkwardness was too difficult to bear so I rummaged through my purse acting busy instead. After a few long, hot seconds, I looked up at him and to my surprise, he was smiling at me in a very kind and assuring way.

I immediately went from feeling offended and awkward to feeling uncomfortable. Now I was thinking maybe he was actually giving me a compliment — which means he was noticing my body — which makes me super uncomfortable, especially in a professional setting. Regardless, I realized in that moment when I made eye contact with him that he was genuinely trying to compliment me.

My first instinct was to take what he had said to mean that I was different physically than what he was expecting when he came to group that day — i.e. I wasn't as thin as he'd expected from a dietitian. But it was clear he was merely trying to be kind to me. Even though his compliment could be misconstrued, when I really took a look at his intentions, it was clear he was intending to be nice.

I think that's the key when someone gives you a compliment. Recognize that most people's words are a reflection of themselves, rather than you, and assume the best of intentions. Don't take things other people say too seriously—most of the time people aren't sure how to interact and often the things people say weren't very well thought out in the first place.

It happens all the time!

Many of my clients come to me and vent about backhanded compliments they've gotten from other people. It's surprising to some, but things like, "You look so good!" or "Wow, you've lost a lot of weight!" can actually really mess with people's heads. The complimenter means well by saying these things, but the person receiving the compliment often gets caught up in analyzing what the person really meant when they said those things.

Those compliments can be construed to communicate messages like: "You look so much better now" or "You're more beautiful/attractive now" or "You didn't look very good before" and on and on. A lot of people feel immense pressure to maintain an extremely rigid and unhealthy diet plan or exercise regimen because they're scared to miss out on the compliments and praise they get. And others take these messages to mean that they aren't worthy of love unless they look a certain way.

As you can see, compliments are tricky. As someone who listens to people explain how they are affected by the words of other people and how that can affect our behaviors and food choices, I have some thoughts about how we can better give and receive compliments.

First and foremost, I would encourage all of us to give people the benefit of the doubt as others give us compliments. Recognize that when people say something to you about yourself, their comment is usually more about that person than about you. I think it’s best to recognize the intention behind the compliment and assume the best.

And if you feel the desire to compliment someone, I suggest finding non-physical attributes to praise. Genuine accolades for a kind act, a really great idea or a positive way a person affected your life are the best types of compliments to receive. Comments on physical appearance, even when positive, can really mess with a person's head.

So, if you're the one giving a compliment, make it about something meaningful and life-enhancing for the compliment receiver. If you're the one receiving a compliment, assume the best of intentions from the person who's complimenting you and try not to overanalyze their comment. People are usually trying to be kind and complimentary but sometimes don't realize how it may affect the other person.

We can all take steps toward giving and receiving compliments with more grace and kindness. Take some time today to express genuine gratitude for someone in your life!

Paige is a registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in helping people heal their relationship with food. She hosts Nutrition Matters Podcast and has a private nutrition consulting business based in Salt Lake City.

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