A Better Way for Praise, Validation and Encouragement

DepressionGiving compliments and arguing with someone when they say something negative about themselves seems like a straightforward, positive thing to do, right? It’s far more complicated than that, though, and a thoughtless compliment can be damaging and hurtful. It’s easy to think that just by being positive we’ll have a positive effect, but intent is not magic. Trying to do good doesn’t mean that you’re going to accomplish it.

This post at Full Metal Feminist about the author’s frustrations with her voice and being misgendered illustrates this well:

How can a compliment be frustrating? When it feels like it leaves no room for how I feel about it. It feels like I’m hearing, “Oh, you’re wrong about that, there’s nothing wrong with your voice!”

If you’ve ever struggled with something that causes you genuine discomfort–especially if it’s something that also marginalizes you–that response probably sounds unpleasantly familiar. This post at Book of Jubilation zeroes in on this effect specifically on us millennials, we who were supposedly raised to be egotistical monsters:

I came away thinking that there is a deep sickness in the root of my generation’s soul, and this is what it looks like: To be imperfect is to be inadequate. If you are not an extraordinary success, you are an utter failure.

And overwhelmingly, the students I saw—bright, accomplished, high-achieving people—were obsessed with the thought that they were lazy, stupid, and untalented. Impostor syndrome ran rampant, as student after student agonized over the ethics of letting people believe they were good people or even adequate human beings, when their private truth about their selves was far harsher.

If there can be a better way to say sorry, can’t there be a better way for praise? I think there can. And like the apology script offered by JoEllen, being specific about what you’re really saying is key. There’s a world of difference between saying “sorry” and leaving it at that and identifying what you’re apologizing for, what harm it caused, how you’ll behave differently in the future, and asking for forgiveness.

Praise

I’m a strong believer in avoiding “you are” praise as often as possible. It can’t always be avoided, but it’s one of the poorest ways to offer praise in my opinion for two reasons.

The first is that you’re setting up your own viewpoint as reality and negating anything the person you’re praising might feel. Telling someone “you’re good”, “you’re smart”, “you’re awesome” or anything like that sounds nice on the surface, but you’ve taken your subjective opinion and declared it as fact. Maybe it’s a nice opinion, but that’s still a weird thing to do and it’s downright gaslighting when your opinion differs wildly from the opinion of the person you’re praising.

The second reason is that “you are” praise is putting everything into a neat little box, with no room or need for further action. If you are good, or you are smart, or you are awesome, then that’s not being tied to anything you’re doing. It’s not something that’s been earned. It’s not something that’s been proven. It just is. If I am good, then I don’t have to work further to be good, do I? This praise is thus incredibly easy to dismiss and doesn’t accomplish much even if it is accepted.

Far more powerful praise is connected to actions, rather than states of being: You [have done something], which [caused positive effect]. I appreciate [this quality you are currently displaying].

“You always listen when I have a problem, which makes me feel supported and loved. I appreciate your friendship.”

“You worked really hard studying for that test, which helped you understand the subject better. I appreciate your dedication.”

“You cleaned the house, which allowed me to come home and relax without having to worry about it. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.”

Doesn’t that have a better impact than just flatly declaring “you’re awesome”? Wouldn’t you rather know that the other person recognizes what you’ve done and appreciates it? That they’ve given real thought to what they’re saying? It doesn’t have to follow that script exactly, but powerful praise should contain those elements. Identify an action, identify a positive effect, then offer your appreciation.

Validation

Offering validation can be one of the hardest habits to learn and yet one of the easiest ways to support someone. You’re simply recognizing that the other person is stating their own personal truth. If they say “I hate my voice”, use empathy. Recognize that this is how they feel, that this is their reality, and how hard that must be. “Yeah, I can see that you feel that way. That has to be difficult to deal with.” See how easy that is? Now remembering to do that instead of the knee jerk “NO, I REJECT YOUR REALITY AND SUBSTITUTE MY OWN” is the hard part.

As an illustration of how important validation is, I’m going to relate a story from my own life. I suffer from depression and a few years ago I made the mistake of trying to explain the dark, scary thoughts I was struggling with to a friend of mine. I talked about how worthless I felt and how I hated myself and how I wanted to die. Her response: “How dare you say that about my friend. If someone else was saying that about you I’d punch them.”

Luckily, I obviously didn’t kill myself at that time, but her response was absolutely devastating to me. It didn’t make me feel better or make me doubt the negative things I’d been thinking about myself. All it did was ensure that I would never speak in detail about my depression to that person ever again. I would never again trust her fully with emotional vulnerability. And the fear of that sort of reaction–of having our reality invalidated–is one reason why so many people struggling with negative thoughts about themselves don’t seek out life-saving help.

Wouldn’t you rather do the difficult work of picking up that validation habit and helping your friends, romantic partners, or children, instead of being someone they fear opening up to?

Encouragement

You cannot encourage someone who doesn’t want it or isn’t ready for it. Until they’re both ready and wanting, your encouragement may not do any good and could cause harm. And how do you know when they’re ready? Simple! Ask.

“Do you want encouragement right now, or just some venting space?” I’ve asked this question countless times and have always gotten a truthful answer. When I tailored my response to what the other person requested, they got what they needed. By asking, you’re letting them know that you’re there to support them and not just give empty lip-service. You’re giving them an opportunity to examine their own feelings and influence their own self-image.

Just like with praise, encouragement should be concrete and tied into things the other person has already accomplished. Maybe that means breaking things down into babysteps (“this is a big task, but it’s made up of lots of little ones just like problems you’ve solved before”). Maybe that means drawing connections that aren’t immediately obvious (“this is a completely new experience for you and you loved the last time you did something new”). Whatever it is, it should be tailored to that specific person’s specific life experience. If you don’t know someone well enough to do that, don’t. Just offer empathy and validation, listening and learning until you have more to offer. If they’re suffering from a situation you have no idea how to deal with (they’re dealing with racism and you’re white, or gender dysphoria and you’re cis), they probably don’t expect any advice from you anyway. Listening and empathizing will still be helpful.

Encouragement really is simply another form of praise. Instead of focusing on one thing the person has done which is positive, you’re going to take that positive action and show them how it proves they can continue to take positive actions.

We can’t always make someone’s problems disappear, which is frustrating. Trying to wish problems away by saying things the other person can’t accept as true is tempting, but it really does lead to riding roughshod over their personal experience. If you care about someone and want to make them feel good, then recognize that relationships and interpersonal interactions aren’t always simple. Good intentions aren’t enough. But there’s still a lot we can do to help people and to show our love.

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3 thoughts on “A Better Way for Praise, Validation and Encouragement

  1. Pingback: I Hate My Voice | Fullmetal Feminist

  2. Caitie, I’m so glad you liked it! Your post crystallized some stuff I’ve been thinking about for a while, so I really wanted to ensure I gave proper credit.

    Like

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