Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Canceled by Compliments

After a conversation with an acquaintance a few weeks ago, I felt a bit off, sort of drained, unsatisfied. At first I couldn’t figure out why. It was a pleasant conversation and I enjoyed catching up. We didn’t talk about anything upsetting. She didn’t say anything unkind. On the contrary, she interjected numerous compliments into the conversation. Why would that leave me feeling disconcerted, like we really hadn’t connected?

The term “cancel culture” is in the news a lot. When I thought of all those compliments she showered me with, I realized that I felt “canceled” by them.

Don’t get me wrong. I like compliments as much as anybody. Many of us have a habit of deflecting compliments, like it’s not okay to receive a positive accolade. I’ve learned to receive compliments with gratitude, to just say “thank you” instead of rejecting a sincere gift of appreciation.

The compliments in this conversation, however, left me feeling unseen and unheard. This puzzled me, as I believe that they were well-intentioned. But they painted a picture of my life that was too ideal, and a picture of me that was way, way, way too perfect. There was little space for me to speak honestly about my life, and any efforts to do so were quickly washed over with contradicting superlatives.

This also made it difficult to share honestly about her life, since by her own assessment it paled by comparison with mine (not the way I perceived it at all), and any expression of interest from me was not taken seriously.

To me, the compliments shut down communication. They prevented us from really listening to each other and sharing ourselves in an authentic way.

Please understand that I am not being critical. On the contrary, I think this experience is something we can all relate to. I thought about it a lot in the days afterwards. The conversation gave me an opportunity to reflect on the nature of communication, to explore the path we take through words to seek a sense of connection.

I realized that sometimes we might use words to avoid a sense of connection. For example, we might use compliments to circumvent a sensitive topic or to repress uncomfortable feelings. We might use them to deflect conversation away from something we want to keep private, or just to keep the conversation light.

I don’t know what was going on in my friend’s life that day. For whatever reason, and maybe for reasons she was not aware of, she wanted to keep a little distance. She may not have been communicating genuine compliments, but she was communicating a genuine need for whatever purpose the compliments served for her at that time. Perhaps I canceled her by not being sensitive to her unspoken need.

I felt a softening. Although the compliments left me feeling canceled during our conversation, subsequent reflection opened the door to compassion for both my acquaintance and myself. And compassion can create connection deeper than any words. It teaches us to take each other as we are. I ended up grateful for the encounter and appreciative that we both brought what we could to the conversation.

When we know ourselves to be connected to all others, acting compassionately is simply the natural thing to do. ~Rachel Naomi Remen

11 thoughts on “Canceled by Compliments”

  1. A very interesting post. I too sometimes feel disconcerted by comments that don’t seem quite right somehow. But now I will pay more attention and see if can find out what’s really going on. 🙂

    1. I think you hit on the key, DJan — paying more attention, especially when something doesn’t seem quite right, not only to the other person, but to our own inner response. We often unintentionally “cancel” ourselves by dismissing our own instincts and intuition. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Thank you for this post. It reminds me that all giving and receiving is one, but to demonstrate it with mastery requires practice. ACOL teaches that when we cease to project our fear as a response to experiencing an absence of love, we will feel true devotion. When we experience a lack of love we feel as if the other gives us nothing. It is our lack of ability to receive that causes this feeling. The practice of devotion is the way to purify our engagement with others. The practice is to recognize our feelings of lack of love (being cancelled) and realize these feelings come from an inability to receive. I must have personally incarnated with a PhD in this, because when anyone gives me a compliment I start laughing my ass off and I’m like . . . whatever . . . I am so not that . . . they must be totally projecting! LOL LOL LOL

  3. I have felt that same “distancing” when certain friends thought that my life was better than theirs. It doesn’t always come in the exact form of compliments, but in comparisons that make the person whose life is being put on a pedestal feel very uncomfortable and separate. Thanks for writing about this. I appreciate your insights.

    1. I’m glad you found it relevant, Caroline. We can find ourselves on either side of that comparison trap, and you are right that it can leave us feeling uncomfortable and separate. This gives us a chance to awaken compassion for ourselves and for the other person. Thanks for commenting.

  4. I have experienced this and it kind of forestalls going deeper, unless you feel you can probe or tell it how it really is. Being complimented is nice of course, but it can leave me feeling flat too. Compliments can come from a place of reflecting something about the person giving the compliments and somewhere lurking is certainly comparison. A friend once told me she was a little jealous of me being free to do my creative work. I laughed and told her I was a little jealous of her for having a ‘proper’ well paid job when I earn so little. Job satisfaction is more likely for her than for me. It was such a lovely moment, us realising that there just is no ideal, no perfect life – whatever you’re doing there is always something being sacrificed and that kind of has to be okay. Comparison is something we all tend to do, I was doing it again yesterday, and it’s usually from a ‘lower position’ looking at a higher one, and I was furious with myself because I thought I was getting better at not doing it. Oh well, some self compassion called for!

    1. Loved your example and your last line. Self compassion extends to compassion for others. How great that you and your friend could recognize your mutual comparisons and share a laugh. Thanks for commenting, Lynne.

  5. Mona R McGinnis

    I think the cancel compliments leave us feeling empty because there’s no recognition of the work it took to get to whatever level garnered the compliment. I used to feel so annoyed when people would comment on my retirement – You’re so lucky. 34 yrs of FT employment with one employer while maintaining a rural home life and raising a child and completing a post-basic degree and investing in a financial retirement plan. Oh, to be so lucky.

    1. That is quite an accomplishment, Mona. And I mean that compliment sincerely and without comparison — ha! Interesting to me how many folks can relate to this situation. It is more common that I realized. Thanks for your comment.

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