Change lives by tak­ing the time to praise oth­ers — and learn how to ac­cept a com­pli­ment your­self

Sunday Territorian - - FRONTIER - AN­GELA MOLLARD an­ge­lam­ol­ Fol­low me at twit­­ge­lam­ol­lard

If you’re read­ing this I want you to stop. I want you to look up and see the peo­ple around you — your part­ner, your chil­dren, your flat­mates, the barista in the cafe. Then I want you to think of some­thing they’ve done or some­thing they are or some­thing they’ve said that you re­ally liked. Then I want you to tell them.

“I’m so thrilled you took the time to or­gan­ise that week­end away,” you might say to your part­ner. Or … “Your cart­wheels are look­ing im­pres­sive” — hope­fully to small child not hus­band. Or …. “Mate, your cof­fee is the best in the neigh­bour­hood.” OK, off you go. Come back when you’re done. How did that go? I ask be­cause last week I was un­ex­pect­edly bowled over by a string of com­pli­ments. I wasn’t be­ing par­tic­u­larly nice or clever and I cer­tainly wasn’t look­ing my best af­ter a week in­dulging in my mum’s bak­ing.

Typ­i­cally, I’d bat away such praise. On my hair: “Oh this must be the one day in seven it’s de­cided to look good.” On my writ­ing: “You’re so kind, but you re­ally should read Frances Whit­ing, she’s bril­liant.” On my cook­ing … ac­tu­ally I rarely re­ceive com­pli­ments on my cook­ing as I live with two teenage in­grates.

Any­way, hav­ing noted that I was in­ex­pli­ca­bly the re­cip­i­ent of such love­li­ness I de­cided to fol­low the ad­vice of Amer­i­can writer Alice James and “be­lieve the com­pli­ments im­plic­itly for five min­utes”, then let them “sim­mer gen­tly for 20 more.”

So when a friend told me my skin looked good I went home and checked it out in the mir­ror. Yeah, ac­tu­ally it did.

When a fel­low TV com­men­ta­tor told me his mum thought I was “in­tel­li­gent and mea­sured”, I didn’t ask if his mum needed her hear­ing aid checked but in­stead smiled all the way up the street.

When my brother told me I was a good lis­tener, I nod­ded and, um, kept lis­ten­ing since I didn’t want to spoil the im­pres­sion.

And when a friend sug­gested I should be­come an agony aunt since “you are so wise and com­pas­sion­ate and have just the right way of say­ing things” I read the email three times then floated round the house imag­in­ing what my nom de plume might be when Anna Win­tour calls to of­fer me a page in Vogue.

You’re prob­a­bly think­ing I’m a right prat, but it’s time we stopped brush­ing off com­pli­ments and in­stead held them and turned them over and popped them in our pock­ets like a pretty shell you might find at the beach. Later we could take them out and see the beauty of them and how, strung to­gether, they form a neck­lace of self-belief that helps you ap­ply for that job or say yes to that date or the op­por­tu­nity to travel on your own.

Like im­pos­tor syn­drome, self-dep­re­ca­tion and our habit of say­ing “yes” we’ll do some­thing when ac­tu­ally we don’t want to, fail­ing to ac­cept com­pli­ments has be­come the de­fault of the “pleaser” — so of­ten teenage girls. This week I over­heard a 16-year-old be­ing asked by one of her friend’s mums which school hockey team she was in. “The firsts,” she mum­bled. “Well done,” said the mother. “Ac­tu­ally, the stan­dard’s not that high,” she said, shuf­fling un­com­fort­ably.

Oh that these girls might ex­change the ubiq­ui­tous sac­cha­rine com­pli­ments of In­sta­gram — “so pretty” — for the soul­swelling nour­ish­ment that comes from be­ing told they sing bril­liantly or they’re hi­lar­i­ous or the way they put those green pants with those or­ange sneak­ers is ge­nius.

The rest of us need to show them. I need to tell my girls I’ll never for­get a col­league in Lon­don tak­ing me to lunch and thank­ing me for be­ing loyal. It was 20 years ago, but I still re­mem­ber the mo­ment, the savour­ing of the word. Even now I’ll play Dave Dob­byn’s ‘Loyal’ on tricky days when I’ve been mean or thought­less, hop­ing it’ll get me back on track.

How many go to their death never be­ing told what made them pre­cious? I’ve sat through eu­lo­gies wish­ing the per­son in­side the cof­fin could hear what’s be­ing said of them; the dif­fer­ence they made.

Com­pli­ments — like na­ture and af­fec­tion and danc­ing — are like sparklers. They fizz and thrill and il­lu­mi­nate in the mo­ment, but if you close your eyes and re­mem­ber them days or years later it’s im­pos­si­ble not to smile; to be buoyed by an in­deli­ble sense of worth.

Like­wise they’re bal­last against the harsh­ness of so­cial me­dia and the ug­li­ness of self-loathing. How much harder it might be to self-harm or sub­mit your­self to numb­ing sex or con­sider tak­ing your own life if you’d clasped and trea­sured those kind words, rather than bat­ted them away.

If ev­ery per­son over 30 learned to say “thank you” when com­pli­mented, ev­ery per­son un­der 30 would grow up know­ing that’s how it’s done, just as they know you can’t chop raw chicken and salad on the same board and that it’s sen­si­ble to wear a coat in win­ter. In ac­cept­ing com­pli­ments we be­come bet­ter at giv­ing them. And with each sparkler lit it be­comes just that lit­tle bit eas­ier to walk in the world.

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