Complimentary therapy

In order to accept a compliment, we must share our emotions, says David Servan-Schreiber


Complimentary therapy

I love compliments: paying them and receiving them. Life is too short to miss an opportunity to make someone else happy.

But all too often compliments make us feel awkward, especially when we are on the receiving end. When I tell my friend Marie that I like her dress, she replies humbly, ‘Oh, it’s just something I picked up in the sales,’ and quickly changes the subject. Perhaps she is feigning embarrassment, or maybe she genuinely doesn’t know what to say, but this pushes me away from her.

My friend Anne replies, ‘Yes, it’s Sonia Rykiel,’ but my words wash over her as well. Isabelle, on the other hand, masks her discomfort with humour: ‘I’m sure it would really suit you!’ she laughs. 

Luckily, there are people who know how to take compliments, and who have taught me how to do so, too.

A compliment should be a mini celebration between two people. But to truly celebrate you have to be prepared to reveal something of yourself, to make yourself vulnerable. We feel closer to those who allow us glimpses of what makes them tick. If I compliment a friend on her garden, I want her to say, ‘I’m glad you’re saying this; I put a lot of work into it and I’m pleased with it. I am really happy that you like it, too.’

When I talk to someone about what gives me pleasure, and they confide their feelings in return, our emotional brains connect. All the studies on communication point to this fact: in order to have a truly satisfactory exchange, we must share our emotions.

As soon as we see someone showing emotion, we feel we are seeing the real them. Something resonates between two people who have opened up to one another, as a beautiful note reverberates between two guitars playing a duet. So many times I have listened to the regrets of those who have not learned to share their feelings. They say things such as, ‘My father died and I never told him how much he meant to me,’ or ‘My husband never tells me how much he appreciates what I do for him’. We quickly learn to keep compliments to ourselves when we think they will be badly received. 

I was lucky enough to have a wonderful teacher in my grandmother, though she taught me this lesson only once. She was a stoic, and didn’t talk about herself very much, but she was a constant presence during the difficult passages of childhood. I was just a young adult when I visited her on her deathbed. Moved by her serenity and her beauty in her delicate white nightdress, I held her hands and told her how much she had meant to the child I once was. I cried, of course, not knowing how to hold back my tears. She caught one of my tears on her finger and showed it to me. With a gentle smile she said: ‘You know, your words and your tears are as precious to me as gold.’ It was to be our last celebration.