No Buts About It

I like compliments.

My assumption is that you like compliments too.

While I try not to fish around for compliments or try to manipulate a conversation in a way that I'm forcing praise or adoration, there are times that I hope to get positive recognition for an accomplishment. As someone that often wrestles with self-doubt that can lead to depression or as someone that on a daily basis is putting his work out there into the public for anyone to see or read or listen, it is uplifting when someone expresses sincere appreciation for my work. 

I am going forward with the assumption that you also like your hard work acknowledged and sometimes just need a boost that comes from appreciation or genuine gratitude. If I'm wrong about your stance on receiving compliments then this may go down as the most useless post I've written.

Most of us, except the people who just grumbled 'those stinking dang compliments' and left this article in a huff, can agree that it is good to bestow compliments, praise and encouragement on others. We don't necessarily encourage just to get it back, but we realize the boost that it gives us, so we try to pay forward to others that deserve or may just need a pick-me-up that day. I believe that sincere and earned compliments build a person up and give them a stronger drive for more success.

I also recognize that sometimes I can appreciate something but see there is room for improvement. I am glad Everett cleaned his room but maybe it would have been better if he didn't stuff all the trucks into his closet. I really appreciate the shirt that was bought for me, but did it need to have 'Farts' in bold lime green spread across it? I love the performance Danika did for me, but did I need to hear 'Let It Go' for the hundredth time? The garden the person has been working on all day looks great, but they missed a whole bunch of weeds in the left corner.

As much as it is nice to compliment, most of us like to offer constructive criticism even more. Because everyone wants to improve right? We can build someone up but also let them know that they can be better. It is just so much more efficient to squeeze in some constructive feedback along with that praise.

But. . . 

What if your attempt to lift someone's spirit or show your appreciation is completely lost when you also attempt to shine a light on areas for improvement? It is like giving someone an elegant cake but then right after slapping them in the face. They probably are in less of a mood to thank you for the cake, especially since it has now splattered all over the ground.

In the documentary Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru, Robbins is running one of his self-improvement retreats. At one point, Robbins asks a wife if she has seen noticeable improvements in her husband's confidence and behaviour after doing the week-long activities and exercises. She responds that she appreciates all the progress he has made but she hopes he can keep it up when they get home. At this moment, Robbins cringes. He argues that she built up her husband to just knock him back down all in one sentence. She appreciated him while also doubting he could be that person all at the same time. She raised him up to smash him with a 'but'.

I saw this movie several years ago for The Movie Breakdown podcast and I can't even remember if it actually was a couples retreat or if the movie was about one specific retreat or several different ones. I've seen hundreds upon hundreds of movies since that one, so I am not surprised that I don't remember a lot of it (did I even recommend it?). But I vividly remember that scene and it has been embedded in my brain.

How many times have I built someone up to only unintentionally crush their self-esteem and confidence in the exact same sentence? How many times did I allow that pesky 'but' to creep into the compliment or praise?

I think about my kids and they both have their things that they struggle with on a regular basis. They also have good days where they conquer those challenges and they impress me with their effort. I praise them. But I also want them to get better and to rid that struggle from their life. I am coming from a sincere and compassionate place. On those days that they are little champions and they've been doing exactly what I've been hoping, the last thing they need is to be reminded of their flaws and of the very things they made such a strong effort to eradicate that day. 

Will they fall short tomorrow? Will those bad habits surface again? Probably. My kids appear to be humans. But reminding them of those mistakes by saying something like, 'You were really great today, but I hope you can do it again tomorrow' deflates all the energy and encouragement that I just pumped into them. They probably remember the issues they've struggled with for the last few years and the day of victory is the worst moment to remind them of it. 

Yes, their flaws may return. Yes, I really wish they wouldn't. Yes, as a parent I need to help teach and guide my kids. But pointing out where they need to improve in what is supposed to be a moment of encouragement and building them up isn't the time for constructive criticism that reminds them of a weakness. Compliments should be a celebration with no 'buts' attached to it.

I know someone who had an unhappy marriage. I am the first to agree that a marriage is a thing that must be built and nurtured by both people. If it wasn't working, then both spouses need to take some responsibility. In this case, the reason the one person was unhappy was due to the other spouse not showing much affection and often doing things that were deemed foolish. I know that the other spouse could have been way more affectionate and had their own issues that they should have been more willing to work through. But I also often saw the unhappy person openly complain about their spouse to others and rarely show any appreciation for the effort or work that their spouse had made. 

When that other spouse did do something kind or helpful or smart and if I pointed it out, the unhappy spouse would usually conceded it was good thing but they add that the other spouse almost never did this and they probably couldn't keep it up or they found some flaws in the action. You could see the other person start to crumble and you probably can figure out why they rarely wanted to show affection or have the strength to rise to the moment. It is hard to be a hero if the people you're trying to protect and love can't fully embrace your actions.

I get constructive criticism. It has a lot of value. We do need to tell those that we love and trust how they can improve. If no one tells me where I can improve as a writer and podcaster than I'm likely to continue to wallow in mediocrity or be unaware of my weaknesses in that field. I do tell my kids what they need to work on or point out when they are being natural disasters. but if someone is just told constantly how they need to improve and where they are failing then they are going to be buried and overwhelmed by their shortcomings. 

The spouse may start seeing any effort as pointless because no matter what they do comes with a criticism attached. A child may start believing that they are hopeless because even on good days they are reminded about what they do wrong. A friend may move because a relationship is burying them in negativity.

People need to be told how they can improve but they also need to be told when they are amazing and awesome and wonderful. They need to be built up so that they have the confidence and self-esteem to aspire to be better, stronger and smarter. Sometimes they need praise and encouragement with no 'buts'.

I get that it can be hard. For the first time the spouse actually cooks dinner or finally fixes that loose plank on the deck, you want to thank them but you'd also like them to know it'd be nice it if it happened more often. Or you're glad they swept the floor after woodworking, but it'd be nice if they wiped the workspace too. You're glad they made the pasta bake but if they'd added this seasoning or cooked it this way then it would have been so much better. If you present your kids a long list of how they could have cleaned the family room better or let your spouse know how much better it would have been if they did this weeks ago or provide detailed critiques to the friend who is doing you a favour then you may have the answer why those people rarely do what you expect or want from them. 

A compliment or praise or encouragement is not those things if the person feels worse after. If you want to build someone up and make them have the confidence to really reach their potential in life, then leave out the 'buts'. A compliment is not a real compliment when there is a 'but' attached. You have not empowered or built someone up if you've also reminded them of their flaws. If someone does something good even if not to pristine standards then usually a compliment is what is appropriate.

Let me make this very clear, this is being written by someone who is very guilty of this. This is not some passive aggressive manifesto to try to get people to tell me how awesome I am. I am writing this because I recognize how often that I let that cruel 'but' ruin a moment of victory. We focus so much on the negatives about ourselves and others that we forgot to celebrate all the wonderful things about each other. There is so much anxiety, hostility and sadness permeating throughout the world with people feeling so exhausted and beat down, and a lot of that can change if we focus more on building each other up than pointing out the things we don't like about a person. The world can use a lot more positivity and a huge start is to give genuine and heartfelt compliments, gratitude and encouragement that is absent of 'buts'.

This is not a declaration against any criticism. I have been a professional movie critic since 2012, so I've done my fair share of pointing out issues in things. There is a time and place where you can suggest areas where someone can improve and better themselves. But I also think it is so natural for us as humans to notice the flaws or know what we want to be better that we rarely really appreciate the reason we love someone in the first place and we forget even more often to voice those appreciations to those that we love.

So, if someone does a kind act of service or gives you a nice gift or have accomplished a major achievement or is making real effort to better your relationship then show your appreciation and compliment them but leave the 'buts' out. Leave the constructive criticism for another day and this time just build them up and make them feel appreciated. You may end up being shocked that the encouragement and appreciation will push them to be much better and be more motivated to improve than any sentence that has a 'but' ever will. A person who gets that high of being appreciated may do what they can to achieve it again or find ways to be even better without that pesky 'but'.

There are also selfish reasons to leave out the 'buts'. Instead of dwelling on the negatives, you are fully appreciating the good things in your life. You are being grateful for that person and all their positives. The spirit of gratefulness and a more positive outlook will make you feel better and see your relationships in a much happier and positive way.

So, it is time to give authentic and sincere encouragement, praise and compliments with no 'buts' about it.