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Opinion: Compliments can be hurtful

The overutilization of compliments can do more harm than good in the long run.
Image by Ava Weinreis
Research shows there is a correlation between over-complimenting and narcissism.

In order for a plant to grow, it needs water. Of course, the plant also needs sunlight, good soil and tender care, but the right amount of water keeps the plant replenished long enough for development to take place. Nevertheless, too much water can drown the plant, stunting its growth and ultimately killing it.

Humans are just the same.

Compliments, when given genuinely, can be very beneficial in our growth — whether it be toward our talents, practices or even appearances. They can make us feel great and seen, shooting a sliver of bliss into our egos and confidence in our stride.

Even so, when we are over-watered with compliments, especially when they lack sincerity, more damage is done than good.

To paint a picture in your head: take one person, now give them constant words of admiration from multiple people. Their compliments, although nice to hear, can essentially drown out this person’s ability to tackle criticism and distort the value of an authentic compliment to them.

“It’s not about the number of compliments you get, but the genuineness of it,” said Bella Power, a second-year student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and former dance teacher. “Someone can become egotistical when they need compliments in order to function. Ego oftentimes leads to less respect for your peers or mentors because it can lead you to feel like you don’t need them anymore.”

In a study done to assess the origins of narcissism, researchers have found a correlation between people whose parents constantly praised them growing up and people who were likely to score high on narcissistic qualities. Results concluded praise should be utilized to promote good behavior rather than “piled on indiscriminately.”

“Being given a lot of compliments did build up the ego of some of the dancers,” Power said. “It’s a difficult thing when you don’t want to break their spirit but you also don’t want them going around saying they’re the best and making others feel bad.”

A compliment can be a very significant motivator for people. It sustains their drive to work harder in order to eventually be recognized for their efforts. Even as they finally receive that recognition, there is still a desire for improvement beyond that, creating the recipe for a strong work ethic within a person.

An example of this can be seen within the world of cheer. Cheerleaders, like many other athletes, are perfectionists. They are trained to complete the hardest of moves yet cast a look of ease to the audience. Cheer is an intricate sport requiring lots of practice and time in order to achieve the desired, uniform result.

It’s no surprise cheerleaders prefer tough love to plain and polite compliments. It lets them know where to improve. It’s the sun that allows them to grow out from beneath the soil.

“I feel like it’s more productive to just have straight-up criticism,” said Elinor Untiedt, a third-year student and cheerleader at the University of Minnesota. “I’d much rather know what part could be better and narrow down what I need to work on than looking at the big picture.”

Being direct wastes less time. It can teach a person how to tackle criticism and keep an open mind for their future ventures. Despite the benefit being direct can bring, just like compliments, it calls for moderation.

“If you give too much criticism and no compliments it could hurt the person in the long run,” Power said. “Compliments are what drives people to improve and criticism is what helps them improve.”

A compliment is something that ought to be earned. It has a deeper meaning that goes beyond just stating a fact. It’s a sign your efforts have improved and others are able to bear witness to those assiduous endeavors.

“For lack of a better term, it’s a reward for putting in that extra work. Your coaches are proud to see you succeed,” Untiedt said.

As a coach, mentor or even friend, it is important to find a balance between praising one’s skills and being straightforward about what they can build on going forward in whatever they may do in life.

“That open honesty really helps people understand the pros and cons of their skills,” Untiedt said. “For me, it’s what I respond best to. I don’t need anything else but a face-to-face conversation on what I could work on.”

Compliments are free and can be a powerful thing. They should come from deep within and be specific to whoever has the pleasure of receiving one. Compliments can replenish a person, but it bodes well when it is done with consideration and sincerity. Like I said, along with the right amount of water, a plant also needs sunlight, good soil and tender care to grow.

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  • Yvonne
    Dec 3, 2023 at 9:30 pm

    “Compliments are free and can be a powerful thing. They should come from deep within and be specific to whoever has the pleasure of receiving one.” This is so eloquently stated, as it exemplifies why someone might be compelled to over-compliment and overwater a person (because they are free and powerful), yet the statement counteracts itself, working in a balance much like described throughout the rest of the article. It is so important for one to be sincere when complimenting, to grow the person, and therefore make the world better one person or flower at a time.