The power of words: compliments + criticisms + the vulnerability of it all

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I’m not an encourager.

I want to be, but it’s not naturally in my personality. If there’s no good in something, I’m not going to force it. If I’m not impressed I won’t blatantly say so, but I won’t lie either. (Sorry. I’m a tough crowd.) That, combined with the strong sense of self-sufficiency I learned from my mother (I love you Mom), and you have a very independent, perfectionist person.

Criticism is my home terrain. Self-improvement is my field of expertise. Honesty is my bread and a good work ethic is my butter.

Because of this, I never feel more vulnerable than when I am sincerely complimenting someone else.

A lot of us avoid compliments. And it took me a long time to figure out why, but I think I’ve found it – it’s one thing to send a Facebook message or leave a note, and it’s an entirely different thing to stare into someone’s baby blues and tell them how much their presence has changed you.

It’s scary. It’s vulnerable. Genuine compliments are hard. How do I look into someone’s eyes and tell them that they are irreplaceable in my life? How do I admit to someone how I have admired them from afar? How can I bare myself as the needy, confused, grateful person I am when all I want is to just be cool? JUST BE COOL.

Interesting how the more meaningful one is also the scarier one, isn’t it?

• • • • •

The people who know me will say I am hard on the people I love. This is because I want them to be the best versions of themselves, just like I want to be the best version of myself. Honestly, it’s a reflection of the way I treat myself. I am hard on other people because I am hard on me.

Criticism can be eye-opening, but when used without restraint it can cripple vulnerability. When your entire relationship is basically you pointing out the faults in another person, the relationship becomes really tiring and heavy and not a place where you feel safe to express yourself. In order to have a healthy relationship, you must be honest and also discerning.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the way I treat my boyfriend. I love him more than sleeping in, pie, and Netflix (3 of my favorite things), but I don’t let anything slide and he knows it. He’ll tell you he’s grateful because I’m pushing him to be a better person, but I know it doesn’t always feel that way. There are times when the compliments are scarce and the criticisms are many. I criticize because it’s safer for me to analyze him than to trust him. Sometimes my critique is more selfish than selfless.

• • • • •

He and I had a last-lunch-before-spring-break, the buzz of the dining commons around us as we talked about faith and God and identity and shame. And suddenly I found them – the words I had been searching for.

I looked him in the eyes, and I told him how he is living Jesus: in the way he works behind the scenes without recognition, how he makes time to help people he barely knows, how he is endlessly patient with me as I muddle my way through my huge, sometimes crippling fear. How those who humble themselves shall be exalted. How those who put themselves last shall go first. How the one who leads by example is the one who should be leading us from the podium. How he’s making me better, just by being himself.

His eyes filled with tears as I spoke and I knew, in that moment, that this is the most important work I do. Nothing is more important than this – extending tenderness to those I love most.

And we sat there, both blinking back tears and grinning and hearts as soft as butter, and there is no sweeter moment than one who is reminded of how much they are loved.

• • • • •

I know it’s scary. It’s tough as frick. But I hope you’ll tell someone how much they actually mean to you – how much you need them, and how they give you strength to go on. We forget how much power words have until we hear them, and once we hear the right words, we are never the same.

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