The Power of a Heartfelt Compliment to Cultivate Connection and Obliterate Shame

Compliment When you receive a genuine, heartfelt compliment you feel affirmed and validated.

“You’re doing a great job.”

“I really like the way you handled that.”

“You inspire me.”

Feels nice, doesn’t it?

The Power of Compliments and Moral Support

The power of compliments and moral support has been a theme in my life recently. First I got a compliment that made my week:

Your TED talk really resonated with me and I haven’t gotten a chance to tell you that until now. Anyway, thank you for being such a wonderful role model; not only for women in aviation but for people in general. You’re awesome.

(Thank you, Lauren!)

Then I had coffee and chatted and really did nothing other than listen and offer some encouraging words to my friend, Scott McMurren, who is bringing the spirit of World Domination Summit to Alaska, getting outside his comfort zone and launching a community building event for his readers. I’m so proud of him for going for it. He inspires me.

Then a close friend shared the painful truth that she’s been accepting the message that she’s “not enough” from her partner. (Been there sister, no more.) You are enough. I listened and offered what insights I could. It seemed to help.

Finally, the Big Life Accountability Support Team (BLAST) said the support and encouragement of others as one of the most powerful aspects of the group. Yes!

Hard-wired for Connection

Research has shown we are hard-wired for connection. When we feel connected, we feel loved and alive. We experience joy. We are emboldened. Yet we often feel separate and disconnected. We feel inadequate.

What prevents us from connecting? Shame. Brené Brown defines shame as, “the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.”

We Don’t Like to Talk About Shame

Shame isn’t something we really like to talk about. I’d like to pretend it doesn’t exist. Brené found in her research on shame, “the less you talk about it, the more you’ve got it.” Eek. So let’s do this.

The etymological root of shame is “to cover.” The hurtful comment someone said to you? We bury it and hide it because it feels too painful to share how much it hurt. Or when we’ve made a huge mistake? We’d rather minimize it or pretend it didn’t occur.

A Litmus Test for Shame

Want a litmus test for shame compared to guilt?  Guilt is when you tell yourself, “I did something bad.” Shame is when you tell yourself, “I am bad.”

My own shame isn’t that unique: I feel ashamed of my hurtful attitude toward a friend, the “glossing over” the intensity of a loved one’s grief, the way I can be judgmental. Just because your shame is generic, doesn’t mean it isn’t painful.

Shame Avoidance Strategies

Tara Brach says, “we all long to belong.” Yet when confronted with shame, we flee, numb or strive to make ourselves better because we feel we are “not enough.” My own shame strategy? Avoidance or sometimes a few too many adult beverages. But my default strategy has always been striving as if someday I might actually make it to “good enough.” Fleeing, numbing, striving – the shame avoidance trifecta. Now I give “not good enough” a seat at the table rather than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.

What’s your preferred method for avoiding shame?

Sharing shame obliterates it, but this isn’t to say we should share everything with everyone. We develop trust one interaction at a time. As Brené says, “we share our story with those who have earned the right to hear it.” Feeling connected has nothing to do with the amount of people around you. It has to do with feeling understood. No one wants to go it alone. Offering emotional support invites someone in and envelopes them in belonging. It is the antidote to shame.

There is much research about the power of a gratitude practice. But we can also create a practice of cultivating connection. Here’s how:

Practice Cultivating Connection

1. Make eye contact. 

2. Ask questions (and really want to hear the answer). Try these:

  • How are you?
  • What has been going on for you?
  • What have you been up to?
  • What have you been thinking about?
  • How have you been feeling?

3. Listen. It seems obvious, but we often think we are listening when instead we are formulating our response. Don’t talk. Don’t tell the other person how they feel. Don’t offer advice. Just listen.

4. Empathize. Affirm their feelings. Whether you agree or disagree with the individual, how they feel is how they feel. It is possible to be a good listener and not necessarily agree. You don’t need to tell them why you don’t agree. Offer moral support. Here are some empathetic statements:

  • I hear you.
  • I would feel the same way.
  • That sounds _____.
  • I understand how you feel.
  • Tell me more.

5. Wait. Usually the person will give you a sense of what they would like from you. All they may have wanted was for you to listen. Or they may ask: What do you think? What would you do? as a way to solicit advice. Or they may have more to share. Keep listening. And in case you haven’t seen it, this video always makes me laugh, as it pokes fun at a man’s desire to problem solve and a woman’s desire for listening.

6. Share. Vulnerability is a two-way street. Connection doesn’t occur unless both people are willing to be vulnerable. You can’t have all the benefits of connection without being vulnerable yourself. Connection develops when you let yourself be seen. If you aren’t sure what to say, tell them you don’t know what to say. We don’t want perfection. We want authenticity. We want you next to us in the arenaGet uncomfortable.

7. Compliment. Compliments are only powerful if they are genuine. We often hold back from offering compliments because we think the person already knows the trait we admire. Maybe. Maybe not. Offering a compliment can make someone’s day.

Don’t hold back. Shame isn’t very fun. But if we are going to create our own Big Life, we’ve got to acknowledge it, cultivate connection and offer empathy.

What’s your favorite shame avoidance strategy? Who can you compliment? Who can you provide empathy to?  Who can you envelope in belonging?  How do you cultivate connection? Share in the comments.

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