This weekend, I found myself sitting alongside Rebecca Adlington on a train. My first thought was, “there’s that amazing Olympian”, and the second one was, “who’s been viciously trolled on the internet.” I wanted to tell her straight away that she is an inspiration to me and many of my friends, that we thought she was fabulous before she lost huge amounts of weight, and still think she is fabulous, especially with her Commonwealth Games swimming commentary. I spent the whole journey formulating what I was going to say to her when I got off at the next stop, talking to my friends on Facebook about it during the journey, with them all urging me to tell her that they think she’s great too.
When it came to it I was a gibbering wreck. I felt sure she must have thought I was mad, but she politely thanked me as I wittered on, telling her we all think she’s amazing. I like to think that although I didn’t quite get the words out according to plan, that I made her feel good with my girlcrush declaration.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we dole out compliments, or not, why we find it so difficult to do, and the effect that has on a person, especially a woman. I’m only writing this blog because the night before I started it, some girlfriends at a party started telling me they thought I was clever. I was absolutely stunned. One of them said, “Surely people have said this to you before?” Nope – not since I got a first in my degree and one of the lecturers was urging me to do a PhD. I’m pretty sure that was the last instance, and interestingly, I didn’t believe him.
I spent the day after that party basking in the memory of what my friends had said to me. I started to think: why do we spend so much time complimenting our girlfriends on their great hair/weight loss/new handbag when actually, telling them they’re clever has such a profound effect? After that party, I started my blog, went about my working week with renewed vigour and felt like I could take on the world just that little bit more effectively.
Throughout my life I’ve noticed that the non-compliment has a very powerful adverse effect. You think you’ve done something well or looked particularly good one day, in fact you are confident you’ve nailed it, but there is a certain set of people who can’t bear to tell you that. You start to doubt yourself because there is no validation of your actions coming back to convince you that the confidence you feel at that moment is right.
One of the things I’ve learned is that the less certain people say in response to these moments, the more you know you’ve nailed it. And I’ve learned that this sort of person isn’t my favourite. They always ‘like’ things on Facebook that are bad news for you, and never respond to the good posts. (I’ve actually stopped posting anything particularly negative to cut off their ‘food supply’). They’re seemingly there for you when the chips are down, but are nowhere to be seen when the chips are up. These people are mean-spirited, foul-weather ‘friends’.
I’m not just talking about women, although they are the predominant non-responders I’m referring to. One of my exes admitted he was afraid to compliment me because he thought ‘my head would get too big’. Unfortunately, it made my head look for compliments elsewhere. I had been happily doling out compliments to him to make him feel good. Where was the reciprocation?
I think we have a problem with confidence, particularly in this country. Many people can’t bear to see it and do their best not to feed what they perceive as a vulgar trait.
Why bolster someone else’s confidence when you’re struggling with your own?
It occurred to me last week that as a nation, we’ve only been able to truly welcome two of our biggest sporting talents (sport requires confidence, obviously) when they’ve been seen to buckle on screen and cry their eyes out. Andy Murray and Rebecca Adlington are now only acceptable because they’ve shown some ‘humility’, but they were never cocky so-and-sos in the first place. Weirdly, we love cocky so-and-sos and find them easier to handle than people whom we perceive to be more like us. Bradley Wiggins or Usain Bolt are seen as lovable ‘characters’ whose confidence appears to be so unassailable that we don’t even begin to have a go at them for it. No – we go for the relatively quiet ones.
I’m not going to pretend I’ve never felt a pang of jealousy about something a friend has achieved and not wanted to feed their moment of glory by adding my praise into it. I usually have a harsh word with myself and force myself to face their achievement square in the eye and shake its hand. That feels so much better than seething with resentment in the worst part of my brain.
As I’ve got older, I’ve begun to feel a lot more sisterly towards women (of all ages) and it’s part of the reason behind me starting this blog. Various events, particular in the post-marriage era of the last four years have made me realise how much women have to put up with in life and how our culture has set up a dynamic where we’re pitted against each other. Divided and ruled. Magazines allow us to jeer at other women to make ourselves feel better and we find ourselves laughing with our male and female friends over a bad outfit choice of a woman in the pub. It’s not on and we know it.
Behind the ‘bad’ outfit is a person trying to make their way in the world, who could be in a job where she is routinely told she’s rubbish by a bad boss, in a relationship where her partner never tells her she looks nice or in a panic because she is about to go on holiday and has ‘failed’ to achieve the bikini body. Why would we want to try and make that situation worse?
You can see the effect on a friend – or even a stranger – when you go up to them and tell them they’ve done something great. They look slightly startled at first, because they’re not used to people doing it, but then their eyes shine with pride. They feel good. You feel good. The effect lasts for days, weeks, months. But the effect of not saying anything lasts much longer.
I think we all assume that people we admire in our circle of friends must be being complimented on their intelligence/beauty/achievements all the time, so we don’t bother to do it. But what if everyone thought the same thing and the person you think is an incredible doesn’t actually know it? Just telling her or him might make them face the world with a clear, undaunted eye.
Just do it.
Because you can.