Carolyn Hax: No thanks for praise

Carolyn Hax
Columnist September 3, 2012

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My girlfriend says she’s uncomfortable with compliments, saying she doesn’t want to be a “trophy.” I do think she’s fantastic, and it feels unnatural not to tell her, but at the same time I don’t want her to get “weirded out.” She especially doesn’t like any comments in public.

I say “any” because I said one thing — confirming her friend’s positive comment about her — and it caused a major rift that I found out about 12 hours later. What to do?

“Trophy”


Tape my fingers so they don’t type “RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN.”

Oops.

Does she ever compliment anyone? Does that make others her trophies?

The kindness-phobia + “major rift” + the 12-hour silence on it = significant issues. Just from your short description, I see two primary ones: the emotional injury underlying her deep skepticism of compliments and the inability (unwillingness?) to communicate in an intimate way.

To wit: She apparently also hasn’t told you anything about the source of said skepticism, even though it’s unusual (insecurity typically fuels an excessive reliance on praise). Also, she wasn’t able (willing?) to say on the spot that you upset her but instead put you in the doghouse for the better part of a day without letting you know you were there.

My opening outburst aside, I don’t think issues, even major ones, even major ones involving emotional trauma and inability to communicate, are an automatic deal-breaker. You “do think she’s fantastic,” after all.

However, her inclination to control what others say to her is a natural obstacle to speaking freely, and speaking freely is the heart of intimacy.

One possible conversation-starter is to center your argument on you — for example, by pointing out kind words she has spoken of you, and your confidence that her motive was kindness, not objectification.

Similarly, you also are entitled to ask how she would feel if you told her there were a whole category of statements you wouldn’t allow her to make. My guess is she is deeply invested in protecting herself and hasn’t thought fully about what she’s asking of you.

To “Trophy”:

Does your girlfriend love herself? I ask because I used to be like her — I hated compliments. They made me feel self-aware, awkward, and oftentimes I’d end up doing something involuntarily to counter the comment. Picture, “You look so pretty right now.” Then I’d pick my nose.

It took a few years and a concerted effort to “love myself” before I was finally comfortable with compliments. To the old me, compliments were weird because I thought people were lying to me. I couldn’t see how awesome/
pretty/smart/strong I was, so I immediately distrusted anyone who did. You can imagine how that affected all of my relationships.

If any of this rings familiar, the best gift you can give your girlfriend is the space/direction/
time so she can work on herself. I hate to say this, since you sound pretty great, but someone who doesn’t even know how to love the person she’s been her whole life won’t be able to fully give to a new person, no matter how much you love her.

Anonymous

So well and credibly said. Thanks.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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