Invalidating Words of Kindness

“You are beautiful inside and out.”
“You are the best provider.”
“You are the most loving woman.”
“You are the model of a parent.”
“You are _____.” (Fill in the blank with whatever positive message you’d like to hear.)
 

This variety of “kind” statements have always left me a little on-edge and uneasy but I’ve been totally uncertain as to why.  Sometimes I’ve felt the need to say similar comments to others thinking I would validate them, but after the comments were spoken they never really seemed as satisfying as I’d imagined they would be.

For a long time now I’ve understood the dangers of “You are (insert negative message)” comments. When said to children, the children tend to believe the statement which eats at their self-esteem. When said to other adults, it turns the “discussion” into a squabble or bitter fight. No productive conversation can be expected to follow a “You are mean” comment.  The recommended communication method would go something more like: “When you eat my piece of pie, I feel cheated, angry, and unloved. I would prefer that you at least ask me if I want the pie before you just take it.”  It’s called XYZ. That approach is obviously less condemning and more focused on problem solving. But what is so wrong with saying “You are wonderful”? How can those “kind” words be invalidating?

This past week I had an “ah-ha” moment with my pastoral counselor I’d like to share with you. See if you agree. These “kind” comments are unsettling because the listener knows they are not true.  In our heart of hearts we know we are not always beautiful, the most loving, thoughtful or otherwise superb individual. If we are honest people, we realize we all mess up, have bad days, do stupid things and at times have zits in the middle of our foreheads. So comments like that set us up for a tenuous, superficial relationship.  Subconsciously we get the message: “I better be careful not to show them who I really am or they will learn it isn’t true and might not accept me.”  Those comments are not filled with acceptance and belonging. Additionally, they make life a competition. It immediately puts the receiver into “compare” mode, comparing their lives, looks, qualities, talents with other people. Are they really as great as the other person says they are? Or is there someone better and more deserving?

Consider this: What happens if the girl who has repeatedly been told she is “beautiful” gets in a car accident and her face is deformed? What happens if the “good provider” becomes ill and can’t work?  What happens if the “best parent ever” has a child who becomes a delinquent? Those comments that were said to build the person up, now become their destruction. Their security in the relationship is gone. Their self-esteem and self-worth was built on things they did not have total control over. Is that in reality very kind? Is it validating? Or invalidating?

How much better to say: “You really worked hard on learning that new song. I’m proud of you.”  “I love the way you did your hair today.” “That dress is flattering on you.” “I see that you make it a priority to spend time with your kids. I think that’s great.” “I saw you open the door for that person. That was a nice thing for you to do.”  Instead of praising the person, praise the positive character traits you see.  When combined with honest and loving use of the XYZ method, the relationship can be real, vulnerable and deep. And how about if we talk to our inner selves with the same respect and compassion?  I’m still striving toward the goal myself.

What say you?

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4 Comments

  1. Great post thank you for following my post! Have a great Thanksgiving! Andy

    Reply
  2. Wow, what a thought-provoking read. So true, and something I’d never considered before… Thank you for sharing your thoughts 🙂

    Reply
    • Thanks for taking the time to read, Courtney. And thanks for letting me know I succeeded in reaching one of my goals of having a blog … to help someone consider a new concept. 🙂

      Reply

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