People don’t usually compliment your character.” – Taylor Swift

When you think of a compliment, what are the first phrases that come to mind? For many of us, the compliments we typically hear sound something like:

  • That outfit looks great on you!
  • I love your hair.
  • Have you lost weight? You look great.
  • You are so pretty/handsome.

These compliments share something in common. Each one is focused on the recipient’s outward appearance.

January 24th is National Compliment Day. This year, we encourage you to take a fresh perspective on this mainstream observance. Rather than sharing appearance-based compliments, dig deeper. Share a compliment that matters – a compliment about someone’s true self: their character.

“But, what’s wrong with appearance-based compliments?” you might ask. Actually, appearance-based compliments are problematic on several levels. For those working toward eating disorder recovery, appearance-based compliments can be triggering, dredging up destructive and painful mental frameworks that position one’s worth solely around one’s appearance. Individuals working toward eating disorder recovery benefit from discarding labels pointed at their bodies and outward appearances. For those navigating questions surrounding their gender identity, appearance-based compliments can create labels that don’t match how the individual perceives their self. Those labels can be painful and serve as a reminder of the disconnect between one’s outward appearance and one’s identity.

Regardless of your experience with eating disorders, or your gender identity, we all benefit from ditching appearance-based labels. Firstly, each of us consists of far more than our outward appearance. The most important, and hardest earned, aspects of self center in character, not looks. The ways in which we respond to and learn from life’s experiences, the ways in which we show up for ourselves and others, the ways in which we navigate challenges and accomplishments all have far more bearing on who we are than our visual appearance.

Furthermore, our appearance isn’t fully within our control. We can change our hairstyles, the way we dress, or our makeup. Our bodies may change shape and size over time. But, ultimately, we have very little control over our appearance. We are born with certain features and traits, we age, our bodies wear the marks of life experience, and at the end of the day, we don’t have much say in those matters. So, receiving and giving compliments about something as superficial as appearance only serves to reduce a person to their most basic, surface-level self – the aspect of the self they have the least influence over.

Before sharing an appearance-focused compliment, consider if you could make a more powerful impact by sharing a character-focused compliment. When you recognize someone for their true self, their deepest qualities, you shine a light on what makes them unique. You honor the individual for who they truly are.

Here are a few ideas to help you get started:

  • I admire you.
  • You are a strong person.
  • I love your creativity.
  • You bring out the best in me.
  • I am grateful for you.
  • You inspire me.
  • I learn a lot from you.
  • You have a big heart.

Watch how the recipient of these compliments responds. You might find your compliment strikes a much stronger chord than those focused on appearance alone.