While waiting for my luggage in one of the many airports I’ve traveled through this month, I witnessed a beautiful moment ruined by a backhanded compliment.
I heard a teenage girl scream. I turned around in time to see her rush into the arms of a man as she said, “I love you madly, dadly.” They hugged and declared how glad they were to see each other.
Then her dad asked her how school was going. She said, “I got an A in Math.”
He responded, “You were surprised?”
“Well, dad you know, it could have gone another way.”
“Not my girl.”
She then changed the subject. My luggage arrived so I left the reunion.
The scene haunted me as I headed for the car rental shuttle. I remember my father saying similar things to me. When I was looking for acknowledgment of an accomplishment, I got a back-handed compliment that felt more like a reprimand. Not only did my father expect me to earn A’s, he layered the pressure on me by suggesting I would achieve great results with no effort. Therefore, I didn’t really need acknowledgment.
I never felt as if I could do enough to please him. I always felt there was more I could do. Plus, I couldn’t help but feel that if the work was difficult, there was something wrong with me.
As a high-achiever, I’m still holding myself to ridiculous standards which lead me to beat myself up for simple mistakes and less than perfect results.
At least I have become aware of the “burden of greatness” my parents imposed on me. I am working to be more compassionate with myself and more accepting when others want to give me the gifts of praise.
Unfortunately, it took me decades to figure this out. My hope is that parents of high-achievers get this message so they don’t unnecessarily burden their brilliant kids. Please pass this on to the parents you know.
Expectations are not compliments. Don’t confuse the two.
When you notice great results by someone–adults as well as children–tell them even if you think they must know how great they are. Your generous words are not only wonderful gifts, they are good food for the brain.
Let’s make this coming year the Year of Appreciation.