Image by Nick Fewings

CAN PRAISE PRIME PANIC? 

How Compliments Can Cause Inner Chaos 

by Hailey Hechtman
 

Twitter: @HaileyHechtman IG: @hailey.hechtman

Contributing writer Hailey Hechtman is a social impact leader, mental health advocate and Executive Director of Causeway Work Centre. She is passionate about inspiring positive change through community collaboration, constant learning and self-reflection.  Watch her interview on 'Life Outside the Box' here.

"The praise was both addictive and draining. It activated that reward center while simultaneously building up a stockpile of anxiety, shame and self-consciousness. I know to this day that the vast majority of those who I spoke to at that time meant no harm, they like many in society, have been conditioned to see someone who has gone from a larger body to a smaller one as a prize to behold, and without thinking patted the eating disorder monster on its head triumphantly." 

You look great! How’d you do it?”, “You must have such discipline!” “I bet you feel amazing”, I smiled politely and dove into the recounting of half-truths. I spoke to the healthy foods I was consuming, the workout routine that left me feeling energized. It wasn’t that these things weren’t true, they were just part of a larger, unspoken story that had been ruling my life for years. When I think back at the steady stream of compliments that flowed so easily from the mouths of friends and strangers alike, I feel both a fond appreciation for their light and a deep despair for their unknowing contribution to my inner monologue. Fueling the voice of my eating disorder with each and every validation. 

By that time in my life, ever tangled with the shame of not being good enough and the conditional confidence that came with flickers of admiration, I had already experienced countless years of focus on my body. Growing up in a larger body, I recall the opposite attention. The snide comments from young boys, the side glances at what I was wearing, the discomfort that came from having to use that little side desk attached to my lecture hall chair that despite the amount of pressure I applied, could not and would not sit flat. 

In my early 20s, I started down what at the time felt like a noble journey, I wanted to feel better in my skin, I wanted to be able to move more swiftly and have more energy pulsing through my veins. Innocently, I started incorporating short walks and adding in vegetables. My body began to change in ways that I had never experienced and then the comments flipped. There was an appreciation for my efforts, there was confirmation that I was on the right path. People were cheering me on. This felt good, warm.

 

As time went on and as the encouragement turned to requests for knowing my secret or glorification of the beauty that I had now amassed from my so-called success, that is when the darkness started to set in. Food turned to poison, movement turned to a prerequisite following every bite. As I became smaller, I became obsessive too. Every moment recounting what I had swallowed, each day tallying up the final count to ensure my perfect score. My eyes were shut to the world around me, my attention laser focused on what I looked like and how I could keep inching towards the beauty standard that I had always envied. Even in this time of fixated ambition, I still felt as though I was failing. The stretch marks that covered my body were a reminder of who I used to be, the loose skin showcasing that once I was someone else. This body, despite its significant size change, didn’t match the before and after perfection I was anticipating. 

Throughout these years, engulfed by the eating disorder monster in my head, with a few minor exceptions of those closest to me who kindly pleaded for me to see how deep the claws were embedded into my back and encouraged me to seek help, everyone else cheered. The praise was both addictive and draining. It activated that reward center while simultaneously building up a stockpile of anxiety, shame and self-consciousness. I know to this day that the vast majority of those who I spoke to at that time meant no harm, they like many in society, have been conditioned to see someone who has gone from a larger body to a smaller one as a prize to behold, and without thinking patted the eating disorder monster on its head triumphantly. 

"None of them, not our friend bogged down by burnout, nor our classmate silently suffering with addiction or my 20-something self obsessed with every calorie want to disappoint you. None of them want to cut you off mid-compliment to let you know the sheer mental force of their pain. They want to shine brightly, they want to take your praise with pride and give you the thank you that you have been reaching for."

Throughout my recovery, I have thought about this: had I been in a smaller body from the start would the alarm bells have rung? If I had taken on the look typically associated with those struggling with ED would that have changed the narrative? Would it have led them to direct me towards help rather than towards the mirror to stare at what I had “achieved”? 

What does it mean for us to perceive success without questioning the object of our admiration? How does assuming someone’s experience impact the safety they feel speaking honestly to their experience? 

I think about that friend that we all have who is working around the clock. They are hustling, they are striving to climb the ladder, they are getting promotions or building their business or working more contracts than there are waking hours in the day. We look at them and we think “wow, they’ve made it.” Next time we see them we shower them with awe. That job, that apartment, that outfit—clearly, they are killing it. But what if they are not? What if they are past the point of burnout? What if they are waking up with a pit of worry, chronically overwhelmed with what lay ahead of them?

Then there is that classmate that is always such a good time at parties. We see them out every night, they are drinking, dancing, crawling into bed at 5am. We run into them in the hallway of our building and invite them out, nudging them with “you are always the life of any party.” Did you know that they are working through addiction, that the days of constant drinking comes from a place of hurt that they cannot seem to shake, that alcohol has become a support system to numb the feelings that they are not yet ready to unpack? 


 

"Before you run out and apologize to anyone who you have ever showered with admiration before sense-checking their circumstances, first remember to give yourself grace. It is so ingrained in our humanity to praise based on what we see right in front of us."

None of them, not our friend bogged down by burnout, nor our classmate silently suffering with addiction or my 20-something self obsessed with every calorie want to disappoint you. None of them want to cut you off mid-compliment to let you know the sheer mental force of their pain. They want to shine brightly, they want to take your praise with pride and give you the thank you that you have been reaching for. They want to read you the formula for their so-called success or list of resources that have built those skills that you so look up to. 

So how do we then reframe? How do we move away from these automatic responses, these impulses to assume without having the complete story? 

We take a moment to inquire. We ask the person how they are feeling.  We mention that we have noticed this big life event, this milestone or this trait that we are curious about. We normalize these conversations. We create space for each person to come out of that shame spiral and instead speak to the realness of their struggles so that those who are still buried deep below can see and hear it. We learn instead to compliment the qualities in the people around us--- “I love how kind you are”, “I really value your sense of humor”, “I enjoy your eclectic taste in music and your first-class book recommendations.” By seeing the core of someone as what they bring to the world rather than the way that they look or the checkboxes on their Game of Life milestones list, we hush the inner monologue and activate that inner child who just wants to be loved for who they are.

Before you run out and apologize to anyone who you have ever showered with admiration before sense-checking their circumstances, first remember to give yourself grace. It is so ingrained in our humanity to praise based on what we see right in front of us. Instead of belittling those past interactions or over-analyzing the dialogue between yourself and your best friend at brunch last week, embrace that this is a new practice that you can take with you as you connect with others moving forward. It takes intentionality, it takes conscious thought to move away from a typical pattern. By adding these communication strategies, you are building not only your own conversational toolkit but modelling this way of connecting to all those you meet from here on out and that is something worth celebrating.