Can Compliments Actually Be Harmful?

The wild thing about labeling people is that while it can be blatant and overt, it can also be subtle.  It can slip through in small ways.  One of the most insidious of these is in it’s positive forms (all of these are Labels).

“You’re so pretty!”  “You’re so feminine!” “You’re so happy!”

“You are smart!” “You’re so strong!” “You’re successful!”

These small, often unconscious labels shape and limit people’s identities.  There are many classic examples:

If you tell a girl thousands of times “Oh! You look so pretty!” “You are beautiful!” and that is the primary form of compliment and social reward for her, she may learn that her value is tied to what she looks like.  That becomes her box, the thing she brings to the world.  So she will come to see herself as here to look good.  What a loss that can be for both her and the world.  

These moments are unconscious and culturally normative.  But, I’d like to propose that bringing them back and sharing more about your personal experience offers so much value.  What do you notice that you really like or enjoy? We can move from:

“You’re so pretty!” to “You seem so confident and embodied right now.” or “I like how your shirt matches your socks and your eyes.” or even “I’m impressed by how you seem poised even in moments that are boring or difficult.”

“You’re so smart!” to “Wow, I’m impressed, I don’t think I would have thought about it that way.” 

or “Wow, the more I learn about how your brain works, the more intrigued I become about your mind!”

It’s easy to slip Boxification into our interactions because it can be so subtle.  Which makes important bits of information more difficult to receive though we may not realize why in the moment.  

Boxification with compliments can be very hit or miss.  Let’s look at this for a moment.  Let’s use the example:

“You’re a great dancer!” (labeling) — now that may feel good but it may not.  Many people feel very insecure about their dancing skills and may not identify as a great dancer.  Assertions to this point may end up simply being deflected or for others become an expectation that they now feel they must continue to live up to.  It can be received much more deeply and reliably if you share something like; “I loved watching you move on the dance floor!” or “Dancing with you felt so easeful and connected, like we were really present together.”

In it’s more extreme and aggressive manifestations, Boxification is classic hurtful language. “You’re an asshole!” “You never show up for our children!” “You are incompetent / selfish / short-sighted.”  

Most of the time Boxification isn’t a very useful tool in communication.  The challenge is that it’s such a normal part of communication that in order to start shifting it we must first begin to notice how and when we and other people use it.  At its core it is a claiming of authority about someone else and their inner experience.  

I invite you to take this next week and see if you can notice all the different ways that people Boxify each other.  Make a new note in your phone and see if you can catch 10 different moments of Claiming, Labeling, or Hyperbole.  As you write them down, see if you have an idea about the hidden communication behind it.  

Perhaps you are wondering,

“Ok, so I can notice it now, but what do I do about it?”

Well, I wrote a whole article on that.  Stay tuned!

I hope this article has been helpful for you and will support you on your journey to communicating and relating in more conscious and nourishing ways. 

Impacted by the concept of Boxification? I’d love to hear your stories and perspectives. Reach me on facebook and check out all of The Connection Institute’s offerings at

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