Can Compliments Really Be Harmful?

Three Ways We “Box” People In

Most of us have a fixed idea of what we are and aren’t capable of. So much of this is due to a lifetime of being boxified. Other people’s expectations, judgements and beliefs about us were pressed into our being and concretized into our lived experience.  What if you were wrong? What if so many of the people in your past were wrong about you? What if you could see these boxes other people have offered you and didn’t internalize them? 

I’m here to help you with this. 


Most of us shrink or expand to try and fit into the boxes other people put us in.  All too often people give us boxes that are smaller than we are, yet we shrink ourselves down, to try and fit those boxes.  Others try to put us in boxes so big we’ll never be able to feel that we can truly fill them completely, so we end up big while feeling hollow.  For many, we have been in a box so long we can no longer see it.  Occasionally, very occasionally, others offer us a box that lets us expand but stay true to our authentic selves, without striving.  Today, I hope to help you gain a new kind of sight.  A linguistic lens.  An ability to see the moments when a box is being offered to you.  In seeing it, I hope you find new ways to engage with it.  

Break On Through to the Other Side

Do you struggle with knowing what you are actually capable of? Or perhaps you feel confident that what you are capable of isn’t very much? Do you ever have those moments when you chafe against what other people believe you are capable of yet you can’t seem to escape it?  Today I’ll invite you to shift your perspective from looking out of boxes or seeing other people in boxes to looking at the boxes themselves.  Let’s break free of your past limits, set boundaries when others claim to know you better than you know yourself, and live beyond your historic boxes.

What The Heck Is Boxification?

Boxification is when we inform someone about themselves.  It’s when we claim authority over the reality of the following aspects of other people: 

  • Labeling
    • Who they are/What kind of person they are: “You’re a liar/asshole/ingrate.” “You’re the smart/pretty/responsible one” “You’re a racist/sexist
    • How they are: “You’re so needy!” “You’re kind of a pushover.” “You are a mansplainer!”
  • Claiming
    • What they are feeling: “You’re angry right now, I can tell.”
    • What their motivations are/What they are wanting: “You always want all the attention.”
    • What they are or aren’t capable of: “You’ll never make it in this business.” “You don’t know how to manage your emotions.”
  • Hyperbole:  
    • Using exaggerated non-literal statements to emphasize your own perspective: “You never listen to me!” “You always have to do things your way!” “You’re so put together all the time.”

Violent Non-Ownership Language

An extreme way of putting Boxification is: “I’m the authority on your inner world and who you are; I understand it better than you.”  In all my research on language and how it affects emotion this form of non-ownership language has shown itself to be the most violent and, in many ways, the most potentially damaging to ourselves and others.  Being on the receiving end of it, it can actually be somatically experienced as violent.  

Boxification is a deep, layered, and complex behavior.  It’s a smaller distinction within a larger concept called Ownership Language which I break down into Three Narratives.  It is one of the most useful concepts I teach in my workshops.  Ownership is the notion that in many contexts, when we speak it is most empowering and connective to have our language reflect an understanding that we are the ones ultimately responsible for our thoughts, feelings, actions, and experiences.  I was originally taught a relatively simple form of the concept and it fascinated me.  I made a study of it.  I spent years pouring over dialogues, listening closely to word choices, and seeking to understand all the ways that we don’t own our experience.  I broke it all down into five categories.  Boxification turned out to be the most harmful with the least redeeming qualities in any context.  It’s very good for two things: hurting people and controlling them by keeping them small… Yet if held lightly, we can translate the experience behind the boxes to communicate vital information.  

You can learn more about that in the next article: Out of the Box Thinking: Practical Ways to Overcome Boxification

YOU CAN ALSO DOWNLOAD THIS FREE “UNBOXING” EXERCISE HERE.

Fitting Into Boxes

I have a belief that people shrink or expand to fill the boxes that we put them in.  We tend to do this with language.  Think back to a time when you were a child with your family or friend group.  Were there archetypal roles that you and the people around you played out? The fun one, the smart one, the caregiver, the rebellious one?  Since we were small, we’ve been put into boxes.  Given labels about who we are and what we’re good at.  I notice for myself I unconsciously worked hard to fill out the box of expectations that other people placed me in.  When new boxes became available I would resist them, having become accustomed to my own smallness.  I remember holding onto my childishness when my parents saw that I was becoming more mature and gave me more responsibilities.  I remember wanting to stay small and irresponsible so I stayed committed to my previous smaller box where it was safe and easy, I knew how to be in it.  

At this point, you may be thinking to yourself: ‘Oh, well this behavior sounds terrible!  Good thing it’s not something I do.’  Oh, dear! I have bad news for you.  Chances are unless you’ve made a life practice of not doing this, you do it unconsciously all the time.  I know I catch myself regularly making claims on other people’s realities.  I back up and check in to see if my stories fit with their experiences.  

Have you ever said any of the following things?

“You’re such a great dancer!” or “You’re being needy right now.”

(Labeling) (Claiming)

If so, you’re with the rest of us. Even when it sounds nice it can still be a box.

Can Compliments Really Be Harmful?

The wild thing about Boxification and its off-shoot labeling 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 www.theconnectioninstitute.net

Stay tuned for the next article uncovering the differentiation between the common types of Boxification: Labeling, Claiming and Hyperbole – and how to rewire your communication. 

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