There are a lot of articles about how to stop searching for the approval of others. It makes sense: Relying on external validation for your sense of self-worth is a slippery slope.
But there’s no denying the impact of compliments. Some research even shows that compliments can improve people’s performance in the same way as a cash reward.
I’ve experienced this firsthand. During some of my most formative years, I was fortunate to have a string of teachers whose encouragement bolstered my tenuous faith in my own abilities.
One of the best compliments I’ve ever received came during my senior year. After I turned in a creative writing project, my teacher pulled me aside during class. She looked at me so solemnly that I thought I was in trouble and told me that some of my poems were “seriously publishable.”
I thought she’d said “seriously perishable,” but I was too self-conscious to ask for clarification. I spent some time after that cycling through what she could have meant by “perishable” before finally realizing the fantastic words of encouragement she’d actually shared.
Praise like this from her and other teachers literally felt too good to be true, but I reasoned that they didn’t have any motive for lying. Craving these compliments seemed ridiculous—even dangerous to my autonomy—but boy were they powerful. They left me euphoric, though I tried to pretend that they didn’t mean that much.
They did, of course, mean that much to me, which is why I’m writing about them (professionally!) a decade later. As it turns out, positive reinforcement works—and people treasure sincere praise.
It’s healing to recall these moments of being seen and appreciated, so I reached out to other women in my social media network and asked them to share some affirmations from others that “reached into ya very soul.”
These are the compliments they won’t forget.
“You have helped me grow.”
A study examining whether receiving praise following a specific task helps people better absorb a skill found “that praise functions as ‘social reward’ that induces the dopamine transmission in the striatum, resulting in an enhancement of the motor skill consolidation.”
In other words: Getting a compliment can provide you with the boost you need to excel on the job. This holds true in the anecdotal accounts of people who reached out to me on social media.
“The director of my department told me I did as well in a new position as anybody ever imagined, and as a result six more people were hired on in that kind of position,” says Kara, 27, of Mississippi, about a compliment she’ll remember forever.
Jenny, 33, from Paris, France, also cites a compliment from her boss—”You have helped me grow, and see things in a more positive way”—as being the most memorable in her life so far.
Karri, 29, from Missouri, recounts a note from a student signed, “From one of the best students ever.” It reads:
I am very sad that you won’t be my teacher next year but I’m happy that I can still give you hugs. You have taught me so much about math, literacy, social studies, spelling, grammar, and fluency. I love being with you on field trips and at school. I will miss your smile and your kindness next year. I hope I can still help clean your classroom!
“You’re a good mom.”
Being recognized for the work you do by colleagues and employers can create a powerful surge of brain chemicals—but sometimes a compliment from a random stranger is enough to give you a serious (and unexpected) dopamine rush.
Krista, 29, was at a grocery store in Virginia when she received a compliment from “a random stranger … when I had two toddlers and was super pregnant with number three.”
The words still stick with her. “You’re doing a great job!” the stranger told her. “You’re a good mom.”
Jill, 29, from Missouri recalls one exchange with a “barista guy” that she remembers fondly. He asked if her dad was a dentist.
“You just really have the most perfect teeth.”
Jill calls the compliment “such a pure non-douchey way to get hit on,” and goes on to say, “I appreciated it greatly.”
“The kind of face that people pay to photograph.”
Tonic refers to compliments as “mini-orgasms for your brain” because of the way they affect the mind. The reward centers of the brain (like the ventral striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex) light up both during sex and when we receive a compliment.
“The better the compliment, the greater the activity of these regions,” Christoph Korn, a postdoctoral fellow with the University of Zurich’s Computational Emotion Neuroscience lab, tells Tonic.
So…two compliments are probably better than one, right?
For Sara, 28, who lives in Madrid, Spain, there are two compliments that remain in her mind.
“A close friend told me that she admired me because, more than anyone else she knows, I’ve followed my dreams,” she says. “And, recently, someone told me that I have the kind of face that people pay to photograph.”
Allison, 32, also living in Madrid, Spain, says she has two compliments that stick in her mind as well.
“When I was in school, my best friend said that my eyes were so beautiful that if the world became minority report she would totally steal my eyes,” she says.
Her other most-memorable compliment was about the same thing.
“The other day, I was chatting [with] a client in the sun (we usually meet inside his club) and he said that my eyes were the coolest color he’d ever seen, that it wasn’t fair that not only were they blue, that they had yellow in them.”
Maybe we should all just move to Spain.
“I’m fortunate to know you and call you a friend.”
Of course some of the most meaningful compliments we receive come from friends because they know us so well.
Grace, 27, of Arkansas remembers one of her “favorite compliments to date.”
“I think you’re one of the most beautiful souls I’ve ever encountered. Despite the self-proclaimed ‘crazy,’ you’re an immediate presence in any room and you glide when you make your way across it. I’m fortunate to know you and call you a friend.”
The compliment that Kieri from Arizona remembers says a lot in just a few words: “Kieri loves big.”
“It warmed my heart to know my friend saw and felt me loving others,” she says.
Kasie, 29, from Missouri, says she’ll always remember a Facebook message from a well-respected college friend. “I just want you to know that you are the type of person that inspires others,” the message read.
“You are constantly the friendly stranger smiling, being polite, and just a cheery ball of love. I miss and love you!”
Kasie says this compliment came “completely out of the blue and meant so much to me,” especially because it was from someone she’s always looked up to.
“Who cares if you can hit a softball? You’re the smartest woman I know!”
“Praise can boost self-efficacy, enhance feelings of competence and autonomy, create positive feelings, strengthen the association between responses and their positive outcomes, and provide incentives for task engagement,” according to the same Japanese study that determined compliments also enhance motor skill acquisition.
“I attempted to play on an adult softball team with a group of friends and I struck out A LOT. My failure was frustrating me to no end,” shared Melissa, 28, from Arkansas.
“My husband, an athletic person, encouraged me after my last game by saying ‘Who cares if you can hit a softball? You’re the smartest woman I know!’ The compliment was great, but even better was the context. He reminded me that I have a part to play, just not on a softball field.”
Amanda, 30, from Missouri, remembers being praised for her unique writing style. “You have a definite voice,” someone told her.
“I can pick up something written by you, not see your name on it, and still know that’s an Amanda piece.”
“You seem so free.”
People often most highly value praise that they feel aligns with some essential part of themselves.
Mary from Ohio shares that her favorite type of compliment is “whenever someone tells me I remind them of my dad.”
“You seem so free,” someone told Gisela, 27, from Portugal. “You seem like you don’t need anyone to make you happy.”
Anna, 52, from Texas, treasures the moment one person told her what a difference she had made in their son’s life. “He was unsure about going to school after being out for many years,” Anna explains.
“Told him I didn’t even graduate [from high school] but now I’m a nurse. He is now an engineer.”