Refusing to Give Compliments Can Be an Act of Love

by Gretchen Rubin
Originally Published: 

Often, to allow oneself to respond in a different frame of mind, a person reframes a situation. Heather King recounts an interesting example of this in her book, writing, “I’m mortified to admit that I was still miffed because [my mother had] never told me as a child (or an adult, for that matter) that I was pretty.” Then she recounts how Saint Thérèse interpreted the same situation with her own upbringing.

Saint Thérèse’s mother died when she was four, and her older sisters, particularly her sister Pauline, helped to raise her.


St. Thérèse writes, “You gave a lot of attention, dear Mother [meaning Pauline], not to let me near anything that might tarnish my innocence, especially not to let me hear a single word that might be capable of letting vanity slip into my heart.”

In studying happiness, I’m always moved when a person chooses to react in a way that boosts happiness or love or forgiveness—even when circumstances made that choice difficult. As King points out, St. Thérèse chose to understand a lack of compliments as a sign of loving care. That’s not the only interpretation, but that’s the one she chose.

I see that this is an area where I fall very short. Too often, I respond to a choice by feeling aggrieved or resentful. Sometimes, perversely, I almost enjoy feeling aggrieved or resentful!—and don’t even try to put a different cast on it or look for other explanations.

I’m reminded by an observation by Flannery O’Connor, from a letter she wrote in 1959. “From 15 to 18 is an age at which one is very sensitive to the sins of others, as I know from recollections of myself. At that age you don’t look for what is hidden. It is a sign of maturity not to be scandalized and to try to find explanations in charity.”

“Finding explanations in charity” is another way of putting it—the aim of choosing to interpret actions in a loving way.

To read more by Gretchen Rubin, visit her site.

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