Ever since my post the last week about resentment, I’ve been thinking a lot about why so many people allow resentments to build and what we can do to avoid them. And it seems to me that one of the easiest things we can do is to tell the people in our lives what we appreciate about them.
I’ve noticed how often people seem to have difficulty being appreciated. In fact, I used to have a hard time of it myself. I was amazingly skilled at deflecting compliments, even when (looking back on it now) I genuinely deserved them. For a few different reasons, it was really hard for me to believe that the other person meant what they said and that I deserved their praise.
What changed it for me was a dear friend of mine who got fed up with my dodging her compliments. I don’t even recall what it was that I had done but after the 4th or 5th time that I deflected her kind words, she told me that from now on, things were going to be different. Her plan was that she would repeat her compliment to me until I said “thank you.” Part of her reasoning was that it’s polite to thank people when they compliment you and (I know now) part of her plan was to help me change my habits.
The first time she put this into play, I think it took me 3 or 4 tries before I could mumble my thanks and I couldn’t even come close to looking her in the eye. But after a few tries, I got faster at it and sooner or later, I was able to receive her compliments with at least the appearance of genuine gratitude. Eventually, I reached the point where I not only accepted praise, but actually enjoyed receiving it.
Now, you might wonder why I think that this is important. In my experience, creating a solid foundation of appreciation helps avoid resentments. When I know that the people in my life see what I do and are grateful for it, it becomes less likely that I’ll build resentments if they do something that I dislike or that bothers me. Appreciations raise the baseline of the relationship, so when the inevitable conflicts and miscommunications happen, things are still in the positive zone. That makes it a lot easier to take care of whatever’s going on.
Appreciations also help us avoid taking our partners for granted, which is a common problem in relationships, especially long-term ones. In the beginning of a relationship, we’re more likely to tell someone how amazing they are. But when the new relationship energy begins to dissipate, we often slip out of the habit. Sometimes, it’s because the relationship is becoming more stable and less exciting. Sometimes, it’s because of unresolved conflicts or resentments. Whatever the reason (and there are others, of course), being taken for granted is one of the more common causes of relationship problems.
Some people will say “my partner knows how I feel,” but that’s not always the case. Your partner can’t read your mind, after all. And even if they know how you feel, where’s the harm in telling them? When was the last time that you told someone you loved that you appreciated something that they did? It doesn’t have to be a big thing. In fact, I find that it works just as well when it’s about the day-to-day chores. Do you thank your partner for cooking dinner? Buying groceries, paying the bills, or taking the kids to school? If not, why not? It doesn’t have to be a big deal- a simple “Thanks for calling the plumber. That saved me being late for work” can make a big difference.
Using your words makes sure that they know that you’ve been paying attention. Sure, you can also show your gratitude in other ways, but it’s not always clear what you’re grateful for. When you tell someone verbally, you’ll have a much better chance of making sure that they know that you’re paying attention. And that is one of the best ways to avoid or minimize resentments. Besides, we can’t always show our thanks in other ways, but words of appreciation can always be sent via email, phone calls, or text messages.
Cultivating a habit of offering appreciations also helps you develop an attitude of beginner’s mind in your relationships. Proust wrote that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” When you pay attention to the things that the people in your life do, you begin to use new eyes to see them. And that is a great way to stay fresh, avoid the boredom that often creeps into long-term relationships, and continue to grow as individuals and as a relationship. The more you keep your eyes open for things to thank your partner(s) for, the easier it is to create a beginner’s mind.
As if that weren’t enough, the more you offer appreciations, the more you inspire others to share their appreciations of you. That can make you feel better, too. Sometimes, a little enlightened self-interest goes a long way.
If you have difficulty receiving appreciation, as I used to, I definitely suggest finding ways to lean into that edge. You can start off small or even ask for some help from a friend. You may find that, over time, you learn to enjoy the feeling of knowing that someone witnesses you. In fact, you might even learn to value yourself more highly.
For a lot of people, learning to accept genuinely accept compliments and appreciation means learning to overcome embarrassment and its larger cousin, shame. One of the common strategies for dealing with these emotions is to make ourselves small. We might put ourselves down, minimize the scope or scale of our accomplishments, deny that we expended any effort, change the subject, give the credit to someone else, or (as I used to) look away. These are all ways of making ourselves smaller. Sometimes, we do that because we have a habit of it. Sometimes, we don’t believe that the praise comes without strings. Sometimes, it’s because we expect to be attacked or shamed if we take up too much space and we want to control when we experience shame. If I make myself small, then you won’t have to attack me or accuse me of getting too big for my britches.
Whatever the reason, making ourselves smaller than we actually are is often a defense mechanism. And while it may have served us in the past, if it no longer protects us, it’s time to let it go. Lean into that edge and learn how to receive. All you need to say in response to a compliment is “thanks.”
If you have difficulty with offering appreciations, start small. Find one thing that someone did for you and thank them for it. Maybe it was walking the dog so you could sleep in. Maybe it was remembering to close the garage door because you asked. If you’re much more likely to tell someone when they make a mistake than when they did something well, try to change that. People respond to both the carrot and the stick and I’m willing to bet that being able to offer both will get you much better results.
Although I don’t think that offering appreciation is the only thing we need to do to avoid creating and feeding resentments, I find that they go a long way towards making things easier. If you’ve never tried it before, give it a shot and see if it helps. Even if it doesn’t alleviate resentments, it very well might make things better in other ways. And it’s not like it takes a lot or costs anything to do.