Compliments from Partners Matter, Prompting Look at Self-Image

identity, self-esteem can change based on significant others' kind words

By Jonny Lupsha, News Writer

Compliments from our significant others can stay with us for life, according to The Huffington Post, which recently published an article listing the best compliments their female readers have received and why it mattered so much. Receiving compliments also affects self-image.

Happy couple enjoying eachothers company
Compliments from our significant others can stay with us for life, building our self-image. Photo by LightField Studios / Shutterstock

We often forget the small compliments people give us in passing, especially when those people are strangers or acquaintances to whom we feel little attachment. Even small words of thanks from our spouses can go in one ear and out the other. However, sometimes a compliment from our significant other can stick with us and make a major difference in our day, month, or whole life—the HuffPost piece gives several examples. Additionally, these kind words we receive can positively affect our images of ourselves.

IdentityFirst Type of Self-Related Belief

Most people are familiar with a generalized and somewhat misleading concept of self-esteem—we feel vaguely good or bad about ourselves, or we have an overall positive or negative assessment of our own worth. However, there are four distinct types of self-related beliefs. According to Dr. Mark Leary, the Garonzik Family Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, they can be identified as follows.

Identity: who people think they are and what they think they’re like
Self-Efficacy: people’s beliefs about what they’re capable of doing
Self-Esteem: people’s evaluations of themselves
Self-Compassion: how people think about themselves when bad things happen

Identity is a major factor of our self-image. “First, if I asked you about yourself, you might mention physical or biological characteristics,” Dr. Leary said. “You might mention your height, particularly if you’re unusually short or tall, or tell me that you’re diabetic or hard-of-hearing or particularly energetic.”

Dr. Leary said that the second type of characteristics we’d likely list about ourselves would involve our personal attributes, which he calls “personal identity characteristics.” “They’re things that describe you that don’t involve your relationships with other people,” he said. “So, if you tell me that you’re religious or you play the piano or you’re afraid of spiders or like Stephen King novels, those are personal aspects of your identity.”

Self-Efficacy, Self-Esteem, and Self-Compassion

Many of us struggle with trying not to be affected by how others view us. However, like the HuffPost article proves, our self-beliefs can change with a word. Our self-efficacy—or our belief that we can accomplish a task or goal—is largely impacted by our self-esteem.

“People’s self-esteem is affected by the degree to which they feel valued and accepted by other people, and so, trait self-esteem reflects the degree to which people believe that they are generally a socially valuable and acceptable person,” Dr. Leary said. “All of the things that predict high self-esteem are things that indicate that one has socially valued characteristics. In the same way, having good relationships makes us feel acceptable.”

He also said that recently, scientists are starting to believe self-esteem is just a bit less important than was previously thought, but it can still influence our self-efficacy.

Lastly, what about when things go wrong? This is where self-compassion comes in. When someone has a problem, they may blow it out of proportion or unduly beat themselves up over it. On the other hand, someone else may realize that everyone makes mistakes and move on rather quickly.

“These two reactions to one’s shortcomings, failures, and problems might appear to reflect a difference in self-esteem, but the key difference involves not self-esteem, but self-compassion,” Dr. Leary said. “That is, the difference lies not in how people evaluate themselves—self-esteem—but rather in how they treat themselves—self-compassion.”

The four types of self-related beliefs are identity, self-efficacy, self-esteem, and self-compassion—and they’re altered by our relationships and our sense of value in a society. If your mother ever told you, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all,” she might have been more right than even she knew.

Dr. Mark Leary contributed to this article. Dr. Leary is Garonzik Family Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University and faculty director of the Duke Interdisciplinary Initiative in Social Psychology. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Psychology from West Virginia Wesleyan College and his master’s and doctoral degrees in Social Psychology from the University of Florida.

About Jonny Lupsha, News Writer 285 Articles
Jonny is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Sterling, Virginia. He has written for The Great Courses since 2017 and enjoys studying the courses as much as writing about them. Contact Jonny at news@thegreatcoursesdaily.com