5 Ways Compliments About Your Appearance Can Actually Hurt Your Confidence

How to gradually shift to non-appearance compliments instead.

Self-confident Woman looking at her reflection into the mirror indoors Arthur Bargan | Shutterstock

A few years back, one of my co-workers sent me a Ted Talk featuring a woman in her seventies or eighties. After watching it, I texted my co-worker, "OMG! She looks so great for her age!" 

As soon as I hit send, I wished I could have taken it back.

This was a woman who had stood the test of time with as much grace as any woman can muster. A woman with so much fortitude that can inspire the next two generations of women. And all I could say was how good she looked for her age.


Yes, she looked great and sounded sassy. But there was much more to her than her glossy, chic appearance.

I could have easily said, "Wow! She inspires me!" or "I would love to be like her when I get to her age" or "I admire her strength."

Even as someone whose value system does not allow for excessive rumination on outer appearances, I was surprised by how easily a physical compliment came to me due to my social conditioning.


Are you guilty of giving physical compliments too? Do you know how our automatic complicity in giving compliments about looks is killing everyone's confidence regardless of gender?

RELATED: 40 Cute Compliments To Give Someone That Don't Have Anything To Do With Looks

Here are 5 ways compliments about appearance can actually hurt your confidence: 

1. It perpetuates the struggle to maintain youthful at all costs

Beauty is synonymous with youth in today’s world. But we all know that our skin will wrinkle as we age. Our hair will turn gray, and our metabolism will take a toll.

Although some of these aging signs can be delayed by technology or advanced medication, the inevitable is as clear as day.


When we primarily compliment the physical appearance, it necessitates the recipient to try to look young as long as they can by dying gray hair or donning layers and layers of makeup.

The heightened pressure of looking young is demonstrated by the forecasted growth of the face injectable market. This market is expected to more than double to USD 21.6 billion by 2027.

What we can do:

Always remind yourself of the impermanence of youth and beauty. When they said that beauty is skin deep, they weren’t lying. When you have this perspective, you will be less inclined to give others physical compliments.

You can go the extra step to accept your aging as gracefully as possible.


A few years back, I accepted my gray hair after a sacred battle. Today, I feel more empowered to be living my life in congruence with my value system.

2. We already live in a world that’s hustling to maintain outer appearances

When I was in high school in Sri Lanka, we were only allowed to wear our hair in two braids. No single braid or ponytail. There was really no reasoning for what was wrong with a single braid, but it was just the way things were.

As an adult, when I entered the corporate world, I had to look put together and get myself some smart business suits. My achievements and character traits somehow faded into the background if I wore a mismatched pantsuit.

A world that compliments us mostly in the physical department makes us value outer appearances rather than substance.


What we can do:

It’s onerous to change the world. Many practical friends have asked me to stop dreaming for my own good.

But we can start by being authentic to ourselves and accepting our flabby arms and blemished face. Let’s care more about how kind we are than how flat our stomachs are.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that first impressions are real. A well-tailored pant that accentuates your curves can make you feel confident. But isn’t it also true that you can look awesome in the baggiest of pants if you have oozing self-worth and self-confidence?

RELATED: 10 Scientific Ways To Massively Boost Your Confidence

3. We become addicted to Instagram-worthy poses and filters

Our children are taught a value system that mandates them to use filters on social media — the duck faces, the boomerang effects, the thousands of selfies. Ever taken ten or twenty selfies to get the best angle?


We all want our Instagram feed to be perfect, of course. But is perfection even attainable? And what’s the point of online perfection if our offline, real life is far from ideal?

In North America, people spend two hours and six minutes each day on social media. This amounts to 60 hours a month that can be used to further our side hustle or write the book you’ve always wanted to release into the world.

What we can do:

I can’t tell you to upload unflattering pictures on social media because I can’t get myself to do it either. But what I have started doing is not untagging myself when someone tags me on a picture that I don’t look my best in. It’s a small step, no doubt, but it’s progress nonetheless.


Author Kate Carroll de Gutes documented unfiltered life events in The Authenticity Experiment to cut through the catalog of curated posts on social media. This started as a self-imposed, 30-day authenticity challenge.

Taking Kate as an example, can we post one picture without the veil of makeup? Can we get ourselves to post about bad days as well as good ones?

4. It erodes our confidence and plummets our self-esteem

According to The American Psychological Association, 8 million Americans suffer from eating disorders, and 90 percent are young women. Eating disorders range from binge eating to anorexia.

Why would young women starve themselves to death to maintain the modeling physique? What are we teaching them that’s making them forgo a healthy diet and endanger themselves in the process?


Teenage self-esteem statistics are far from pretty. Dove’s campaign for real beauty uncovered that "7 in 10 girls believe that they are not good enough or don’t measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school, and relationships with friends and family members."

What we can do:

Let’s move away from praise and compliments to acknowledgment.

As a coach, I’m trained on how best to acknowledge my clients. It’s always best to acknowledge a client’s being vs. doing, keeping in mind that the being refers to an internal characteristic or strength.

Next time we comment on a Facebook picture, maybe we can try rephrasing the comment to "You glow, both inside and out," (or maybe something much cooler than that) instead of "So cute." 


It may not come naturally, but with time this can boost the recipient’s self-esteem. This is even more important when complimenting children and teenagers.

RELATED: My Body Is The Least Interesting Thing About Me

5. It's a subtle nod to the patriarchy

Girls as young as five had to bind their feet during the Tang Dynasty. This was to stop their feet from growing so that they could possess “golden lotus” feet.

During the 16th century, Italian women used the poisonous belladonna plant to dilate their pupils because large eyes were considered more beautiful.

In today’s world, we carry on this tradition by wearing high heels that pinch our feet, and by using hair dye that can be harmful to our bodies.


Feeling good about their looks is vital to the breeding of confident women and men. But what is the cost of beauty that we are willing to put up with? Just to be accepted into the world of patriarchal norms.

What we can do:

Both men and women will feel the dangers of encouraging the patriarchy, so if there’s something we can do, no matter how small, we should commit to doing it.

Shifting from physical compliments to non-physical compliments may be that one thing — the small contribution that doesn’t require you to hold a banner and walk in a women’s march.

Changing from physical compliments to non-physical compliments is a long-term process due to our solid social conditioning.


Be forgiving of yourself when the automatic comment slips from you. With time, you will part with fewer and fewer physical compliments that have insidious impacts on your loved ones.

Of course, there’s always an exception to every rule. If someone has been working hard to lose pounds or suffering from a disease, by all means, appreciate their physical wins. Tell them how the light shines brighter in their eyes.

But please, don’t stop there. Tell them also how strong they are for having worked through life’s curveballs. This will stay with them forever and build them up from the inside out.

If not for ourselves, let’s do this for our teenagers and youngsters, who are grappling with a web of social media and outer appearances.


RELATED: 'Love Dusting' Is The Horrifying New Dating Term —And It's Probably Happened To You

Sabrina Sourjah is a writer and executive coach. Her bylines appear on Thought Catalog, P.S. I Love You, Mind Cafe, Better Humans, The Startup, and Kidspot.