What To Give When You Feel Like You Have Nothing Left To Give [Day 1 of Operation Give a Little: Compliment]

by Charlotte on December 2, 2013 · 43 comments


A fist bump.

Being alone at the gym is unlike being alone anywhere else. For one thing, it’s an oddly intimate setting for interacting with strangers. I mean, when’s the last time you all stripped down and got sweaty while singing to yourself on the subway? Or at church? Or the mall? (Don’t answer that.) But another factor is how much, well, potential for failure there is. Oh sure, there’s no such thing as “failing” at exercise (unless you’re counting the “to failure” admonition at the end of your weight set) and we’re all glad that we’re there doing anything rather than sitting at home eating Nutella out of the jar. But there are those weird moments where you go to do something and it just… doesn’t work the way you’d hoped it would. If you’ve got a friend there to laugh with you it’s not so hard to shrug off but if you’re alone, say, dangling helplessly from the chin-up bar like a deranged sloth who forgot it has feet, then it gets kinda embarrassing.

Yep, so there I was* on Saturday, trying my darndest to get my chin over that stupid bar. Of course I’d waited until the end of my workout when my muscles were nice and tired. And of course I’d waited to workout at all until the absolute most crowded hour of the day. But I haven’t done pull-ups in a long time and I wanted to make sure I still could. So I put on my ROAR face and jumped up and… nope. Couldn’t do it. I fell back down, defeated. I could feel the stare of the man behind me waiting to use the cable machine that the chin-up bar was attached to. I jumped up again, this time with an under-hand grip – the “easy” chin-up!

Want to know what a smack-down from the universe feels like? Gravity.

At that point, my face was beet red – both from exertion and embarrassment. Okay, and frustration. Not even one liiiitle pull-up? Have I really regressed that far? Ignoring the huffing of Mr. Impatient (seriously I waited 10 minutes for him to finish his prior sets and he can’t wait one minute for me to finish publicly humiliating myself?), I jumped one last time. Over-hand grip. Grunting. Frog-kicking. Wiggling. And I did it! My chin was up and over! I hung there for a few seconds in celebration before hopping down. Yeah, I’ve lost a lot of my fitness level since moving here but at least I got in one kinda-sorta pull-up! It was something.

As I gathered up my stuff and turned to walk away, I saw a dude walking toward me. He was one of your typical shaved-head weight-belted super-muscled bodybuilder guys and so when he held his fist out toward me, my first instinct was to duck. But as he grinned at me I realized what he was doing! He gave me a fist bump! You guys, I GOT BRO-FIVED!!!

Even now, writing about it, I don’t know which made me happier – the eked out pull-up or the acknowledgement of it by someone else.

A sympathetic nod.

Warehouse shopping is its own particular hell but add four antsy-pantsy-out-of-school kids? On the day before Thanksgiving? You just earned a one-way ticket to the sanitorium, do not pass go, do not collect 17 sample cups! Yet, thanks to a mad rush of work I had to get done last week, I ended up last-minute shopping. Like everyone else in the Denver metropolitan area. And my kids were doing their level best to act like escaped zoo monkeys. I was tired, they were tired and I know everyone around me was tired of hearing them shriek and fight.

So when I rounded the corner by the protein bars and maxi pads (Costco, you weirdo) and a woman touched me on the shoulder, I braced myself for a probably-deserved lecture. (True story: The louder my kids get, the quieter I get. People often think I’m not disciplining them and am just ignoring their antics… and sometimes I am. But usually I’m trying! When I whisper in their ears – that’s how they know mom’s really mad. Anyhow.) But instead of letting me have it, she smiled sympathetically and nodded at my kids.

“I used to shop with four little ones. And now they’re all grown. Hang in there, hon.” And with that, she was gone down the aisle with the jumbo bottles of fruit-flavored fish oil gummies (Costco, you gross weirdo).

I smiled all the way to the cash register.

A joke.

The setting is yet again a retail venue, shortly before Thanksgiving. I am a consummate procrastinator. But this time I was looking for legwarmers. Yes, they’re back in style and no, I’m not wearing them with a leotard and off-the-shoulder sweatshirt. I need them for boot liners thank you very much.

But they were not by the socks where logic would dictate they would be so I approached the nearest Target associate and asked, “Where might I find the legwarmers?”

He gave me a side-eye like I have never seen before replying, “In the 80′s!”

And with that he became my favorite person of the day.

A kindness.

She was my last interview (of 8!) of the day. I’d been busting my butt to get all my articles wrapped up so I could enjoy Thanksgiving with my family in peace so I’m afraid that I was all business from the second I dialed up her east-coast-and-therefore-already-late-in-the-day number. “I know you’re super busy,” I started. Which I’m sure was true. She is a doctor of some renown. “And I really appreciate your time so I’ll just get down to the questions…”

By skipping all the niceties, I thought I was being nice.

She played along, gamely answering all my questions until I’d gotten everything I needed. But at the end of the conversation she showed me how important it is to be nice, always. As I started to thank her and say good-bye, she interrupted me to ask, “Is there anything I can do to help YOU today? You know, not for your job but in any way at all?”

Completely taken aback, I answered intelligently, “uhhhh…”

She explained, “My goal in life is to help everyone I come across feel a little better. Need a smile? I know some good jokes! Or I could give you a phone hug! Anything you need!”

And while I didn’t take her up on either, just her thoughtfulness totally made my day. Here she was doing me a favor by agreeing to an interview at the very last minute and yet she wanted to know how she could make my life a little easier?? How cool would it be if every medical professional had that same attitude? Or every person? Or… me?

A spark of an idea.

‘Tis the season to be jolly! – you might have heard. And the Christmas season is my absolute favorite time of year. Usually. But being depressed around the holidays elevates fun-sucking into a whole new level of bleh. So I figured I can either go all Scrooge McDuck (I prefer duck ghosts to human ones) or I can do something to feel better. And you know what is one of the most effective ways to help lift depression? Helping other people! It’s backed by research and everything.

Dear Baby Jesus, we got your back. Now fill us in on that whole walking on water thing. Love, Science.

It turns out that doing “positive activity interventions” is as effective for treating low-to-moderate depression as medication – geek speak for “do good, feel good”. Sonja Lyubomirsky, lead researcher for one 2012 study on the subject wrote, “The most significant feature of depression is the absence of positive emotion — just a feeling of nothing, of emptiness.” She adds that the main point of the intervention then is to increase positive feelings. She adds, “They seem really trivial. They seem like, what’s the big deal, you feel good for 10 minutes. But for a depressed person, they aren’t trivial at all. Depressed individuals need to increase positive emotions in their life, even a minute here and there.”

Sometimes science just confirms what we already know about life – every time I do an act of service I get so giddy I wonder why I don’t do it more often – but it’s nice to have the numbers to back it up too.

But here’s the thing about depression: I know what I need to do to feel better but everything just feels so hard. And while I am feeling somewhat more cheery than I was a month ago, it’s still very much a struggle to keep in the game of everyday life. How am I supposed to help other people when I can barely convince myself to get out of bed in the morning?

Yet as I reflected on the wonderful people I’d encountered this past week – yes, all four of those experiences happened in about a week! I live a blessed life – I realized two things:

1. I don’t have it in me to do anything grand right now. I just don’t.

2. Maybe I don’t have to do anything grand.

It can be so easy to think that because we can’t do Habitat for Humanity or donate $500 to the radio wish-a-thon or make 13 dozen artfully decorated cookie plates for all our friends, that we can’t do anything. And this feeling of uselessness quickly spirals into depression which, if you’ve been taking notes, is exactly what I’m trying to avoid. But these four people – the weightlifter, the fellow mother, the Target jokester and the kind doctor – showed me how simple it can be to help someone else. It really is the little things in life! They helped me realize that it’s so much better to give a little than to get overwhelmed trying to do something big and end up giving nothing.

But what can you give when you feel like you have nothing left to give?

Because I love lists and goals I came up with 12 little things I can do to give a boost to someone else. And as I looked over the list, I wondered if any of you might like to do them with me too? Even if you’re not depressed, they’ll still make you happier;)  Before anyone freaks out (like I just did, in my head) I’m keeping this super simple. Do-gooding for Dummies. I’m going to focus on just one thing a day – and probably not every day because there’s a little rebellious part of me that is like “you can’t force me to like this!” even though it’s just me forcing myself. Anyhow each item is free, takes less than 5 minutes and doesn’t involve any circus antics or tutus. I promise! Yet it’s guaranteed to make someone else smile (and probably yourself too)! So I’m going to post them here when I do them and I hope that you guys will join in and tell me what you did and the reaction you got in the comments. This way we can spread the positivity all over the place! Make a big, sticky, positive mess!


For Day One of Operation Give A Little: Give a sincere compliment to someone. If you want to really stretch, give a compliment to someone whom you wouldn’t usually compliment. It’s pretty easy to find something nice to say to your kids or significant other. (Although now that I type that, perhaps sometimes it isn’t?) And it’s weird but sometimes compliments mean more to us when they come from strangers or acquaintances or other people who don’t “have to” like us. For instance, the man at the gym didn’t have to do anything when I did my pull-up. Convention required absolutely nothing of him. But he did, which ended up meaning so much to me precisely because he didn’t have to. So look for a coworker, a neighbor, a teacher, a service worker – anyone who looks like they could use a boost and give them a compliment. Tell them you love their cute sweater or how efficiently they do their job or how you appreciate the little extra swirl in your cappuccino. It doesn’t have to be much!

For me, today, I picked someone new at church that I’d never met and told her how much I loved her sparkly manicure. It sparked a lovely conversation about where she was from, why she was here and how she had been so worried that no one would notice her (and also worried that someone would!). It ended up with both of us smiling – I think more than either of us had expected to today. In fact, I’m smiling all over again now just remembering it. Not only did I get some cool mani ideas but now neither one of us ever has to worry about sitting alone.

Now your turn! Go forth a compliment! And then let me know what happens!! (If you get stuck go check out EmergencyCompliment.com for some useful and lots of hilarious ideas!) Or just tell me a little story about someone who did a little kindness for you – I love these stories!


*Yep, I went to a gym. My husband and I got a pass to the local community rec center. It doesn’t have much in the way of weights or fitness equipment but it has a crazy awesome pool that the kids love and it’s definitely more friendly and welcoming than my old gym! I’ve still been mostly working out at home or running with friends but I’m slowly warming up to the rec center. I’m hopeful.

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Abby December 2, 2013 at 1:30 am

What a great idea! As someone who’s also been pretty down I’m excited to join in. I’ve totally noticed that complimenting others makes me happy. I gave a similar compliment recently to a surly teenage store clerk (about her nails) and the way she brightened up instantly made my day. I kind of think it made hers too.

I have to admit I’m kind of happy tha Hanukkah was so early this year though. I feel like I have permission to not participate in the rest of the holiday season and be a grouch if that’s what I want.


Charlotte December 2, 2013 at 4:33 pm

I love that image of you and the surly teen making each other’s days! And there is definitely something to say for giving ourselves permission to be a holiday grinch when we need to;)


Stephanie December 2, 2013 at 5:22 am

How did you know about the Nutella?!

I couldn’t agree more. I had a sweet interaction with a target employee once when when my son was melting down. He gave my little howler a sticker, which didn’t really help, but the gesture was so kind, esp. When I feared I’d be judged for my misbehaving child. Makes me warm and fuzzy when I think of target.

I’ll start you off for today–I love your blog!


Charlotte December 2, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Oh Nutella, you vixen! And I love your Target story -I love it when people surprise us by being wonderful:) And thank you so much for the sweet compliment!


Laura P. December 2, 2013 at 6:21 am

Love your ideas.

I agree, little acts are just fine.

I also think we should compliment ourselves. For instance, when we hear the negative voice in our heads about how lazy we are, or how fat we are, or how dumb we look, I think we should yell back to that negative voice and tell it to “Shut-up”! “We are hard working because we did this and this. “We are pretty and cute. “We are smart because we do this and this”. I have been practicing that lately and it really helps me feel happier.


Charlotte December 2, 2013 at 4:42 pm

I love this idea, Laura! Our thoughts are so integral to how we act so if we think poorly of ourselves it often shows. A huge part of cognitive behavioral therapy is rewriting those negative scripts. When I first heard about it I thought it was too simple to be helpful but it was seriously life changing. I love that you brought this up!!


JLVerde December 2, 2013 at 6:29 am

Challenge accepted!

I tend to think compliments about folks (usually strangers I’m passing on the street) just to get the little pick me up from being positive for no real reason (in an attempt to combat the negativity that comes so easily especially this time of year, thank you lack of sun). But now I need to VOICE them.

I have an office full of folks I can choose from too (a few of whom annoy me on a regular basis, so they deserve me saying something nice to them instead of scowling at them from behind my cube wall).


Charlotte December 2, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Yay! Can’t wait to hear how it went! And I love your point about how we think good things but are sometimes afraid to actually say them


Megan @ Meg Go Run December 2, 2013 at 6:44 am

Oh this whole post made me smile!! The bro-five guy is awesome!! :) I am going to do your challenges, Charlotte!!


Charlotte December 2, 2013 at 5:27 pm

Yay!!! Thank you Meg!


HappinessSavouredHot December 2, 2013 at 7:24 am

I always figure out a way to pay a – sincere – compliment. It gets easy with practice, so easy that I wonder why there aren’t more people doing it. Plus, it works wonders. Keep it up! :-)


Charlotte December 2, 2013 at 5:30 pm

Thank you! Good point about practice makes perfect! (Or at least better!)


Naomi/Dragonmamma December 2, 2013 at 7:25 am

You know how quick people are to complain about employees (particularly retail)? How about if you get a really good one, you make sure the boss knows about it?


Charlotte December 2, 2013 at 5:32 pm

Love this!! It’s actually on my list of 12 already – give someone some public acclaim:)


Heather C December 2, 2013 at 7:56 am

I love this and will definitely try and give a compliment today. My tactic with surly retail people is always to find something to compliment and ask them about themselves. 99.9% of the time, this loosens them up. Not too long ago, I went through a drive thru and when I got up to the window the employee told me that the car in front of me had paid for my order. Totally made me smile all day. Someone being nice for no real reason felt really good.


Charlotte December 2, 2013 at 5:34 pm

Yay Heather! Can’t wait to hear how it went:) And I love your tactic – a little kindness goes a long way for sure. Love that someone paid for your order!


Rachael December 2, 2013 at 8:46 am

I’ve been trying to do just this lately and voice the compliments of other people that are already in my head. Instead of just thinking, “nice pants!” about the woman standing next to me by the elevator, I voiced it and made her day. The following week another lady complimented my laptop bag and it made me smile. We all love random acts of kindness and appreciation from strangers, it makes us feel noticed and connected.


Charlotte December 2, 2013 at 5:36 pm

I love it Rachael! And now I kinda want to see your laptop bag hahah – I need a new one and pretty ones are hard to find…


crabby mcslacker December 2, 2013 at 9:09 am

I love this idea!!

I think especially in the pre-holiday frenzy there are a LOT of stressed, depressed, overwhelmed folks out there who could use a little cheering up. I’m a big fan of random stranger compliments (though alas, mine are not always appropriate or well-received, but mostly it goes great) and will try even harder to remember how simple it can be to lighten the mood by reaching out.

Great post–as usual!


Charlotte December 2, 2013 at 5:39 pm

How much do I wish I could see you in action?? I too have said some (many) inappropriate things and gotten some weird reactions. I swear you are my soul sister sometimes:)


Megan December 2, 2013 at 9:50 am

I’m the worst at giving compliments (also, at taking compliments. The worst.). I always think things in my head, like “oh, I really like those boots” or whatever, but I hardly ever say them. It’s strange, but on the random occasions that I do give compliments, I feel like I’m more apt to compliment a stranger. Everyone in my life knows me as sarcastic and brash (and probably a little bitchy), so I always feel like it goes against my persona to give a genuine compliment. Like my friend or loved one is going to look at me like I have 10 heads and think I’m dying or something. I clearly have issues!

I’m also the person that you’ll find laughing to herself at the gym after I’ve fallen off of a stability ball or tipped sideways while doing one-legged dead lifts. I’m sure people think that I’m crazy, but hey, if you can’t laugh at yourself, you’re taking life too seriously. It’s not my fault that nobody else finds my lack of coordination funny!


Charlotte December 2, 2013 at 5:42 pm

I totally need to work on laughing at myself more! And I can guarantee you that I would find your lack of coordination funny;) I hope that you try giving a compliment – I bet your friends would be delighted!


Jess December 2, 2013 at 9:55 am

I had a nice big chuckle at your ‘rebellious’ side. That is so very much me too! I will join you on your quest. I love that giddy feeling when a stranger complements me, or if I complement someone and they brighten up. I had a horrible flight with my little when moving here and she had a night terror 20 minutes before landing in our little buzz plane. Major screaming with nothing to do. When we got off, a random lady came up to me and told me it wasn’t my fault and that it was okay. That gave me strength to not break down right there.


Charlotte December 2, 2013 at 5:44 pm

Yay Jess! And your story about the lady on the plane makes me grin and grin:)


Paula December 2, 2013 at 10:08 am

That is a great idea, I don’t know if I’ll get to it today (it’s already evening here), but I will take the advice with me.
This reminds me, I have a friend with a very positive attitude, she always has something nice to say. This is something special here in the Netherlands, we tend to be a bit shy on that end (we are also very bad at receiving compliments ;-) ) Anyway, she inspires me to compliment others more often and that’s something that does make me happy.

That bro-five: awesomest thing I’ve read in a while, that is a wonderful experience. The other ones to by the way, they made me all smile.

Also: I thought of a few things while reading, it is in no way my intention to give unwanted advise, so please ignore me if you feel like it, but I also do not want to withhold these thoughts:
While reading on depression (I’m glad you’re feeling a little better by the way), something came to mind: a few years ago I saw a list of things that can make you feel better, I forgot most, but I do remember the one of searching on youtube for laughing baby’s, this instantly will make you smile.
Also, I recently have found a yoga series for better sleep. One of the exercises is the backroll, where you rock back and forth on you’re back, I felt just like a kid and it made me jolly.

I’m looking forward to the rest of this series.


Charlotte December 2, 2013 at 6:06 pm

I LOVE your advice Paula!! I will never say no to looking at baby videos! Best part of the Internet:) And Yoga is always great! And thanks for your point about the cultural differences in complimenting people – I appreciate your perspective!


Geosomin December 2, 2013 at 11:22 am

I love this. My mum said that the ability to make someone else happy is a gift. I agree. I have been blown away in my life as of late with all the kindness shown me and it is the little things, to me, that mean the most :)


Charlotte December 2, 2013 at 6:07 pm

Your mom sounds like a sweetie!


Kim December 2, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Great idea!! Loved all the little stories as examples – a much needed reminder to be the one making someone else smile!!!


Charlotte December 2, 2013 at 6:07 pm

Thank you Kim!!


Jenny C. December 2, 2013 at 1:44 pm

Oh my goodness. Emergency Compliments is the best website I’ve seen in forever. I browsed through a few and got “Your voice sounds like a thousand cats purring. Also, I’m on acid.” and “You’re as sweet as a can of artificially flavored diet soda.” I love it. Like, ALL of the love it.


Charlotte December 2, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Isn’t it?? I was just cracking up last night reading it. You can submit your own too! People are hilarious.


Dad December 2, 2013 at 2:44 pm

So many moments making yourself happy by making others happy–and you didn’t even mention putting the folks up for the Holiday! You’re doing great!


Charlotte December 2, 2013 at 6:11 pm

Thanks Dad! We miss you already!!


Melissa December 2, 2013 at 10:08 pm

I’m glad your feeling better. I’m finally starting to but need to see the doctor again and that has me feeling down. My negative side has been too vocal lately and looking for ways to tame it. This sounds like a great step forward. I completed today’s task without knowing it. It was to a coworker about her new hair cut. Tomorrow is going to be a better day.


Azusmom December 3, 2013 at 11:08 am

I have to share this with you: This morning as I dropped my son off at school the principal came in to the classroom. She wanted to ask if he would be allowed to go to a performance of “A Christmas Carol” in San Francisco with some other kids from the school. As we spoke, I got the feeling that she REALLY wants him to go. Hubby and I were concerned that, because of his Autism, he might not be welcomed at the performance, but 2 other kids from his class and one of the teachers are going. She even told me not to worry about the $20 for the ticket!
I want him to go. When I was acting, I used to LOVE student matinees. You’ll never get a more honest audience, lol! And the fact that the principal specifically sought me out to (gently) encourage me to let my son go means SO much! It has made my day. SO now I need to go forth and try to make someone else’s. :)


Jody - Fit at 56 December 3, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Some of the things I remember the most are unexpected moments when somebody says something nice to me & I smile the rest of the day!


Janelle March 11, 2014 at 10:14 pm

I linked in to this older post from today’s: “To The Fatty Running on the Track”: When Using Real People for Inspiration is Actually an Insult. This compliment post made me laugh SO SO much. (Costco, you wierdo.) I’m not sure how I missed this post originally, but it rocks! Late compliments count too, right?


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