How Not to Flinch From Praise

Everyone knows that negative feedback is tough to take. A lesser-known fact: positive feedback can be just as painful. Take Vincent van Gogh’s reaction to his first (and last) glowing review:

when I read the article it made me almost sad as I thought: [I] should be like this and I feel so inferior. And pride intoxicates like drink, when one is praised and has drunk one becomes sad, or anyway I don’t know how to say how I feel it, but it seems to me that the best work one could do would be that carried out in the family home without self-praise.

Van Gogh isn’t alone. During one of my grad-school talks, I could tell that the audience was enjoying themselves. The Q&A was lively, and afterwards several people stopped me to tell me how much they liked the presentation. But when I got home, I couldn’t access any of their enthusiasm. Curled up in bed, the only thing I could remember was the sensation of everyone’s eyes fixed on my bare face.

My brain processes praise in a funny way. Like any utterance, a compliment is a packet of information – some good, some bad. I’d like to be able to view those side by side, but in my mind, the bad parts wrap around the good. It’s a little like a nut with a hard toxic shell.

Thankfully, I think I’ve discovered some nutcrackers. I’ll describe them later in this post – but first, let’s get clearer on what the nuts are made of.

When I flinch from praise, it often goes something like this.

You say: You look so nice in that dress!
I think: When tomorrow I wear sweatpants, you’ll judge me.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is like-2.png

What I hear is not that you’re positively evaluating me, but that you’re evaluating me at all. If I’m praised, then I’m seen; and if I’m seen, then tomorrow I might disappoint you. Today I might disappoint you. You might keep looking at the dress and notice that what seemed like beauty was only flashiness. You don’t like it after all, you might decide. If a judgment is yours, it’s yours to revise; to judge is to wield power.

Every judgment implies a scale. Every scale implies the possibility of plummeting down. (This is part of why social media sucks so much. Even if there’s no “dislike” button, the “like” button implies it.)

In this case, my nut looks something like this:

Here’s a second type of nut. Let’s say you compliment me on having good taste in clothes being a good writer despite wearing socks with sandals.

I’m likely to reject this praise for a different reason: identities are damaging!1 That is, if I accept your praise, I’ll think of myself as a Good Writer. If I proceed to experience an otherwise harmless day of writer’s block, I risk descending down a spiral of self-blame. I think van Gogh is right:

the best work one could do would be that carried out in the family home without self-praise.

Better to stay away from the praise altogether.

Given the damage identities can cause, you might wonder why people would give this sort of praise in the first place.

That question is precisely what helped me find my nutcracker. I simply started asking praise-givers for their intention. Mind you, it wasn’t like I asked them point-blank “What do you think you’re doing with that praise, young lady?!” Instead, I tried to get a handle on the experience that prompted the praise. I’d ask things like

  • What do you value about good writing?
  • Is there a particular essay of mine that you enjoyed?2 What was reading it like? What did you get out of it?

After several of these conversations, I started to notice a pattern. If the praise eventually resonated with me, it was almost always because the praise-giver expressed gratitude. They were praising me because I had given them something valuable (usually an experience).

When I discovered that, I started automatically translating praise to gratitude. For instance:

You look so nice in that dress!
Translation: Thank you for bringing me joy with what you’re wearing!

Rephrasing it that way goes a long way towards removing the pressure of possible judgment. It’s no longer a question of whether you’ll keep giving me a thumbs up in the future, but of whether I’ll keep choosing (or at least trying) to give you more gifts.

And for the second nut:

You’re such a good writer!
Translation: Thank you for often bringing me valuable reading experiences!

I don’t have to accept the identity of a Good Writer to feel happy that my writing touched you.

The translation method doesn’t always work. Sometimes I need to ask for more details to understand why you value the experience I’ve given you. (And if I don’t value that sort of experience, I might want to reject the compliment.)

Occasionally, the compliment doesn’t even come from a place of gratitude. Sometimes “you’re such a good writer” means “I could never be so good, so I’ll stop trying.” You say you admire me, but really you’re making excuses for yourself, putting yourself down, or just trying to create distance between us.

Even in such cases, though, exploring your intention is usually worthwhile. Maybe I can help you get over your hangups about writing. At the very least, I’ll see where you’re coming from.

So now we have a couple of nutcrackers: translating praise to gratitude (for the easy cases) and exploring the praise-giver’s intentions (for the hard ones).

There’s just one more step: remembering to actually enjoy the gratitude. And that step is surprisingly hard for me. Why? As a woman, I’ve been taught to value modesty. Pride doesn’t befit a demure lady, or something like that. And as a Pole, I learned that the appropriate response to praise and gratitude is “it’s nothing!” – essentially tossing your appreciation as fast as I can.

The cultural practice of rejecting compliments actually makes some sense. Like I said, identities can be toxic, so that part of praise should be discarded. But there’s a difference between pride in being a Good Writer and satisfaction at giving someone an enjoyable reading experience. The latter is what keeps me going, so I try to train myself away from my instinctual recoil.

In the face of praise, I intentionally pause for a moment, think about the gratitude I’m receiving and try to feel it in my body. It doesn’t always feel like anything. It can even be unpleasant – e.g. if I don’t value the sort of experience I’m being thanked for. That’s okay; I’m practicing. But when it does feel good, there is really nothing like it – nothing like basking in the warm glow of heartfelt gratitude.

[1] For more on the dangers of evaluation and overgrown identity, check out The Inner Game of Tennis and “Keep Your Identity Small.”
[2] This one’s a little tricky because it can sound like I’m fishing for more compliments. It helps if I make it clear that I’m just trying to understand what resonates with my readers.

Thanks to Lila, Rachel, Ann, and Mahaya from the Connection Institute for bringing up and discussing this topic. You rock! (Translation: Talking with you was an enriching experience which helped me write this.) And thanks to Ben for being the best (= e.g. finding gaps in the first draft of this post).

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