My Mom will be the first person to tell you: She praised me too much when I was growing up. While the Greatest Generation may’ve been too cold, too aloof, perhaps too threatened, too “Meh, pretty good” toward their children’s accomplishments, the pendulum swung too far to the other side. What we, my parents and I, discovered from experience is that praising a child too much can also backfire.
Praise can be addictive. That’s right. It becomes your drug of choice. Praise was my drug of choice. (Well, praise and sugar.)
While praising me as a child à la Doctor James Dobson was intended to build up my self-esteem, when juxtaposed against narcissistic abuse, it only made me feel good about my work, not necessarily myself. What I produced, whether that was an A+ on a school test or, later, a polished PowerPoint presentation at my office, I did not for its own inherent value (i.e. to learn at school and later to earn a paycheck) but to garner praise.
Praise gives you an emotional “high.” I worked extra hard at my job so that whatever I produced was flawless and “went the extra mile.” You see, I wanted praise. I needed praise. My bosses and coworkers were generous with the half-sincere, half-flippant comment, “You’re the best.” Say that to me and I’ll take on half your workload, just so I can hear you say it again. They knew that and exploited me shamelessly.
After a lifetime of praise, not only am I addicted, but I’ve come to expect it. Successfully completing a project, such as making a nice meal, which is not met with the gushing praise I received from my mother leaves me feeling very unsettled. Like a failure. After all, if the meal was truly excellent, it would’ve been praised. Right? Wrong!
Being praised overly-much as a child makes the real world come as a shock. Real people do not praise over-much. Projects should be done for their own sake, not for praise. It’s a kind of rehab to reconnoiter the real world after the faux world of praise, praise, praise. The withdrawal from praise can be tough. You have to learn to stand on your own two feet, head held high and learn to self-approve. I had to learn to be, not only my own staunchest ally, but also a fair and honest critic. It’s called “growing up.”
If you don’t realize your addiction to praise, you’ll go through life feeling like a failure, demanding praise, expecting praise, trying to wring it out of people who are not responsible for giving it. People who wonder why you’re so insecure and why you can’t stand on your own two emotional feet. Why you’re so high maintenance or exhausting to be around.
It takes time and deep introspection to uncover the addiction to praise that has long been your motivation. When you spend your life desperate to stimulate others to praise you, nothing is ever enough. The “high” is short-lived and oh! so fickle. Pretty soon, you need another “praise fix.”
Praise skews your motivations. Instead of doing a project for the intrinsic joy of doing the project or because you want the results of the project, you do everything for praise. I’m reminded of a story Vincente Minnelli told about his marriage to Judy Garland. She tended to start projects, but was never able to see them through to completion. But, Vincente said, you had to praise whatever she did. She was that needy and insecure. If she scrubbed a portion of the floor, you had to praise-praise-praise her and convince her it was the the best-scrubbed floor ever.
The flip side of being praise-praise-praise-praise-praised, is being heartily sick of being praised. At some point, you grow up and realize how ridiculous, how infantalizing, how condescending it is to be praised for doing normal things successfully.
My new loathing for praise is an additional impetus behind being No Contact with my family. I don’t want their praise anymore and I definitely don’t want to make them proud anymore. I couldn’t even move into a new house without being told to, “Make a video of your house to show Grandma.” (I did it, unwillingly, while feeling rather violated.) Well, this part-Golden child is sick of being shown off. She’s sick of making everybody oh so proud. She’s sick of being stuck to the refrigerator with magnets. Let me off! Stop showing me off! Stop praising me for doing normal stuff. Just let me live, for goodness sakes!
No one is welcome in my home (my castle!) because I don’t want to hear my mother say, “Oh, how lovely! You’ve done such a beautiful job of decorating your cottage” or something kindly-meant like that. I don’t want to hear, “Your pets are so well-behaved and well taken care of.” Those are normal adult things that any idiot can and should do. To praise me for them would be to infantilize me and infantilization is inherently condescending.
Now, some of you might be saying, “How spoiled she is! I’d kill for a tiny morsel of praise from my parents. They didn’t praise me for anything!” It’s a crying shame your parents didn’t praise you. I wish they had. You’re welcome to the too-much praise I got! Too much can be just as undermining as too little. When countered by narcissistic abuse, praise always loses. It doesn’t build you up or give you a concrete foundation as a person. It can’t. Praise can only prop you up; the foundation is still made of sand.
By all means, praise your kids but praise them for being good people. Praise them for doing the right thing, for being moral, for being kind, for being hard-working. Don’t just praise (and show-off) what they produce. Praise them for who they are and who they have chosen to be. On those terms, praise in moderation can be good.
Be wise about it! Praise is like water: in large enough amounts, both water and praise can get toxic.