Unearned praise may be just as much of a bummer as undeserved criticism.

New research finds that over-praising ourselves is as counterproductive as beating ourselves up. Or, as the title of the article puts it, “Both Self-Effacement and Self-Enhancement Can Lead to Dejection.”

The aha moment for me in this article is Study 4, when participants did a task (unscrambling anagrams) and, without knowing their actual score, randomly received either positive or negative performance feedback. (A control group received no feedback.) Then they completed a survey about the experiment that had buried in it questions used to measure dejection.

Everyone who was told they did poorly felt dejected, but people who in reality performed well but got negative feedback were more bummed than those who performed poorly and were told the truth. Not surprising.

But I was a little surprised that people who were told they did well even though they didn’t were more dejected than people who did poorly and were told they did poorly.

This research is part of the push back against the self-esteem movement, in which everybody gets a trophy just for showing up. For a long time, we believed that there’s no such thing as too much praise. Now we’re learning that unearned praise has its own burdens and pitfalls.

In other words, reality is good for us.

I’m a huge fan of reality. I believe that things are rarely as bad nor as good as emotion might tell us.

Reality means we don’t have to live up to anything impossible. It means that we can aim for healthy rather than trying to look like the women in magazines. It means never being one of the humiliating auditions on American Idol. It means recognizing and developing our strengths and trying to know and accept or change our weaknesses.

Remember, even Stuart Smalley never said he was the best in the world.  He said he was good enough, smart enough, and people like him. That’s aiming neither too high nor too low. Not that we should settle for mediocre. But no matter what emotion is buffeting at any given moment, it may or may not reflect reality.

But reality also can be slippery. So much depends on the lens through which we see it. Rose colored? S#&* colored? Reality is good for us, but how do we get a grip on it when it comes to our own self assessments?

I mentioned reality checking in a recent post, and it got me thinking about the kinds of questions I use  for reality checks.

I haven’t been a fan of Dr. Phil since writing a book about him. Nevertheless, I think his catchphrase sentence, “How’s that working for you?” is brilliant. It takes a situation out of perception and into the real world. Is what you are doing achieving your goal? (If not, what are you going to do about it? 

Some other questions:

  • Am I failing at something because I’m actually bad at it, or because I’m actually not that interested in being good at it?
  • Am I actually disliked or neglected or am I doing something that keeps people at arm’s length?
  • Am I hearing only praise and shutting out criticism? Or vice versa?
  • Does my level of success by outward measures match my perception of my skills?
  • What praise or criticism do I hear most often from other people? Could it be true?

Those are few reality check questions I use. Got others?