I am a recovering praise fiend.
As a little boy, I would sprint home and unload my day’s events to my nonplussed mother.
“Hi, Mom, I earned an A on my English paper,” I would gush. And then my tone would drop an octave, “But I earned a B on that math quiz.” Dropping my head, I would then sulk to the kitchen table. That B would invoke a night of heavy soul-searching and, at times, self-flagellation (“What happened? How could I get a B on that math quiz?”). While amusing now — in an awkward, semi-embarrassed way, my self-reporting entailed more than a daily academic update. It represented my unquenchable thirst for praise.
Growing up, praise was few and far between from my taciturn parents. “We expect academic excellence; you were raised on the right side of the tracks,” my tight-lipped father would grunt. Not surprisingly, earning high-achieving grades was more of relief; there was a joylessness as I grunted my way through school.
As I have aged and matured (and, yes, received my fair share of B’s), I recognize praise’s tempting — but ultimately hollow — appeal. When we rely on others’ approval for our self-identity, we defer to them on our major life decisions. And in seeking their affirmation and validation, we sacrifice our own understanding of a healthy, fulfilling life. There is a balance between deference and passivity. And as a praise fiend, you risk succumbing your own independent, sound judgment to for a life someone else has constructed.
Stop. Walk away from that (praise) needle. The hit is short-lived and, like a junkie, leaves you craving more.
Thankfully, I have weaned myself from praise’s addictive tentacles. From my Psych Central submissions to backpacking the world, I have developed my own self-identity independent of others’ opinions. And from forcefully sticking up for my own political viewpoints to charting my own distinctive career path (poor but richly fulfilling), I trust my own decision-making–even if it alienates those family and friends. Disposing of that used (praise) needle, life does feel more liberating.
There is a direct overlap between praise and mental health. As an OCD sufferer, praise and reassurance are brothers from the same mental health mother. Uncertainty is the common denominator–whether you are questioning the latest OCD thought or craving affirmation for the latest work project. But praise, like reassurance, is a temporary balm; it soothes but does not solve. A more enduring solution: embrace the uncertainty and then challenge it. By first embracing the possibility of failure (“maybe my work project is inadequate; perhaps my boss will be dissatisfied”), the fear of failure slowly loses its molten intensity. As the craven need for praise/validation subsides, it is time for a more objective appraisal. “I have completed countless projects without requiring my boss’s approval. I can complete this project too.”
From loved ones to employers, the need for validation is understandable. We all want to be praised for our character, our thoughtful gestures, our work performance–myself included. But praise can be a double-edged sword. By futilely chasing the next plaudit, the insatiable need for approval threatens one’s self-identity. And, sadly, a thousand trite compliments–however well-meaning–cannot replace that.