Effusive Praise

Before you read this (because I know WHO is going to read this) understand that I understand this: This is my problem. It’s not your problem. It’s something I’m working on unravelling.

I’m gonna go with: This is just how I was raised.

I am very suspicious of praise. It never sits well with me.

There are a couple reasons I suppose. Either:

  • I don’t believe it’s accurate.
  • I don’t believe it’s honest.

Or, you know, both. They’ve got about 80% overlap.

The third possibility, that it’s simply an honest appraisal of something I’ve done or said is so rare that it’s generally not worth considering. Though I’ve noticed over the last few months that I’m more open to the idea that someone actually means what they say.

This all came up somewhat starkly back in the days after I posted the original 9/11 account. People just gush about it. It always made me physically flinch. I couldn’t figure out what the hell was WRONG with these people. But they kept coming out of the woodwork, unrelated to each other, seeking me out to tell me how much it touched them or how they cried when they read it or…whatever. It’s all just…too naked an expression of emotion for me to tolerate. (Which is a post for another time.)

The easiest thing to disregard is people who are inclined to praise others overmuch as a social tool. Even when they think they’re being honest there’s a disingenuous quality about it. To quote Syndrome “If everybody’s special, then no one is.”

Unconditional praise, for instance, is worse than valueless. It’s a manipulation tool and has no honesty to it. This is the kind of thing that shows up most commonly (in my experience) in family: “I’ll support you no matter what you do.” Well, that means your support means absolutely nothing. Not only that but I have to disregard every positive word you say since it’s not based on anything honest.

When you grow up in that kind of environment what you learn is that praise is at best meaningless and at worst a manipulation.

I’m not sure what that does to a person’s ability to self-assess, since I only ever experienced one schema and don’t know what anything different would have been like.

As an adult you can consider your past and its effect on your development, but you really don’t get to complain about it after you’re about 19 years old. Your life and your mental health is your responsibility, not anyone else’s.

But sometimes it takes a couple decades of self-examination to catch yourself in certain modes of behavior before you can even be aware of them well enough to start trying to unravel where they came from.

The temptation to tap out and abdicate your responsibility for your own behaviors and feelings to the gravitational well of your upbringing is almost too great to escape. BUT…once you get into the habit it gets easier and easier.

In that case you have to build up not only your own assessment of your skills and attributes, but the underlying framework for establishing the criteria itself. What constitutes something good? What’s the metric? Well… with no external criteria you can trust the only sure measure you can rely on is comparison of yourself with yourself previously. You can only really trust the vector of improvement, since it’s unarguable. No matter how badly you suck at something the truth of improvement is a simple naked thing. Sure sometimes you need to back away and get some perspective. But if you can DO that then you can see the improvement for what it is.

So with that in place my brain returns to external expressions of praise…

There are a couple people and a couple situations where I understand they’re being honest, but that’s usually downstream of the realization that they aren’t overly free with such praise.

For instance I’ve been working on a 3d printing project over the last couple weeks. It’s…not something I’ve designed. I’m just printing the thing. But I think it’s really cool, so I brought my first failure and my first moderate success to the cigar lounge. (I’m a big believer in sharing my failures as often as my successes.) The reaction I got was really weird. I expected “Dude that’s cool!” and the like. Instead I got “Man, you did this? I’m impressed.” So I felt compelled to remind people that it’s not…my design. I’m just printing the thing. They wouldn’t be dissuaded, attributing the thing to me rather than the guys on the internet who did all the work. There were a couple guys who got it right. But it was really strange.

Writing’s a big one for me since I’ve front-loaded so much importance on it. I get compliments on some of my writing from all over the place. Frankly I just don’t understand it. But that’s neither here nor there. Sometimes I get globally effusive praise. But sometimes it’s sparing. There’s one internet friend I’ve had for something dangerously close to 20 years. (Good GOD that’s actually true.) The Queen of Arts has mostly retired from the internet I think. Good for her frankly. The internet isn’t real life. She posted a commment on something I posted a month or so ago that I’m still glowing from.

The net effect (aforementioned and a couple very sparse examples aside) is that I just about never believe people when they say I write well.

Oh I’m better than I was a month ago, six months ago, a couple years ago. I’ve made pretty good on my promise from a few months ago to be more intentional about what I post. And I’m not nearly as good as I’m going to be, improving as I am in fits and starts. But generally I feel like people are blowing smoke up my ass. There’ll be more on this in another post on a more general topic I’m mulling over in my head.

The trick is to understand the place from which praise comes. It can be a simple reaction to something you’ve done, which is usually fine. But the more global the praise the more suspicious I think you should be. “I really love the way you phrased that” is tough to find fault with. “Dude you’re just such a great writer” is something I can’t help but find suspect.

Sure the sentiment is usually honest. If I think someone’s overtly blowing sunshine up my ass consistently I generally rid myself of them pretty quickly. I’ve got stories upon stories of people doing so and how I’ve (eventually) dealt with them. (Usually quietly, sometimes loudly, always definitively.)

Maybe I’m just too damned Machiavellian about the whole affair.

But I suspect something else is going on in my head.