Pitfalls of Praise
I was recently watching a mother and son interact. It was clear the mother cared for her son and wanted desperately to connect and contribute to his well-being. The mother’s strategy was to praise her son profusely around mundane things and around what she thought her son should be doing more of. I heard things like, “That’s the most exercise you’ve had in a while. That’s great.” General praise words like, great and neat were common and frequent and came with more emotion than her son ever expressed.
Again and again I watched as the son tightened and froze in the face of his mom’s praise.
It seemed that he didn’t want to respond positively, because he knew he wasn’t really being seen. He couldn’t find a way to say he didn’t like what his mom said, because his mom was so “positive”.
The implicit message the son received was that he was being judged. In the face of his mother’s consistent judgment he didn’t feel free just to be himself, messy and “great”, as the case may be.
Again and again, moment by moment you can return to what’s alive in you. If you find yourself saying things like “You’re great!” “Super!” in reference to someone’s behavior, you may think you are just celebrating, but the receiver may hear something different.
Express your celebration directly. The mom in our example above might say: “I feel so happy walking with you, because I care about your health and want to support you. Can we do this next week?”
If you are hoping to change someone’s behavior through praise or criticism, it’s a signal that you have lost touch with your own feelings, needs, and requests.
If you are on the receiving end of praise, like the son in the example above, here are some ways you might respond:
- Hmm, hearing you say that, I notice myself tighten up and disconnect. Could you help me understand where you are coming from?
- I hear you say it was great. What about it worked for you?
- When I hear you say that, I think it means you want me to be or behave in a certain way. Then I just shut down or want to do the opposite. Would you be willing to talk about how you’re affected (your feelings) rather than me and my actions?