I rue the day somebody told me I was the best — the best singer, writer, young Christian they knew, and just an all around awesome girl. When I got to college, I lost my reputation as the best at anything — and along with it, all of my self-worth.
At college, praise made me cringe because everyday moments and other awesome people made me feel like a loser. I’m smart? Lolz. I use Wikipedia for research sometimes. I’m such an inspirational person? You wouldn’t say that if you really knew me. I’m kind? I just bit my boyfriend’s head off two seconds ago. I dress cute? Dude, I wore leggings all of last week. The same pair.
You’ve probably experienced it too, when somebody gives you a sweeping praise: “You’re so [insert any adjective].” Your heart sinks. You protest. You never believe it. You feel awkward: Do I accept this lie, or do I set them straight and look like an insecure wimp? Oh, wait, I am an insecure wimp. Thanks for reminding me. Now I feel awful.
All of this, because nice people give nice compliments.
We all know the sting of poorly-given criticism, but we don’t recognize the destruction of poorly-given praise.
The latter can hook us on perfectionism or people-pleasing, social drugs that sap self-worth faster than anything. More praise, please. Tell me more about how good I am, how wonderful I am, lie to me, anything to hide the pain.
Praise wears off more quickly as you get older and make more and more mistakes, and then you’re stuck going into the shock of facing a world without people’s approval, or you start asking your friends for canned assurances of your greatness. How idiotic did I look? You still love me? Do you like me too?
Praises like “I’m so proud of you” link our accomplishments to other people’s pleasure, not our own self-esteem. “You’re so good” gives us a vague image we must maintain (or make up) to feel good about ourselves. “You’re the best” sustains our self-worth until that person who’s inevitably better than us just crushes our little egos. It sparks jealousy, resentment, and meltdowns every time someone does something better than us.
We’ve seen it. We’ve done it. It’s ugly.
It’s impossible to form a healthy, independent sense of self when we feel bound by people’s evaluations, even positive ones.
Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, in How to Talk So Kids Can Learn (p.s. every parent, teacher, and person alive should read this book), insist praise ought to be descriptive, not evaluative.
When your friend finishes a piano recital, nix the gushing, “You were so good!” and say, “You could tell how much work and joy you put into learning and performing that piece.”
When your little sister shoves yet another scribbled picture in your face, don’t beam, “I love it! You’re such an amazing artist!” Say, “The colors make this picture pop! It’s kind of you to give me this picture!”
When your friend loses her volleyball match, don’t lie and say, “You were perfect!” Say, “Sure, you messed up the last set, but dude, that one dig you got in the second match? That took guts!”
No evaluation. No comparing. No good, better, or best. Just straight up description of what stood out to you.
Descriptive praise takes more thought. It shows you are engaged in the other’s life. It doesn’t place any burdens on her to maintain her “perfection” throughout every moment of her life. Rather, it directs her to positively evaluate her accomplishments on her own: “I really did work hard on this piece. I’m really good at picking colors! I really did make an epic dig.”
Positive self-evaluation sticks. The next time she feels down about her game or her drawing, she can remember a time she did something well — objectively.
And best of all, when you lay out the facts, she can’t deny it. No more awkward moments.