I used to work for an American gentleman who I (still) respect a lot. One day he invited me into his office to tell me I had been promoted. I quietly said thank you. I think I allowed myself a small smile.
He looked at me and grinned widely. And said (I paraphrase):
‘Is that all? Don’t I get any other reaction? You’re so damn British!’
He was right of course. I am not sure he really expected whoops of delight and a little jig of joy around the conference table but I did take the good news with something that even looked like lack of enthusiasm.
But I was delighted. Of course I was. But I find it very hard to show it.
I do not think I am alone in this. I know a lot of people who when given praise for anything kind of look at the ground, cough and say nothing. Or mutter nonsense like “it was nothing” or try and compare the praiseworthy act unfavourably with something the person giving the compliment has done.
When we are children, we do take delight in being told we have done well (even if only because it means we are not being scolded!) but some of us seem to lose that into adulthood. Someone raised this with me recently so it set me thinking about why personally I find taking praise stressful.
It is odd, as for me, praise is like a drug. I am one of those people that need affirmation. I need people to give me feedback; even negative feedback is better than feeling ignored. But in theory, I should be over the moon if someone says I have done some good work, or that I have been helpful to them in some way. But it never lasts. It is like smoking a hookah – it goes straight to your head in a second and is gone just as quickly.
I don’t allow myself to store up that lovely nugget and save it for the days when it all goes bad and it might be nice to get it out of the box and caress it for awhile to make myself feel better. No I gobble it up instantly like tube of refreshers in an instant orgy of sugary goodness and nothing is left. That is except for the inevitable coming down from the sugar rush later, because none of us have a consistent, continuous supply of positive vibes to live on.
So why don’t I allow the praise linger on, to allow it fuel the whole day at least? A number of reasons for me:
• I’m British – damn that false modesty (and damn the Victorians while you are there. Back in the Eighteenth century you really would dine out on the compliment for weeks, and then suddenly it is all modesty and paper thin decorum and a lot less fun.)
• I think they don’t really mean it. They are just saying the nice thing because it is my ‘turn’; or they cannot think of anything else to say (having exhausted the weather, strictly come dancing and the Royal family as topics); or, most despicable of all, they have an agenda of their own and they are buttering me up; and add your own paranoid delusions of why, in your head, you cannot take the compliment at face value.
• I don’t deserve it. This is my “favourite” one. Sometimes we work our socks off for something but get no praise whatsoever. Then the next day we do something that took us no time at all and minimal effort and suddenly everyone tells me I’m great. The problem I have here is that I am not seeing things through their eyes. What I find easy or what, by my situation, is easy for me to do may be really hard for others. They value the act more than I do. That does not invalidate the praise. Rather, it should encourage me. If I can get that affirmation by doing just what comes naturally to me, then maybe that is my path to some kind of contentment.
I would like to ask everyone to give and take praise better. We all know that life knocks you down all the time and we can support each other through encouragement.
I have friends who tell me that encouragement is something I give out freely and passionately. And it is true that if I am on earth for any reason, it is to give people as much of a boost as I can. But I need to learn to take it myself as well.
Maybe I am right, and often there is an ulterior motive.
But if the mouse gets the cheese out of mousetrap before it springs, does it matter what the intention was in putting the cheese there in the first place? And is the mouse is still pretty happy I think with the reward, as it munches away on its reward of a nice piece of Lincolnshire Poacher.