Praise is Powerful but Ultimately Unfulfilling
There is no doubt what we all want more than anything else. We want to feel unconditionally loved. We’re really that simple.
In the absence of that precious emotional and spiritual condition, we look for anything that feels good temporarily. Earning approval or avoiding disapproval does make us feel better, but the feeling is brief and addictive, and we don’t like the effort that’s required—even demanded.
Nonetheless, the emotional “hit” of praise is powerful, so we keep going looking for it, with more effort and skill every day. But it’s just an addictive trap, and eventually all that effort doesn’t work at all. Robin Williams was perhaps the world’s greatest comedian, but despite receiving all the attention and praise one person could imagine, he was so miserable that he killed himself.
Praise from a Father
I know a man, John, whose daughter Adrianna played basketball. When she was a young child, she loved the game. With a smile on her face and light in her eyes, she dribbled and shot baskets for hours. She began to play competitively in school, and because of her years of practice, she was more skilled than most of her teammates.
John attended his daughter’s games, and he began to pay much more attention to her than he ever had—lots of praise for her and pride in her accomplishments. John’s wife told me that John didn’t criticize his daughter for any mistakes in her playing, but he really did go overboard with the praise. He talked a lot to her and to his friends about how great she was because of her basketball skills.
But then—over a period of a year or so—she practiced less, and the smile on her face and the twinkle in her eye faded away. Eventually, she refused to practice or attend games. John was obviously heartbroken, a feeling Adrianna couldn’t possibly have missed.
Although it was entirely unconscious on his part, every day she played all those years he communicated this to her, “I’m so proud of you for being a basketball star. It makes me look like a great father, because people assume that I motivate you and help you. And I get a vicarious thrill from your successes. You give me drama, excitement, a sense of worth. I love all that. My life is better because of your shining star as an athlete. I love YOU more—at least as far as I understand that word—when people see you as a success.”
The Confusion and Reality of Praise
One of the major nightmares of this whole situation was that nobody knew what was happening. John thought he was genuinely loving Adrianna, and for a long time, Adrianna thoroughly enjoyed all the attention she got from her father. Other than for basketball, John never paid Adrianna any attention at all, so his praise for her athletics was highly welcome. They both accepted it as love.
But, as I said, she sensed that John “loved” her only for his own self-gratification. She felt like a trained monkey—performing tricks for her masters—but in the absence of any kind of love, the applause she got for performing tricks felt better than nothing.
But attention we earn gets tiresome. It feels false, and it’s exhausting. Adrianna finally began to feel those false and exhausting effects, and playing basketball quickly became far less fun. She played with less enthusiasm, missed more practices, ran slower down the court, stopped practicing on her own, and—finally—quit playing the game all together.
I spoke to Adrianna briefly on one occasion, and I asked why she’d quit basketball, emphasizing that I didn’t care whether she played or not. With a hollow stare, she said, “I just don’t enjoy it anymore.”
Little wonder. Originally she had enjoyed the physical exertion, developing the expertise of dribbling and passing, and seeing the ball drop right through the middle of the hoop—accompanied by that enormously satisfying sound.
I heard this story early in the process of working with John about the discord in his marriage. He and his wife wanted me to help them with Adrianna, who was losing interest in life overall, not just basketball. They were worried and wanted me to fix her.
I immediately helped them to see that their individual and marital unhappiness were the real cause of Adrianna’s profound depression and loss of interest in life.
Unconditional Love, Not Praise, is Fulfilling
The real lesson here is for all of us. We generally live in a condition of severe shortage of Real Love, and in that painful state we’ll settle for anything that feels good, however superficial and temporary that effect might be.
But until we fill the real emptiness and heal the real wounds, we’re doomed to bounce desperately from one distraction and shiny entertainment to another. That is not living.
We can learn to find unconditional love, heal our wounds, and enjoy the genuine happiness that will bring us lasting fulfillment and even a sense of great power. And we must be very aware of the distractions that keep us from finding that level of joy—to avoid them for ourselves and to avoid using them to distract the people around us.
We have to learn the characteristics of damning praise and the other forms of subtle lies that are binding and burying us. Once we’ve learned what’s really happening in our lives, we can make genuine, life changing and positively creative choices, instead of just reacting to pain—a cycle painfully illustrated by John, his wife, and Adrianna.
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