Learning to keep praise at arm’s length

It is so very tempting to accept other people’s praise and absorb it as though their opinion matters, but then what happens when they don’t like what you’re doing, when they don’t approve, when they throw brickbats rather than bouquets? I can’t afford to take other people’s praise too seriously, I can’t afford to let it shape my own opinion of myself.

It is a constant struggle. (Well, maybe not literally constant, as I don’t constantly get praise from people, but I’m sure you get the drift.) It feels really nice when someone offers a compliment, when someone notices me, when out of all the people on this earth somebody notices me and says well done – it’s a nice feeling but I know that there will also be times when people don’t like what I say or how I say it, when people don’t approve of my behaviour or of my creative work or of my choice of hairstyle or whatever, and if I rely on their opinion to shape my own view of myself, then I’ll be going up and down like a see-saw depending on whether they say well done or boo hiss.

One of my favourite books is You Are Special by Max Lucado, about these wooden people called wemmicks, who go around giving each other stickers all the time: a gold star if you’ve done something well, or a grey dot if you’ve failed. The story follows Punchinello, a little wooden person who was always getting grey dots. He meets another wemmick and is surprised to see she doesn’t have any stickers on her at all – neither good nor bad. It wasn’t because people didn’t try to give her stickers, it’s just that, as she explained to him, “the stickers only stick if you let them”.

I’ve already written here about the teacher at high school who gave me a discouraging response when I showed her a story I’d written. That grey dot was absorbed deep into me, and it took many many years before I started to come out of my shell again – and this was thanks to people who offered me gold stickers to compensate.

And I’ve been thinking recently about the novel I started writing and dropped (and now restarted) and about various grey dots/gold stars that went into that equation – there was a friend I’d shown some of it to, who said it was good, but strangely I completely forgot about that until my husband mentioned it in conversation recently; I did remember emailing a chapter to another friend, not because of wanting comments on the quality of writing but because of wanting to check the authenticity of something I was describing there, and for some reason her reply never reached me, which I found really hard at the time – so painful that it took all my courage to bring it up when, months later, I saw her, and she was surprised because she was sure she had emailed me back to say it was really good!

A grey dot that I really think I should have ignored was from the writing group I was in at the time. It was basically a group of writers meeting once a fortnight in someone’s home, taking turns to read out some of what we were working on and providing feedback to one another. I found it helpful to read out bits of the novel there, it helped me to keep going. And, yes, I enjoyed the praise when it came… and I think it’s not bad to enjoy it, it’s just a question of how much weight you give it. Because if you let those stickers stick too strongly, the grey dots will stick strongly too.

There was something a bit experimental I was doing in the novel, and when I read out that bit I got some very grey dots from the others. Oh no, that’s just not the way it’s done…

Tough. I’ve got the novel out of the cobwebs now and I’m going to write it the way that comes naturally to me, because, well, that’s the only way I can write.

That’s part of the difficulty with accepting people’s comments – when they praise you, it feels nice, but when they disapprove of you, well, the you that they’re disapproving of, it’s all you’ve got. I once read a book called Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? by John Powell, in which he quotes from an actual conversation he had with someone when he was writing the book, and this person said to him: “I am afraid to tell you who I am, because, if I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it’s all that I have.”

As part of my growing, I’ve learned to be more open with people about who I am – but the only way I can do that is if I don’t allow their opinion of me to become too important to me. If I need people’s approval in order to feel I have value, then I will be more loathe to risk showing them the bits of me that they might not like. But deciding not to let the stickers stay on – there lies freedom to be myself and to show my real self to others. Like what you see? That’s great, but please don’t expect me to gush about it too much, because, you see, I can’t let this become my source of self worth, because then I’ll feel worthless when you discover the bits of me that you don’t like. Because those bits are also part of me. And this me that you see – it’s all that I have.

2 thoughts on “Learning to keep praise at arm’s length

  1. Yeah, I hear you. I know I spend way too long worrying about what others think of me (or on the rare occasion preening if I think they think well of me) – but I think the only real cure for that is to look to God and keep looking to Him and see ourselves in His eyes. In Lucado’s book, I think that’s how Lucia got her stickers to not-stick. Rather than spending energy willing the stickers to not-stick, the stickers ceased to be important because she had something more important to think about. I’m starting to learn that… but learning really slowly… it’s hard work!

    The other thing I recently realized is, it doesn’t matter (gasp!) whether my writing is – by earthly standards – any good or not. I’m a servant of Christ and all that matters is whether I’m obedient to Him or not. If he calls me to write, I should write to the best of my ability. If he’s calling me to do something else (usually to serve my family by doing the humble tasks of housekeeping) then I need to do that thing to the best of my ability. This is the apprenticeship that God has given me to do – these are the tasks he’s assigned me to do – not just to “build my character” but even as part of my apprenticeship to Him as a writer, even if I don’t understand how it all fits together – even if I don’t see how washing dishes relates to writing hymns.

    Lately when I have heard His call to write, it has been to write notes and emails to people I know, rather than to write a hymn or a story or a novel! That’s been humbling to me – ha ha, I’ll surely never be famous or get any gold stickers for writing notes to people! And that’s showed me how much I still care about the things of earth – yikes!

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    • Amen, amen, amen! I’m with you on all those. Knowing (or, rather, getting gradually to know) how much God loves me is a massive factor in being able to say I don’t need people’s praise, and to really mean it. And whatever way he chooses to use me, or whatever task he gives me for now, it may not be what fellow humans will appreciate and it might not make any sense to me or to those around me – I’ve definitely got some eyerolls in the past – but I know he knows what he’s doing.

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