A form of emotional abuse that many have experienced alternates between praise and denigration. The same person rides a roller coaster of highs and lows, sometimes feeling safe, confident, and powerful while at other times feeling uncertain, sad, and deficient. Justin Timberlake describes the situation in Jay Z’s ‘Holy Grail’. “I just can’t crack your code. One day you’re screaming you love me now, the next day you’re so cold. One day you’re here, one day you’re there, one day you care, you’re so unfair.”
Praise is usually more than deserved given the situation, and might not be tied to any accomplishment at all. Criticism is usually more than deserved too. When that switch flips and the focus turns to defects in character and behavior, it can be really painful because of having grown accustomed over the days, weeks, or months to living up on a pedestal. The higher you are the more painful your fall.
None of us are immune to the intoxicating effects of praise, and sometimes we will accept it without really questioning whether we deserve it. When we are raised up and made to feel like gods, the objects of hero worship, our existential anxiety is alleviated as we bask in this false light. We feel important and powerful, all knowing, that our existence has special significance. We are shielded from the terror of being tiny, alone specks in the cosmos.
A way to protect yourself from riding the emotional roller coaster of alternating praise and denigration is to not let yourself get swept up in the highs or the lows, recognizing you are a complex being who has many good qualities as well as many qualities that could be improved. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that when someone praises your character, you say to yourself or out loud “You are partly right.” And when someone denigrates your character, you say to yourself or out loud “You are partly right.” This existential attitude brings you back to the middle, helping you see yourself in a more accurate light, shielding you from accepting a slanted viewpoint of who you are. You don’t have to blindly define yourself based on the perception of someone else. When you can recognize and accept the aspects of yourself you don’t like, it doesn’t feel as painful when others point them out.
If you are the object of hero worship, you are sure to become the object of that same person’s scorn at some point, because no human being can live up to ideals of perfection for long. When you fall short in the eyes of your admirer you will be pulled down, punished for it. We have talked about praise being one of the most powerful reinforcers, but in order to be effective and useful it needs to be commensurate with actual talents and accomplishments. There is nothing wrong with accepting praise, but the person giving it is only partly right.