In Praise of Praise
Practice What You Praise
Not everyone finds it hard to offer praise, of course. For Alexis, 30, of New York City, it's a "no-brainer," she says. "I like to give credit and appreciation wherever it's due." But others find that offering praise that goes deeper than, "Hey, cute shoes," makes them feel "vulnerable," says Jacobson. "Praise can expose that you have a need. If you tell your husband you love it when he scratches your back, it can feel like you're giving him the power to decide whether he'll do it or not." Fundamentally, praise exposes emotion -- a challenge for many, says Shelly Gable, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA. "People who aren't adept at expressing their feelings overall are not likely to share in someone else's good fortune," she says.
Likewise, not everyone finds praise hard to take. "Praise drives me, motivates me to do more -- for more praise!" says Lynn, 40, of Austin, Texas. For some, of course, it's more than a motivator, it's a requirement; they feel that they can't function without it. "People like that," says Jacobson, "are not entirely comfortable with who they are."
But you likely know someone -- could it be you? -- who "can't take a compliment," who blushes, diminishes, or even dismisses ("Are you kidding? I look totally fat!"). Why? "Accepting a compliment can feel like a big responsibility," says Jacobson. "If someone says 'You're so organized!' you feel like you have to be as organized as they think you are, and like a 'fraud' if you're really not."
Accepting praise can be especially tough for women. "Girls and women find it hard to solicit and accept recognition because part of our cultural notion of femininity is that females are supposed to relinquish valued resources -- including recognition -- to others," says psychiatrist Anna Fels, MD, author of Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women's Changing Lives (Pantheon, 2004). Other research underscores our love/hate relationship with praise: women in a study at Sonoma State University in California performed better when told that their work promised great success in the future -- but also felt more anxious in the process. The same researchers believe that women may experience encouragement both as positive feedback and as pressure to do even better next time. (Are we hard on ourselves, or what?)