Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Toxic Praise: An Overview

In today's society, toxic praise is everywhere, but we don't always recognize it as such. 

"Toxic praise" comes from the use of praise as a function of manipulation, that is, it is used in order to either reinforce or mute certain outcomes in another, in order to gain a desired outcome. This can be, but is not necessarily, due to a conscious desire or awareness on the part of the praise provider to be manipulative. 



A few common types of toxic praising include:


  • -Performance praise: A child getting praised primarily for what they can do, ignoring the child's needs for other types of acknowledgement. (Flip side: criticism)
  • -Backhanded compliments, i.e. belittling someone with a tone and words that would otherwise signal approval, which feels confusing to the person who is the "target" of the compliment. (Flip side: outright cruelty)
  • -Generic praise, i.e. flattering with impersonal, non-specific, or overly idealized and flowery compliments- typically to meet the praise provider's self-serving needs. (Flip side: verbal abuse)
  • -Coercive praise: Giving attention and compliments in an attempt to win compliance or to get something from a target. (Flip side: antisocial behavior). 
  • -Conditional praise: Rewarding someone only for doing what you want or approve of, while being dismissive and/or critical of doing what you don't like and don't value. (Flip side: controlling behaviors)
  • -Fear based praise: Flattery or compliments designed to soothe the target and reduce tension. (Flip side: traumatic anxiety or panic behaviors)
  • -False praise: Giving compliments and admiration, often to excess, in order to gain social favor- when, in truth, you may not even like the thing or person you are complimenting. (Flip side: brutal truths


Can you think of any others? Describe them in the comment section below.

The "flip sides" above are the core principle of the behavior in its direct expression. For example, praising performance uses positive language to get the target to do more of what the praise providers wants, while criticism instead attempts to extinguish anything which is NOT the desired performance behavior.

 Toxic praise can often be found in arenas where it is not acceptable to state one's desires by more direct means. Social, academic, and work settings are especially risky if they also depend on a high degree of refinement or "subtle signaling"- for example, a white-collar office job. People attempting to get their needs met in polite society, where individuals are held to high standards of visible conduct, might be tempted to rely on indirect forms of manipulation or aggression such as toxic praise. 

All too often, such behaviors are learned from those around us- justified by the belief that it is simply the "cost of doing business." 



Here's one example that may be familiar to many readers: A parent's belief may tell him his son should be good at sports to be successful. But his values may signal that it isn't appropriate to tell his child he is disappointed about how much the child is actually terrible at sports. 

So he might, instead, start pushing harder by complimenting any motion toward the desired sports performance his son does make. 

The parent might, in his frustration or resentment, fail to emapthise with the child's difficulty, get curious about why he is struggling, or notice that the child doesn't share the same values. That is, he fails to take into account the child's experience as his own person. So, instead of taking this as encouragement that he should try harder to do well at sports, the son will instead receive this message as: "My dad doesn't care about me, he only cares if I make the team." 





This is what I mean by the behavior not necessarily being conscious. We think we are doing what's best for someone else, but in our well-meaning attitude, we may have failed to examine our own shortcomings. This may not only cause problems for us, but also for those whom we value. 


It's not always a recipe for trauma: sometimes we use "toxic praise lite" in order to avoid a mildly uncomfortable outcome, such as hurting someone's feelings- commonly known as the use of the "little white lie." You might say to a best friend or a sibling, "that outfit really belongs on you", because admitting that you find it unflattering might be disappointing to hear- or might put a kink in your relationship.




...but I'm willing to bet there's at least one person reading this article (maybe more than one?) Who'd say that to someone you're close to, because you secretly enjoy knowing that your bestie looked just a little less attractive than you did. (It's okay, we won't tell anyone!) This is where the toxic potency might start to climb. 

We find this sort of intrigue fascinating as humans, and perpetuate its existence through media and personal stories that reinforce its glamour. This explains why things like historical fiction, soap operas, courtly dramas with kings and queens, etc. are some of the most perennially loved types of stories over time. 



So why is toxic praise so toxic? Well, it has to do with how, as a species, humans are hard wired to mirror one another. To relate. We seek acknowledgement of ourselves, and our worth, in the eyes of others. Think about how we describe feelings of being misunderstood: "she just doesn't see me", "I don't feel heard", "I feel so invisible", etc. 

When receiving toxic praise, instead of feeling good about ourselves, we feel even worse. It puts the individual in a no-win situation: To accept the conditional praise, one must devalue or limit other parts of one's self- and/or accept being devalued by another. This leads to inner conflict. The more you might have a need to receive approval from someone else, the more vulnerable you will be to accepting toxic praise- and the easier it will be for you to get manipulated by someone who uses it. 

Brene' Brown, the well-reknowned researcher on shame, reminds us of this: 


"When we spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don't fit in with who we think we're supposed to be, we stand outside of our story and hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, and proving." -The Gifts of Imperfection

Being split off from parts of our own self and nature, as any mental health pro can tell you, can stir up a host of accompanying health problems- from self-centeredness, to anxiety and depression, to addictions, compulsive behaviors, workaholism, eating disorders, relational problems, physical ailments, and more. 

What's even worse is that, without realizing it, we can perpetuate our own shaming by use of toxic praise onto others- friends, family, children, co workers, employees and students, to name a few.

Humans learn by watching and mimicking others' behaviors, so being around those mean girl friends in high school, or getting addicted to daytime TV, might suggest some bad habits when it comes to dealing with others. But it would take some robust research and analysis to say for sure whether being around toxic praise behavior causes us to repeat it, and what factors (such as childhood experience vs. adult) might play a role in such influence. 

If anything, exposure might turn someone off to the idea of ANY praise being simply "for show" and not to be trusted. (Hint: when you meet someone that just can't seem to accept any compliment, you might be dealing with someone who's been a victim of toxic praising.)



So if we are to evolve as humans, will we have to resign ourselves to giving up "Versailles" and turning to the Disney Channel? Not necessarily. 

The first step with arresting such behavior is, as usual with personal growth, becoming aware of it. Take a moment to examine your motives in a situation- especially if something about it feels odd. 

Did you give toxic praise to someone? What did you gain (or avoid losing) by giving this praise? How does this awareness leave you feeling? If you could get a do-over, how might you have wanted to handle the situation differently and why?

If you received toxic praise: what effect did it have on you? How might that have benefitted the praise provider? How did it leave you feeling? How could you have reacted instead if you could rewind the situation? What boundaries or awareness might protect you in future when confronted with this behavior?

Toxic praise is a byproduct of our perfection seeking, performance obsessed, highly refined civilization. But it doesn't have to ruin the party- as long as we keep it confined to the big screen and the paperback book, and treat one another to our more earnest thoughts and feelings.

Because nothing makes us feel better than REAL praise- that sincere appreciation, admiration and congratulation from someone who matters- so get out there and praise a person today!




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