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How Do You Respond to Praise?

by Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D. and Harry S Truman, C.F.P.

Your supervisor says, "Congratulations on landing the Smith contract! Your creativity at the sales meeting was superb!"

Ah, praise! The kudos! The acclaim! The applause! Rewards that result from your good work! How do you respond to praise? Do you bask graciously in the limelight? Or do you mumble and fumble for words? Do you treasure the moment of glory? Or do you shrink in embarrassment?

Praise serves a number of purposes.

  • It draws people together through an exchange of appreciation.
  • It can motivate people to greater achievement.
  • It tells people that they have performed well and/or improved over previous performance.
  • It observes examples of excellence that others may choose to follow.

When people have trouble accepting praise, it is usually evident. Some feel awkward and undeserving while they mumble some meaningless reply and quickly vacate the scene. Some resort to a self-deprecating attitude, saying things such as "It was nothing, really." Some get pompous and use praise as a springboard for bragging about their other achievements. None of these is an appropriate way to respond to praise. How you accept praise has to do with your self-esteem, the way you validate your efforts, and knowing what to say in return.

Your Self-Esteem
Self-esteem has everything to do with how you feel about praise. Low self-esteem is characterized by an intense desire to be liked, coupled with feelings, deep down inside, that one is inadequate and not worth liking. People with low self-esteem may desperately yearn for praise, but when it comes, they feel uncomfortable with it, like an imposter. Their self-criticism overrides their ability to recognize their strengths and qualities and appreciate their talents and contributions.

If low self-esteem hampers your ability to enjoy praise, then your call to personal growth is to realize that you don't have to be perfect to be liked, admired, and deemed competent. Improve whatever you can about yourself and then like yourself in spite of what you cannot change. You are not defined solely by your shortcomings and mistakes. Consider the possibility that your life was meant to serve some meaningful purpose and that the universe at this moment would be incomplete without you. You have as much right to take up space on the planet as anyone else, and the very fact of your existence means you were meant to be here. You are entitled to be a friend to yourself.

Low self-esteem does no one any good. It robs people of the drive to succeed and to give their best. It is a barrier to excellence. People aren't born with high or low self-esteem. Self-esteem is a learned trait, acquired from life experiences. People with low self-esteem have interpreted some of their experiences to mean "I'm not good enough." Fortunately, low self-esteem can be unlearned, and negative beliefs about self-worth can be replaced by positive ones!

If you have low self-esteem, do something to boost your opinion and liking of yourself. Read inspirational and self-help books, get into counseling and confront your fears, and look in the mirror and say "I love you," hundreds of times until you mean it. Get out of negative relationships and surround yourself with happy, loving people who love themselves! Be kind and forgiving and loving to yourself at all times.

When you receive praise, focus on what you've done well. Refuse to criticize or belittle your efforts. Assume that you must be doing something competently. Really listen to the positive feedback and respect it. Appreciate the value of praise not only to yourself, but to those who express it. Let praise and gentle, positive feedback for improvement become a part of your own inner dialog.

Internal and External Validation
Psychologists recognize that a common personality trait is the manner in which people obtain validation for their efforts. Validation styles range across a continuum from internal validators to external validators. Both styles have their advantages and disadvantages when it comes to responding to praise and feedback.

Internal validators don't need much feedback from others, because they know, inside, when they've done a good job. They know what "feels right," and bringing about that "right" feeling is how they determine the quality of their performance or product. Some internal validators keep a mental checklist of criteria or standards against which they judge their performance. When the items on the list get checked off, then the "right" feeling kicks in! Internal validators often regard praise as nice, but unnecessary and perhaps superfluous. If they think they have done a poor job at something, no amount of praise can convince them otherwise. The advantage of having internal validation is that one can work independently, and get satisfaction from doing a task well, without outside recognition. The disadvantage is that the internal validator may be blinded by his or her own internal standards and ignore what others want and value.

External validators, on the other hand, thrive on praise. They need praise to know whether they've done a good job. They are good at asking for feedback and will apply it. They want to please and impress others who are in a position to bestow rewards. They are suited for customer service type of jobs, because they can figure out what others want and deliver it. Their weakness, however, is that, without praise, they feel ignored, neglected, and unappreciated. They may even feel insulted when they have worked hard and praise is not forthcoming! To them, an absence of praise may mean they have performed poorly!

If you tend to validate internally, get "reality checks," by asking others to evaluate your work sincerely and specifically. Turn off your internal dialog and listen reflectively to what others say to you. Become aware of other's standards and values as well as your own. If you tend to validate externally, remember; lack of praise does not automatically mean your work is poor or unappreciated. Sometimes other people just aren't aware that you need feedback or want praise. The people who neglect to praise you may be internal validators themselves, who don't realize how important praise can be to others. It's fine to ask for feedback, but don't overdo your requests. Learn to set your own standards for judging the quality of your work. When you meet those standards, practice saying "That's good!" to yourself. Give yourself permission to know when you have done a task well, and tell yourself so.

Knowing What to Say
Sincere praise is a precious gift. When a friend, coworker, or loved one gives you praise or pays you a compliment, look that person in the eye and say "Thank You." Say it with true feelings of gratitude. You could even share how it feels to receive such a gift. Say something like "It feels good to be appreciated," or "I'm glad I could take part." You can respond adroitly to praise if you remember to do three things:

  1. Like yourself well enough to recognize when you do something well.
  2. Obtain validation from the inside and the outside.
  3. Treat praise like a gift. Say words of thanks and acknowledge the giver graciously and sincerely.

Then revel in the kudos, bask in the acclaim, and smile through the applause! Accept the praise happily when someone says "Well done!"


This article originally appeared in The Toastmaster, the monthly magazine of Toastmasters International.

Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist and free-lance writer in solo practice in Springfield, Virginia, specializing in Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Hypnotherapy. Her web site is www.engagethepower.com

Harry S Truman is a Certified Financial Planner living in San Antonio, TX. His email is harry.truman@invpro.com.

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