Is Too Much Praise Ruining the Quality of Your Work?

ego too much praise
via Flickr

Haters, it’s been confirmed, are going to hate — and if you’re a person who even spends even a small amount of time on the internet (seems like a safe assumption, given that you’re reading this article), you know that you ought not read the comments. We labor over when our critics may be right, but most often, we just assume they’re all wrong.

“You do you,” we’re told.

“They’re just jealous,” we’re told.

“They don’t get it,” we’re told.

And yet, we are rarely so choosy or discerning when it comes to the praise we receive. All criticism, it seems, must be scrutinized or even outright ignored. All praise, though, is reveled in.

In an interview on the Longform podcast, author George Saunders related a story of a time he was talking with President Bill Clinton about times in his life when he’d dealt with intense criticism.

“He told me — and I think he got this advice from Hilary — that when criticism comes, your first impulse is to defend yourself and maybe even attack the attacker. But he said the wiser thing to do is let the criticism hit, and then see what sticks,” explained Saunders. “And likewise, I think with praise…not all praise is well-calibrated or deserved. So you let it wash over you and then, a couple of weeks later, you see what has stuck.”

Though the internet is often touted as being a great source of negativity (and don’t get it wrong — it can be that), it’s also a hive for praise. Facebook statuses and Instagram posts are often met with cascades of compliments, and even the most mediocre of blog post or other text can draw comments from strangers and friends alike thanking the author for being so honest, so brave.  Multiple studies have indicated that too much praise (too much empty praise, that is) can turn children into self-centered adults. But what about the never-ending cascade of positivity that lands on us adults as the result of our selfies (“Gorgeous!”) and humblebrags (“You’re so smart!”)?

too much praise quotes

Because, though we rarely take the time to parse it out, there is a hierarchy of praise — and there’s a difference between praise and support.

One element of the narcissistic kid studies that’s often glossed over when related by the media is that praise which is focused on effort is more perceived intrinsic values is more salient and more supporting. Telling a child that they must have worked very hard on something, or that they clearly thought very carefully about it nurtures their resilience and self-esteem. Simply telling a child that they’re smart or that they’re attractive, however, simply bolsters the idea that they are special.

The same is true, it seems, with adults. Here’s an example: If we wonder why people (of all ages, because you can be sure that it’s not just teens to engage in this behavior) post selfie after selfie with no context, no added value, and no relevance to anything else in the world, we need only to look at the comments that follow. Rarely does the praise have anything to do with, say, achievement or accomplishment. Compliments can literally be addictive; by posting a particularly flattering photo, users of social media sites are chasing the literal high that comes with being told they are attractive.

Which doesn’t mean it’s wrong to compliment someone, or do seek compliments; humans thrive on praise and community, and feeling loved and cherished is extremely important to our mental health and wellbeing. But it’s no surprise that studies have linked selfies to narcism.

Additionally, there’s the question of audience.


Your mother, your best friend, or your partner will probably praise you almost regardless of all context. However, if they don’t work in your field or aren’t your target audience, their praise is, while kind, often less constructive or instructive than, say, a colleague or peer.

When your mother tells you that she thinks you’re a great writer, she probably genuinely does. But when an editor or a fellow writer or a publisher tells you that you’re excellent at constructing narratives, there’s something to be learned and real pride to be taken.

Again, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t praise our friends and family for their achievements even when we, ourselves, don’t quite understand the value of those achievements. It does mean, though, that delivering salient, supportive praise travels farther and is more helpful than simply telling someone they are smart, attractive, or otherwise impervious to potential change.

It also means that there is a calculus we must do when receiving praise; when someone in your field has a potentially helpful piece of criticism and your mother tells you not to listen because she thought it was perfect, there are different motivations and different growth opportunities at stake.

trophies too much praise
via Flickr

Similarly, there are plenty of instances when criticism is legitimately without value. Twitter trolls with no user image sending death threats? They’re not your audience, and their opinions don’t matter. Well-regarded peers with thoughtful ideas for improvement? It might not always be pleasant to hear, but it may be extremely helpful.

Minister and author of The Power of Positive Thinking Norman Vincent Peale noted that “the trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” And truthfully, in criticism there can be career and personal salvation.

The fact of the matter is that we are much more prone to listen to the good and discard the bad than we are to listen and weigh them both. That can be potentially problematic when we make a mistake or are otherwise on the wrong path; blindly writing off “haters” while soaking in the praise of those who love us unconditionally might feel a whole lot better, but it’s also generally not good for the growth and improvement of our work or ourselves.

Disregarding all criticism and accepting all praise equally is, implicitly, is a method of self-protection which, when confronted with troll and vicious, faceless internet commenters, can be a powerful act of self-care. However, it can also be a way of closing down curiosity.


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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.