The Perils of Positive Feedback

3 minute read

Most of us love positive feedback. And by and large, there should be much more of it going around: hearing that we’re doing something well tends to make us motivated to do even better.

But not everyone enjoys positive feedback. This was driven home to me by a client who told me he didn't understand why his wife always compared herself unfavorably with other people, and then got annoyed with him when he praised her and pointed out the strengths she possessed that others perhaps lack. Why would she reject his positive feedback, and worse, get angry with him for providing it?

It’s a puzzle, to be sure. But every human behavior has a good reason behind it. I remembered another client who had trouble accepting compliments. He’d become very skilled at deflecting, using one or more of the following strategies:

I’ve fooled you. I’ve managed to put on such a good show that you’re completely taken in by me. The truth is that I’m not good at this, but I’ve figured out how to say the right things and make it look like I’m good, but I’m a complete fake. If I give you enough time, you’ll see through me.

You have poor judgment. Thanks for the compliment, I guess, but by saying something nice about me, you’re just revealing your own weaknesses. Maybe you don’t know what ‘good’ really is, or you just have such a low bar that anything looks good. You can’t be an impressive person if you think that what I did was good.

You’re lying. You can see the truth, but because you feel sorry for me, and because it’s the socially correct thing to do, you are telling me a white lie to make me feel better. I appreciate the effort, and it shows that you’re trying to be a nice person, but I don’t believe you.

You don’t really understand me. So maybe you are a person I respect as having good judgement, and maybe I didn’t try to fool you, and maybe you’re not lying. But still, your praise means nothing because there are so many other parts of me that are so awful. If you really knew me and saw all those other bad parts, you’d realize how much the bad stuff outweighs the good.

You can see now why my client’s wife got angry at him for his positive feedback. Instead of making her feel good about herself, it made her feel distant from her husband. His praise made her feel that he didn’t understand her, that he didn’t see her weaknesses. Or perhaps that he pitied her and his praise was just a pathetic attempt to make her feel better by lying. Maybe it even made her feel that he wasn’t worthy of respect because his standards were so low that he thought she qualified as good.

Why would anyone adopt such self defeating strategies? Why not just take things at face value, say ‘thank you’ when receiving a compliment and consider the possibility that it reflects reality: that you are indeed the talented or good person that you’ve been told you are?

If only it were that easy. The problem is that once a person is convinced that they are not good enough, positive feedback can never penetrate. Negative feedback, on the other hand, is seized upon, dissected and remembered in detail. Negative feedback confirms what the person already thinks of themselves, while positive feedback is deflected and denied. This generally starts in childhood, where life circumstances as well as reactions of family, peers and other adults convince a child that they’re deeply inadequate. Once that self image is established it’s as if the person is subjected to a diet of criticism without any praise, which makes them feel even worse about themselves and even less able to accept positive feedback.

Sometimes people can break out of this loop themselves. But for those who find themselves in my therapy room, unable to stop hating themselves, I don’t add my voice to the chorus of friends and family members who praise my client. To do so would be to set myself up to have both me and my feedback dismissed just like everyone else.

Instead, I focus on understanding my client. I try to understand everything my client does, thinks and feels. And when I get to the point where I understand my client well enough that I can see myself in them, that I can see how I would behave the same way if I’d had their life, then I find myself liking and respecting my client.

And I tell them so. I tell them what I like about them, what makes me respect them, where I see their strengths, and why their weaknesses do not detract from their worth. This is feedback my client cannot dismiss. They recognize that they have not tried to fool me; they have gone out of their way to show me their ‘bad’ side. They also know I have seen the best and worst that humanity has to offer, so they trust my judgment.

Sometimes they make one last stand against the possibility that they are, indeed, good enough. They’ll say, “Yeah, you say you like and respect me, but you have to say that since you’re my therapist and I pay you to like and respect me.”

To which I reply, “You pay me to listen to me, but there’s not enough money in the world to pay me to like and respect you. If I didn’t feel that way, I just wouldn’t say anything.”

Sometimes this makes a difference. My client has done their best to drive me away: they’ve told me their worst parts, their anger, jealousy, hatred, envy and spite. And instead of pulling back, I’ve showed them that their worst parts are just human and natural and nowhere near as bad as they’d feared. For the first time, someone has gotten inside their defensive walls and disabled their strategies for dismissing positive feedback.

Knowing that there is one person in the world who sees them clearly, warts and all, and still approves of them can open them to other positive feedback. They may be suspicious, but they can’t help accept the possibility that there are others who feel the same way. And that can begin a positive feedback loop: the more positive feedback they can accept, the better they feel about themselves, which makes them even more open to accepting positive feedback.