Words by Paula Coogan
November 6th, 2017
Oh, how I loved the words ‘Well done!’. I was a total sucker for those words. Approval was like a drug and it made me feel warm and cosy inside. Anything from doing a painting to acing a spelling test to just being a good girl- I was hooked on praise! It was easy to get as well; the rules were clearly defined and established. Keep your head down, stay quiet and be good.
As I got older and moved through secondary school, the rules seemed to change but no one told me. The praise wasn’t as forthcoming and what took its place regularly was criticism. There wasn’t any excitement or celebration from doing something right anymore- that was now just expected, but there was such a sting from making a mistake. I started worrying was I good enough? Am I smart enough? What do my classmates, friends, teachers, parents think of me? Do they like me? I had really enjoyed learning but there came a point in school when I gave up and stopped going. Every time I attended class, I was craving that hit of praise but what usually came instead was criticism and an overwhelming feeling of not being enough that stayed with me for decades. I thought that it was just me, but it isn’t.
We are a generation of women who are over-attached to what people think of us.
When I started working as a coach 7 years ago, the majority of women I worked with had a similar story of their fixation with praise and criticism. Most of the time, it started at a young age in school but it was a story that was still playing out decades later in their career. Strong, intelligent, capable women who were feeling stuck because of a fear of criticism and desire for praise.
There are 3 main ways in which this shows up in our career:
This is perfectionist tendencies, being the ‘good worker’, having few or no boundaries in work, changing yourself to fit in with what you think is expected, over performance. If you’re dependent or desperate for praise, you simply can’t fulfil your potential. If you’re constantly looking for other people’s approval, you can’t take risks, you can’t do something different and you can’t be authentic. You can’t be the real you.
Interestingly, the opposite is also true and this shows up so much with my clients. If you’re avoiding praise, avoiding the limelight, not taking ownership of your ideas and successes because you are uncomfortable with receiving praise, then you also can’t fulfil your potential. You won’t be showing up fully, sharing fully and you will be actively making yourself smaller in work so as not to be seen. Often, this is what happens when an individual realises that they have been hooked on praise and/or criticism in the past and they’ve tried to correct it – but instead they overcorrected.
When this is a driver for you in work, you stay quiet and small. You don’t share your ideas, you don’t innovate, you don’t contribute, you don’t challenge ideas or projects that you believe won’t work, you don’t do anything that will get you noticed!
No matter where you are in your career or what you do for your work- I’d be certain that you have a relationship with praise and criticism but I’m curious as to whether you are aware of the extent of the impact it has on you and your work. When you think of someone criticising you or your work, what is your reaction? Do you play small and stay safe, sticking with work and projects you know you can excel in and therefore receive praise? Are you feeling stuck or unfulfilled because you’re afraid of trying something new and not being able to do it perfectly?
So many people are aware and can sense the potential they have to do, be and have more in their life. It gnaws away at their soul, making their chest and jaw tight every time they keep their head down, stay quiet and tell themselves that they can’t or that they’re not ready. We constrain ourselves and put ourselves into a box when we’re dealing with this dual addiction.
So how do we learn to savour praise and not be dependent on it or driven by it? Here are my top three strategies to loosen the grip:
Tara Mohr, the author of Playing Big, has a great strategy on this. She suggests to “always look at feedback as giving you information about the person or people giving the feedback, rather than information about you”. The example she uses is: imagine an artist shows her painting to three people; two people like it and one person doesn’t. Does that tell you anything about the quality of the painting? No, it tells us only the preferences of the people looking at it.
Feedback gives us the opinions and preferences of the people giving the feedback. It doesn’t give us any information on our worthiness. It’s not there to give us ego boosts or wounds, it’s simply feedback and when we understand this, we’re free. The key is to then take on board the feedback that is useful and let the rest go. An important question to ask here is what feedback do I need to take on board in order to be effective in moving this project forward?
One of the most important mindset shifts we can make as women is that criticism doesn’t mean we’re doing something wrong. It’s simply part and parcel of putting yourself out there, doing your work and being visible. Have a think about women you admire who have put themselves out there, who are playing big in their lives and careers, who you think of as being courageous and confident.
Does everyone love them? Are they adored by men and women everywhere they go? No, of course not. They will have both critics and raving fans. It’s so important to have role models to look up to – it could be a friend, a colleague, a celebrity or a politician. When you find yourself on the receiving end of some tough criticism then ask yourself, ‘How would she handle this?’ ‘Would this stop her?’ The answers and wisdom that you will be able to tap into by doing this will give you inspiration on how to move forward regardless! The more you practice leaning into the uncomfortable feelings, the easier it will become.
As odd as it sounds, I adore learning, studying and writing. I really love it. Back in school, when I got so obsessed with avoiding criticism, I stopped going to school. I forgot that what I loved was the point, not what other people thought. So many of us have gotten so sucked into the obsession of wanting praise that we have forgotten the real point of why we do what we do! It’s time to ask the question: what is most important to me in my career? When I ask this question of my clients, the answers that come out the most are; being myself, making a difference, fulfilment, doing what I love, setting a positive example for other women, inspiring people, liking myself, feeling proud of myself, making things happen, acting with integrity, being on my own side, getting my message out, being brave.
Interesting isn’t it? What would your answers be? In your career, what’s more important to you than praise?
Loosening the grip of the obsession with criticism and praise is one of the most important steps that you can take in growing and developing in your life and your career. So, make a pact with yourself. No one else is going to build the career and life that you want for you. No one else will even know what it is you desire. No one else knows the incredible potential that you know you have within you. Make a pact to be in it with yourself for the long haul and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Paula Coogan is the founder of The Quarter Life Coach – a vibrant career and life coaching company aimed at empowering women in their 20s and 30s to practice courage, figure out their true desires both personally and professionally and then, to make it happen.
Her work is delivered through several live group programs and Masterminds including Career Breakthrough Mastermind and The Wisdom Circle. She also works one-on-one with clients who are ready for big transitions in their relationships, careers and businesses.
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