Tag Archives: praise

Learning and criticism

The conventional wisdom is that to learn, you have to be open to robust criticism. I’ve been teaching various kinds of creative and spiritual things for a good twenty years now, and I’m increasingly convinced that the criticism approach doesn’t work that well.

What does work, is drawing people’s attention to their own successes. Tell someone what they do especially well, or what makes their work stand out. Tell them what you like about what they do, or where you can see progress. 

People who intend to learn and grow are often really harsh critics of their own work. They mostly don’t need other people to pick holes in it as well. If you’re in a position of being able to offer feedback, praising the stuff that works is really useful. It boosts and encourages the person, and you can learn a lot from hearing about what you are doing well. Criticism, on the other hand, can be demoralising, and if it doesn’t come with solid feedback about how to improve, it might not help a person in the slightest.

It is easier to rubbish someone than to lift them. It takes more skill and insight to feedback to a person about their strengths and very little insight to say ‘that’s crap’. Positive feedback boosts the other person, negative feedback does more to assert the authority and superiority of the person making the criticism. The idea that you have to be able to take harsh criticism to survive as a creative person can push out gentler and more sensitive people. 

The people who can take brutal criticism are often the ones who pay no attention to it. People not interested in learning from others or convinced that they have no need to develop can deal with harsh feedback by simply ignoring it. As a consequence, harsh criticism can mean selecting for people who ignore feedback at the expense of the people who genuinely wanted to learn and improve.

Unsolicited criticism can be really counterproductive, even when you’re in a teaching role. It can come across as asserting dominance and it can be more about the teacher’s ego than their being useful. Critical feedback is best given when it’s actually sought. If someone says ‘I’m not happy with this but I don’t know how to fix it’ that’s the time to come in and talk about what, technically can be improved on, and how. It’s also worth noting that if you don’t know how to improve something, you aren’t especially well qualified to comment on how good it is.

It’s also important when teaching or feeding back to recognise the difference between whether or not you like something and whether or not it is good. All too often, unsolicited harsh criticism is just people asserting that they don’t like a thing. Maybe it wasn’t made for you. It’s ok not to like a thing, but always worth thinking carefully about whether the person who created it needs to hear about that. Good critical feedback tells a person how to do a better job of the things they were doing. Useless feedback tells them that you wanted them to do something else. If you aren’t supporting a person to be themself, you aren’t supporting them at all.

Druidry, language and imposter syndrome

How often do you see a creative person talking about imposter syndrome? Too often. Because we’re not really supposed to blow our own trumpets, be proud of what we do or confident about putting our work into the world. Why is this a Druid issue? Because boasting was part of what our Celtic ancestors did. Because language matters. Because creativity and inspiration are part of the modern bard path. A culture of encouraging people to feel like imposters isn’t healthy.

If you create, in any way, you are a creator. If you write, then you are writer. If you draw or paint, you’re an artist and so on and so forth. The measure of being the thing is whether you do it, and you are also allowed to have breaks from doing the thing without that undermining your identity. If you are doing the things, you cannot be an imposter.

It’s not about how good you are. No matter how good you are, there will always be people who don’t like what you do and people who think you are a bit shit. They are not the measure of your worth.

If you don’t do the things, and claim the title, then feeling like an imposter might be a reasonable issue to have. If you call yourself a Druid but never do anything you can identify as druidic, that would be a problem. If you call yourself a bard, but have never learned a song, or a story, or a tune, never make anything, never do anything to bring beauty and inspiration to the world, then you may in fact be an imposter. The answer to this is to do something.

The other answer, is praise. This again is a very bardic activity and it goes with the boasting culture. Praise extravagantly, praise often, praise with passion and conviction. Get in there and tell people how great they are. Visibly admire stuff. Actively support the people who are able to say good things about their own work. Talk in positive ways about your own work so as to model this for other people. Take pride in who you are and what you do in ways that will help other people feel able to do the same.

No one who is doing the work should feel like an imposter. No one should feel that they have to say they feel like a fake – we really need to avoid having a culture of people not being allowed to respect themselves. If you do need to express discomfort, find other and better words. It is ok to be having a shit day. It is ok to say this piece of work isn’t going the way you want it to. It is ok to say you haven’t done the things in a while and this is impacting on your sense of self. It is ok to be uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable does not mean you are invalid.

Affirmation – Personal

Being part of an affirmation culture has considerable impact at a personal level. Many of us find that our self-esteem is tied to how others see us (no matter how many self-help books announce this is not the way to go!). Feeling valued, and knowing where you fit creates emotional security, and we are more likely to invest where we feel valued, too. Most people are happier when their lives feature positive reinforcements and encouragement, when they feel respected and taken seriously.

Less obviously, it is a very powerful thing to be a giver of affirmation. To praise and encourage someone else is to be in a position of power. Not power over them – more standing within your own power. To praise, you have to take yourself, your opinions, values and insights seriously. Being able to give praise confers dignity.

In a praise-giving culture it’s a lot easier to come forward with whatever you’ve got and openly seek approval for it. It’s much healthier. If you can honestly seek praise, all kinds of strange, often passive aggressive games of influence and leverage become pointless. If praise-seeking is not derided (we currently tend to demonise and discourage it) but if it’s allowed, everyone can show their best without shame. By this means you start to get a culture more interested in how good something or someone is, not how much power they have.

People who can exchange affirmation have means of connecting with each other and brightening each other’s lives. In lifting each other up, we are all lifted. It encourages co-operation, and more friendly forms of competition where putting the best forward and seeking the best is more important than being declared winner. A habit of praising and valuing each other reduces jealousy and resentment, and makes it easier to be honest about envy. Wishing to achieve the same standards, be as clever, look as good is a way of expressing both affirmation and envy at the same time. It’s a much less poisonous sort of emotion when you can hold it honestly.

Affirmation gets us into the habit of looking for what’s good, or better, or useful. It’s not just about praising the best, but recognising progress and small wins. Undertaking it makes us more aware of what’s good around us, keeps us alert to small acts of kindness and little, ordinary victories. It also allows us to look at ourselves and see the good bits. Our current culture encourages self-judgement, and a sense of failure (should have gone to Specsavers, etc) we are bombarded with daily messages that tell us we’re too fat, unfashionable, not rich enough and not possessed of the new magic product. That wears people down. Being able to look at what you’ve done and pick out the good bits, and comment on them, and get positive encouragement from others over those good bits… that’s life changing.

Of course if we all did that, perhaps we’d all be less focused on material wealth and conspicuous displays thereof. Maybe if we knew we were respected as parents, valued as workers, loved as good neighbours, found amusing, charming, kind, well meaning, insightful… if we had those things, perhaps it would seem less important to have a new car, and the most fashionable shoes, and the right designer labels. And if that were the case, perhaps we’d find it easier to stop trashing the planet for the sake of all those material luxuries that add so little to our emotional and practical wellbeing. Perhaps we could have less, and enjoy life more, and feel totally awesome about ourselves as a consequence. I reckon we’re splendid enough to pull that off.

Chemical adventures in feeling appreciated

For much of my life, I’ve struggled to know how to handle positive feedback. Those of you who have said encouraging things to me in person know how odd and awkward I can be around that. Part of it is simply lack of practice – praise was not a significant feature of my growing up so I was late learning anything about how to handle that socially. I’ve had far more negative feedback than positive, such that I tend to worry more about being wrong, failing and being a nuisance, than I tend to anticipate good responses. The desire to be ‘good enough’ in other people’s eyes has always been a significant motivator for me, but for most of my life, I had no sense of achieving that.

For about five years now, I’ve been in a relationship with a man who praises, enthuses and expresses delight. Initially I found this all a bit alien and ascribed it to him coming from a more innately exuberant culture (he’s American, I’m English). Apparently over the years I’ve got used to this a bit, until recently I’ve been noticing a thing that has some interesting implications. I’ve become able to enjoy the experience of praise. I feel a warm glow in response to it, rather than disorientation.

Arguably everything that happens in our bodies comes down to chemistry. The bonding of parent to child is a chemical process, so is falling in love. Pleasure is chemical – an orgasm has a lot to do with oxytocin. Reward experiences are chemical, and it is into this chemistry that recreational drugs plug themselves.

Up until recently, my body apparently wasn’t releasing any kind of reward chemicals in response to praise, and now it is. I have no real idea why any of this is the case – why I didn’t before, why I do now. Some things in our bodies seem to be innate and automatic, others have to be triggered or learned, some can be learned in unhelpful ways. I’ve not tended to trust praise, waiting for the sting in the tail, (it was good considering how rubbish you are, etc) or the suggestion that as I can do it after all, I will have to do everything else to the same level or be considered a slacker… Historically, praise just didn’t feel safe, more like softening me up so the next slap will sting more. I can’t pin that to any specific experiences, but as teasing and bullying featured heavily in my childhood, it’s not wholly irrational.

I think what’s happened is that I have learned to trust a bit. I’ve learned to feel that people who say positive things may not have hidden intentions. They may not be softening me up in order to get something out of me or do something to me. It may not be going to pave the way to ridicule, or to increased demands, or some kind of knockdown (see, if you’d made some effort before you could have done this all along!).

It is entirely possible, that all these years later, my body has caught up to something that perhaps is there from the start for most people. A sense that praise is a good thing to be enjoyed, and a simple chemical release alongside that, to reinforce the feeling of something good. I’ve spent my whole life aware that I was missing something around this whole issue, but not knowing what it was, or how to name it. That sense of not being quite a whole or normal person may not have been crazy after all. May not have been some kind of self indulgence based on making myself seem special by claiming to be odd in some way (been round that a lot). Maybe I just was missing this small, vital chemical trick that changes everything about how I interact socially with others, and how I get to feel about myself and my achievements.

Value and connection

Nothing gives me a sense of belonging like being in a place where I feel valued. I’ve done all manner of things along the way, as a volunteer, as an employee, as a leader and as a participant. I’ve been part of a number of communities – Pagan, folk, geographical, school-centred, organisations, companies… and there are some trends. It all comes down to a collective culture, and whether the community defaults to valuing members and appreciating their contributions.

I’ve been places where the culture was more of not praising or valuing. This tended to go alongside not trusting people to make good judgements or do good work. This turns very quickly into a low morale scenario where the people involved do what they must, but have no motivation to do their best. I’ve seen other cultures where a small number – one or two usually – wanting dominance, disempower everyone else by rubbishing their contributions, undervaluing their time and effort and creating a sense of unworthiness. At its extreme, I’ve been places where I’ve been treated as a nuisance and an inconvenience even when I was doing everything I could to make a meaningful contribution.
We all need to get and to be able to hear negative feedback. We all muff up and need to know when that’s happened. However, if you’re in a situation where nothing you do is good enough, it starts to feel like maybe you are the problem. Whatever the proffered reasons are – too slow, too stupid, not careful enough, not talented enough, if you’re devalued continually it can get inside you and inform your sense of self. That’s very bad news, in terms of personal wellbeing.

I’ve run a lot of things over the last ten years. There have been one or two people who have waltzed in, made demands, offered little, got stroppy when I didn’t make enough fuss over their ‘contribution’ and waltzed away again. With the organiser hat on, I find people who are a genuine nuisance are few, and they select themselves out as soon as they find they can’t be the centre of attention, have all the influence and do none of the work. I’ve also found that anyone who turns up because they care and want to help, will be useful. I’ve yet to meet anyone who was actually stupid or talentless or who could not be found a niche. I’ve been treated as such a thing more than once. I’ve long since worked out this has everything to do with group culture, and nothing to do with me.

We’re all good at something. It might just be that we bring our enthusiasm and make a good audience – something any organiser or performer knows how to value. People who want to be part of the solution stick around to stack chairs, show up early to make tea, take the litter away, help with the publicity, or just say ‘ really enjoyed that’ so that the person running things also gets to feel valued. A culture of not valuing ends up as demoralising for people in charge as it does for everyone else.

When you’re in a culture that does not praise or value, it is easy not to notice that it is widespread. If you think this is just about you, and you get bogged down in your own feelings of unworthiness (I have been so prone to this along the way) you don’t spot the bigger picture. We should be praising the good bits. It makes the needful criticism so much easier to take. It keeps us thinking about what we can be grateful for, and remembering that everyone who turned up has a value just because they did that. Cultures, be they in workplaces or social groups, are made up of people, so as individuals we can challenge cultures that undervalue. We can do differently. A word of thanks, a round of applause, can make worlds of difference.

I have felt worthless, useless, unwanted and a nuisance in some spaces. I have felt valued, respected, trusted and welcome in others. I have been the same person all the way through, it is an issue of culture. This is one of the reasons why I think it’s so important to consider what underpins emotion. Only when I think about how I feel can I spot these patterns, and hold a sense of what is mine to deal with and what comes to me from outside. When we decline to let outside influence get in, then we work from places of ignorance that are bound to distort our perceptions. When we let everything from outside us get in we are equally vulnerable to getting a distorted sense of who we are and how things work. The quality of feedback from outside depends on the culture we are in and the calibre of individuals. One thing I do know, is that if someone can never find a word of praise or kindness for you, the problem is more likely with them than with you. Nobody is entirely useless.

Bards to sing their praises

One of the functions of historical bards was to sing the praises of heroes, great leaders and other worthy figures. To be ennobled in verse by a bard was to have a place in history, and when you’ve got a culture that doesn’t leave a written record, being part of the oral tradition is the only way of being remembered.

However, praise does not have to be the just the business of epic poetry, and doesn’t have to just be about war heroes. It’s something that any of us can choose as an aspect of daily practice. It’s a way of integrating your Druidry into ‘normal’ life, you can see it as part of your service, and it has a lot of powerful effects.

From an individual perspective, the giving of praise is currently seen as a way of developing your self-assertive skills and therefore can help raise self esteem. Giving praise is one of the easiest kinds of opinion to offer – let’s face it, very few people are going to reject praise or give you a hard time for praising them, so if self assertion is a difficult issue for you, praise is a safe way in. There’s also the fact that it feels good. We don’t have a culture that praises, so it may feel a bit odd at first, but it’s such an inherently lovely thing to be doing.

Having work recognised is the most tremendous morale boost. That’s as true for artists as it is for the person who just washed the kitchen floor. Recognition gives a sense of self worth, a feel-good reward for the effort made. Knowing the work had a value to someone else makes it easier to keep working. Knowing your efforts are recognised saves you from feeling taking for granted. It’s all good. While money is frequently an issue for people who live by their creativity, it’s not the be all and end all. A few words of encouragement, a round of applause, helps keep a person going. If you can’t pay your bard for their efforts, let them know you enjoyed what they did.

It’s easy to take things, and people for granted. Why thank the person who was just doing the job they were paid for? Why honour the person who was doing what any decent person should be expected to do, in the circumstances? Because it isn’t always as easy as it may look from the outside. Just because there is money doesn’t mean recognising the value doesn’t matter. A word of thanks, praise or appreciation can turn drudgery into something meaningful.

When it comes to children, there are learning implications around praise. The child who is only ever told off and criticised will have low self esteem, little confidence in their abilities and may come to think there’s no point even trying. The child who is praised for their efforts and progress feels good about learning, is motivated to learn, consolidates their successes and is likely to do better. More carrot, less stick.

There are also implications for relationships. Giving praise to those around you is a simple way of reinforcing bonds, be those of family, community, work colleagues, or amorous in nature. Praise shows appreciation, it shows that you value and enjoy those around you. This in turn improves their sense of self, their morale, their enjoyment of life, and probably increases their positive feelings towards you. Once a culture of praise is established, you are more likely to receive praise in return, which is a bonus.

There are many things it’s easy to be stingy with, without even noticing it. Praise is one of those. Being generous with praise is incredibly powerful though. Voice your gratitude. Honour those who take care of you. In praising what is good, you shift your focus towards the good things and away from the less good things. It’s win all round.

I’d like to round off this blog by praising a few people publically. Dalia Craig, my editor, who goes far above and beyond the call of duty on a regular basis, makes words look beautiful on the page, and is endlessly patient with my foibles. I would like to praise Robin Herne, running this weekend’s Pooka’s Pageant (to raise money for a Hare charity) and kindly giving me some performance space as I come out of hermitdom. Running events is hard work, takes considerable skill, a lot of nerve and vision. Wendy Stokes running the Lightworker’s Hub, always supportive, nurturing, generous with her experience and wisdom.

There are many more who deserve public acts of gratitude. I shall catch up with them where opportunities permit.

And thank you, to all of you who leave insightful, inspiring, challenging, provocative and enlightening comments here (especially Alex, who hardly misses a day). Much appreciated.