Helping Others to Feel Special and Appreciated: Overcoming a “Praise Deficit” (page 2)
A number of years ago I received a draft of an article about disciplining children. One phrase in the article especially caught my attention. The author wrote that many people have a “praise deficit.” As I read the words “praise deficit” I immediately thought about an experience that had occurred years earlier when I was a psychology trainee, an experience that had a marked impact on my life.
As a trainee I was asked to present at my first clinical Grand Rounds. This was the beginning of my career and I was not accustomed to speaking to large audiences. To be honest, I was a nervous wreck. I thought of all of the things that could go wrong, which of course served to heighten my anxiety. Fantasies of forgetting what I wanted to say, of losing my place, of sweating profusely, of collapsing on stage pervaded my thinking. Adding to my anxiety was the fact that most of the people in the audience were staff and trainees I would continue to see every day. While some might say that having familiar people in the audience should lessen one’s anxiety, all I could think about was that if I really fell on my face (figuratively and literally) I would have to face these people day in and day out. I even entertained the irrational fear that if I failed miserably those in attendance would continue to whisper for the remainder of the year, “There’s the psychology trainee who made a fool of himself.” It’s amazing the kinds of thoughts that are triggered when in a state of anxiety.
I spent hours preparing for my presentation, reviewing with my supervisor what I planned to say. The day arrived and before I knew it I was sitting on stage ready to be introduced. I had once read that if you are nervous when giving a speech just imagine that the members of the audience are nude and your anxiety will decrease. I glanced at the audience, but my imagination failed me--I found it difficult to think of my supervisors sitting in the audience without clothes. Before I could consider other advice to lessen my stage fright it was time for me to speak.
Much to my surprise and delight people actually seemed interested in what I had to say. With each word I became increasingly comfortable. At the end of my presentation there was time for a few questions and then I had to rush off to another meeting so I did not have an opportunity to receive feedback about my performance.
Later that afternoon I returned to the Psychology Department office and there in my mailbox was a folded up note. It was written by my supervisor and must have taken him only five seconds to write, but the moment I read his message, it established the most positive tone for the remainder of my training year. It was so simple and yet so powerful--30 years have passed since I read it, but as I recount this story I still remember the wonderful feelings it generated. The note said, “You did a great job today, Bob.”
I wondered why had I instantly thought of that “five second note” after reading the words “praise deficit.” I believe I did so because that note represented an action that was in marked contrast to a praise deficit. It conveyed to me that this supervisor truly cared about me. His words were to serve as a source of encouragement and support not only during my training year but for years to come. Why would a five second note have such power? One possible reason was that I wasn’t expecting it. Another factor was that it arrived when I was feeling somewhat insecure and vulnerable. I am not suggesting that if I had been anticipating my supervisor’s note or if I had been more confident that his words would not have been as meaningful. However, the presence of surprise and my need for emotional support certainly contributed to the note’s impact.
Over the years I have given much thought to praise deficits and my supervisor’s message, perhaps more so as I reached middle age and begin to ponder with greater frequency such seemingly existential questions as, “What is important in life? What is the legacy I wish to leave? How do I want to be remembered?” Those of us who reflect upon such questions are likely to arrive at a wide spectrum of answers. One of my answers is linked directly to my supervisor’s actions and can be stated in the following way: “I think one of our purposes in life, one of the most important legacies we can leave, is to say and do things that contribute to others feeling special and appreciated.” I am not suggesting that we assume the role of martyrs, always placing our own needs and interests behind those of others. If anything, I believe that emotionally healthy people must first feel comfortable with and appreciate themselves before they are able to appreciate others. To attempt to take care of others at the expense of oneself often deprives the act of overcoming a “praise deficit” of its vitality and meaning.
Permission to reprint granted by Dr. Robert Brooks. All rights reserved.
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