Can praise be violent? Alanis Morissette thinks so – and the more consideration I give to her words, the more deeply they resonate.

I recently listened to a conversation between Tami Simon (founder of Sounds True) and Alanis Morissette, recorded at last year’s Emerging Women conference, in which Ms. Morissette delivers the following micro-sermon on public visibility and fame:

I want to poke holes in the erroneous beliefs about what fame provides. It won’t raise your self-esteem; it won’t create profound connection; it’s not going to heal your childhood traumas; it’s only going to amplify them. You’re going to be subject to a lot of criticism and praise, both of which are violent in their own ways. [Emphasis mine.]

At first, I was taken aback by her use of the word “violent.” Praise can be limiting, sure – but violent? Then I read Carol Dweck’s Mindseta truly perspective-shifting book, and began to recognize all the ways in which I’ve seen praise have unintended and damaging impacts:

  • The kid who’s been told they’re “a natural” at math hesitates to tackle challenging concepts and problems, for fear they might fail and lose their “superstar” identity.
  • The professional who’s become so hooked on approval (and convinced that good work will always be met with acclaim) that she holds back from voicing her opinions.
  • The sister who hears she’s “the smart one” (while her sibling is labelled “the pretty one”) spends a lifetime trying to shake off the belief that “smart” and “attractive” exist in perpetual tension.
  • The blogger who gets a massive upswing in traffic and comments, and begins to feel pressure to conform to readers’ expectations of how he ought to write, and the subjects he ought to tackle.

The violence in praise is that it throws us, mentally speaking, into a competitive, zero-sum perspective (Dweck calls it the fixed mindset) where we feel we need to choose between earning more praise (for continued success or remaining consistent) and risking disappointing our “fans” (who might be audience members, but could also be beloved family members or dear friends). And it’s an impossible tightrope. If we stick with what we know will earn more praise, we live a confined existence, defined by the fear of alienation and disconnection. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean we can never praise one another. Dweck gives us a wonderful formula for delivering praise that encourages growth: Praise the person’s effort and persistence, not their achievements. For example: “I love how you’re always trying new things and stretching yourself” is wonderfully encouraging, while focusing on goals scored, school grades, or other external measures of success tend to flip us into a fixed mindset.

The interplay between these two women’s insights – Morissette’s comment on the violence of praise, and Dweck’s research on how the wrong kind of praise holds us back – has prompted me to reflect on how I both give and receive praise.

When I praise someone I admire, am I doing it in a way that allows them to feel free to grow and evolve? 

When I praise my kid, am I building up his confidence where it matters most: in his ability to tackle and solve difficult challenges?

When others compliment me, do I hear it as encouragement for my hard work or pressure to conform to expectations? 

At the heart of my instinct to express praise is a desire to embolden those around me. I want them to express the fullness of themselves, to feel free to take risks and fall down from time to time.

When I connect to that desire, my expressions of praise become more open, more generous, and – I hope – more liberating. And that’s the kind of praise I believe can be not only nonviolent, but healing.

Do you ever feel fenced in by praise or criticism?

If so, have a look at Beyond Compare, the transformational digital program I’m cooking up with leadership coach Tanya Geisler. It launches October 28, but if you get on the list now, you’ll receive the Starter Kit free, along with access to a brilliant series of conversations on the subject of comparison.