For part of my graduate training at therapist school, I did a counselling internship in a university student resource centre. It’s an interesting experience to fall back on, especially when people start ragging on millennials for being lazy and self-satisfied. The students that I saw were overwhelmingly workaholics who felt pressured to sacrifice everything at the altar of academic success—and they were resistant to being told that completely forgoing sleep, a social life, leisure time, and adequate nutrition actually made them less likely to succeed. I came away thinking that there is a deep sickness in the root of my generation’s soul, and this is what it looks like: To be imperfect is to be inadequate. If you are not an extraordinary success, you are an utter failure.
And overwhelmingly, the students I saw—bright, accomplished, high-achieving people—were obsessed with the thought that they were lazy, stupid, and untalented. Impostor syndrome ran rampant, as student after student agonized over the ethics of letting people believe they were good people or even adequate human beings, when their private truth about their selves was far harsher.
In my internship seminar I ended up coining a simple rule for myself: “Don’t argue with someone about whether or not they suck.” When a client was engaging in self-flagellation, it was sometimes desperately hard for me not to jump in like a cheerleader and tell them, “No! You’re awesome!” But I had to restrain myself—partly because in the resulting argument, I would be forcing them to sincerely argue for all the reasons they hated themselves, and I dislike forcing someone to commit to words they’ll have to eat later. Mostly, though, it was because praise was the last thing they needed right then. Praise was what got us into this mess in the first place.
Praise is exclusively positive; praise is a value judgment. You did good. You are good. It is, in fact, something we need in our emotional diets; when other people reflect us back to ourselves with respect and esteem, it can help make us healthier and stronger. It’s an essential psychological nutrient. However, the fact that we need it does not mean it’s the only thing we need. Iron is an essential part of the human diet, but if I eat nothing but nails, it’s going to end badly for me in short order. Children need praise, but they also need a lot more than that. I believe that the perfectionism and self-criticism the students in my office displayed was the result of a kind of emotional malnutrition. They could feel that they needed something and were trying to get it, and criticizing themselves was their attempt to do it. It was as though they were thirsty for an experience, and scrabbling for something to drink; but their chosen method was like quenching thirst with salt water. They were getting drier and drier, less and less healthy, until finally they ended up with me.
So what I had to do was fight the urge to immediately steer them back to the first wet substance nearby (“You’re totally hardworking and dedicated! That’s awesome!”). I had to help them find out what they were really thirsty for.
I had to validate them. I listened to their self-doubts and criticisms seriously, holding myself back as much as possible as the room filled with the sounds of words they had been afraid to speak. What I could give to them was a place where I would take them seriously, so they didn’t have to go into those fears alone.
Here’s what I know: Humans hunger for truth. One of our deepest desires is to be able to say who we really are and what we really feel where other people can hear it. When our truth is suppressed or silenced, it still clamours to be heard in whatever way it can.
So, praise is the nutrient that answers our fundamental need to be loved. The next vital nutrient answers this hunger for truth, and that is validation.
Validate literally means “to make true”. It comes from a word meaning “lawful” and “strong”, and more generally, “supported by facts and authority.” Validating someone means listening to their truth and letting them know that you hear it. It answers our deep desire to be recognized and reflected back, and it lets us know that we have the power to tell our own stories. We become makers of meaning, instead of passive objects made by someone else.
Validating someone means recognizing that a person’s own perceptions are worth listening to. It is recognizing them as real human things that real humans think. When they say, “I hate myself,” or “I’m worthless,” or “I wish my mother would die,” validation is saying, “Yeah. I can see you really do. You feel this way really strongly.”
Most of what was cast in the 80s and 90s as failure to praise children was actually failure to validate them. When a child comes to an adult, dripping with defeat, and says, “I failed,” praise is, “No you didn’t! You did really well!” and validation is, “You’re really disappointed with how you did, hunh? That sucks.” And over time, if adults do nothing but praise, what children hear is: Your self-doubt and weaknesses are not wanted here. Failure is not acceptable, not even thinkable. I cannot accept you unless you do well.
Most of the time children respond to that message by making sure they only present their most praiseworthy selves to the outside world. The unvoiced, unappreciated parts of them get shoved aside, starved, sat on. Instead of being incorporated into an authentic self, they fester in the shadow of a facade of perfection. Hey, what about me? Where do I fit? Would they like me if I showed up? When a person tells a story of who they are that excludes a lot of their own reality, that story is meagre and fragile, and fails to fully satisfy.
So to the people who need support the most, praise is invalidation, silencing of the voice they have inside. It’s feeding that false self, that thin story. But praise feels good, and praise is what they’re used to, so they try to swallow praise to ease the ache of inferiority. It never quite sticks, never quite works, just like drinking saltwater. What they really need is to be able to tell the truth.
A third necessary thing: Encouragement.
Encourage can be sourced to mean, “to put the heart back in”. It means to find and source pieces of truth about a person; to connect them with what they know about themselves. And yes, quite often the first of the suppressed knowledge to come roaring back, clamouring for inclusion, comes in the wave of self-criticism.
But the self-criticism is not the suppressed knowledge that needs resurrecting. It is not the heart that needs to be put back in its chest. It is the bile of good functions when they are separated from a system in which to work productively.
Behind “I really suck” is I get to make meanings about myself; I am the final say in who I am. I reject the right of other people to define me.
What does negative self-talk say, really say? It says, I am an observer of the world around me. I see and hear things no one else does. I interpret, create meanings of everything, and I have a private truth to tell myself. I have a strong sense of how I do and do not want to be treated, and I feel it acutely when I am harmed. I am attuned to connection, achievement, and justice, and something about these things in my world has gone badly wrong.
But disconnected from the rest of the body, these things go awry. Banished from the social realm, the feelings become a blocked-off pond and turn stagnant and fetid. We need to be able to define our own lives; we need the ability to take those powers of observation, judgment, and action, and test them against reality. Our hearts have to follow their own calling, instead of subjugating themselves to somebody else’s rules.
Put another way: the body, the self, long for wholeness. They long to heal. When necessity forces them to splinter, it hurts us–and pain is a signal that something needs to be set right. Unfortunately, instinct and intuition are rarely as good at diagnosing what the something that needs fixing is, much less knowing how to effect the transformation.
And that path towards wholeness and independence leads through dark places, in part because the thing many people care about most passionately and were lied to about the most as children is their own self-worth. In part it is because the personal Shadow is the most imminent threat we know. In part, it is senseless and awful because we shouldn’t have to suffer like this in the first place, and yet we do. I think some of this is inevitable human growth, and some of it’s totally fixable problems with our culture, and untangling that is an entirely new conversation.
I think this is the most awful, wonderful human thing I know: to desire truth of experience and wholeness of self even when that experience will hurt you. And I love being a therapist more than any other work I could ever do, because that’s the process I get to be there for.