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Monday, February 19, 2018

Why I Want to Break My Addiction to Praise

How the pursuit of praise limits personal growth.

My heart is pounding furiously, as if it might beat right out of my chest. My hands shake as they break out in a cold sweat. What is that sound? Oh, right, it’s my foot anxiously tapping against the floor.

My latest Facebook status has been up for almost two minutes and not a single like or comment.

I have a serious problem: my self-worth is almost entirely tied to the amount of praise I receive on social media.

Did I set the privacy settings wrong? Am I not as funny as I thought I was? Is Facebook broken? These questions swirl around my head as I consider deleting the post before others see it and notice that no one has reacted to it. I need positive feedback to feel like I have accomplished something. Without it, reaching personal goals seems almost pointless.

I see the notification pop up on my Facebook screen: three people have liked my post, one person even “loved” it. Now comes the praise-fueled rush. My eyes are fixated on the screen, anxiously waiting for more “likes” to come rolling in. Suddenly it dawns on me that I may be an addict. Praise is my drug of choice and I can never get enough.

I don’t know when it began. Perhaps it is a side effect of helicopter parenting. Maybe I just like attention. It could be a little of both. Either way, I have a serious problem: my self-worth is almost entirely tied to the amount of praise I receive on social media. And I chase that dragon like a drug addict chases their next high.

As a writer in the internet age, I get instant gratification for my work on a daily basis. Staring at the website’s traffic and monitoring how many people are reading my articles in real time is an incredible high. Just thinking about it makes me a bit euphoric.

But watching the traffic on my articles is just the appetizer to the main course. It is the “likes” and “shares” on social media that I am after. I have spent years building my social media persona, and I know how to craft my posts perfectly in order to elicit a response from my followers. Yet, I often feel like my need for praise is calling all the shots in my life. In fact, this praise is often more important to me than real growth.

It seems silly really, that outward validation and acceptance would mean so much to a person. But clearly it does, and not only for me, as research indicates.

When others respond positively to our social media posts, our brain’s reward center actually receives a boost. 

The Science Behind Facebook “Likes”

When others respond positively to our social media posts, our brain’s reward center actually receives a boost. The more boosts we receive, the more we want to continue chasing that feeling. And why wouldn’t we? Receiving positive feedback feels fantastic.

In 2013, researchers conducted the first experiment that sought to understand how social media impacts the brain. During the study, 31 Facebook users had their brains scanned while they viewed positive feedback given on their own photos. And the findings were fascinating.

The research was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience and explained the findings by saying:

We found that we could predict the intensity of people’s Facebook use outside the scanner by looking at their brain’s response to positive social feedback inside the scanner.”

When the study’s participants encountered positive feedback on one of their posts, it activated the region of the brain that is responsible for processing emotions about sex, food, money, and social acceptance. The stimulation in this area of the brain, referred to as the nucleus accumbens, actually rose as the participant encountered more praise for their own social media posts. The more time they spent on Facebook, the more active the nucleus became.

When I obsess over the reactions of others, I negate the importance of my own hero’s journey.

Most everyone seeks social acceptance on some level. This alone is not a problem. We all want our pictures and posts to be liked; we wouldn’t have posted them in the first place otherwise. The real problem arises when we rely solely on this feedback, and neglect opportunities for substantial growth.

Growth over Glory

In my own personal experience, I have often let the potential for praise interfere with my ability to really learn and grow as a writer. Anxious for positive feedback, I care more about putting my work out there quickly than I do about taking my time and developing mastery. This is an example of praise interfering with personal growth.

In T.K Coleman’s article, Growth over Glory, he writes:

…nearly all of us will know what it’s like to temporarily occupy the space of being flattered by another person. And this is a far more dangerous and deceptive space to occupy. When you get intoxicated by praise or the pursuit thereof, it leads to a lifestyle of trying to replicate the behaviors that led to the praise instead of seeking new opportunities for improvement. Once you get addicted to being adored, your personal growth becomes paralyzed by astonishment.”

When I obsess over the reactions of others, I negate the importance of my own hero’s journey. My goal as a writer is to challenge myself to be better each and every single day. But by getting caught up in glory alone, I focus on the outcome, rather than enjoying and learning from the journey itself.

For a long time, I kept an album on my phone of screenshots of compliments others had sent to me. When I was having a bad day and doubting my own abilities, I would scroll through the album, hoping that the memories of the praise would make me feel whole. Imagine if I had spent that time growing as a writer instead?

Coleman continues:

There’s an old saying that goes as follows: ‘If you meet Buddha on the path to enlightenment, kill him.’ The idea here is that you should never allow your reverence for anything or anyone to delay your pursuit of self-realization. That’s relatively easy advice to follow until you wake up one day and realize that your commitment to personal growth has transformed you into a Buddha in someone else’s eyes. In cases such as these, following the adage becomes twice as important. In order to realize your full potential, you not only have to kill your own Buddhas, but you also have to kill your need to be somebody else’s Buddha.

There is no rush quite like someone reaching out to you telling you that your work is brilliant or that it has positively impacted their life. But that rush can only last so long. When that feeling recedes, you are left feeling empty, looking for your next fix. And if your only aim is to please, you are doing yourself a great disservice. This is what causes people to go after sensational clickbait, rather than producing quality content.

Strive for Continual Growth

There is no real ending to this story. I have no inspirational anecdote about how I overcame my preoccupation with praise and never looked back. But most of life’s most important lessons do not come tied up with a neat bow. It is a process, just as personal growth is a long-term process.

I am learning to seek things that are meaningful, rather than solely chasing after Facebook likes. But as a fallible being, I am far from perfect. However, each time I get caught up in the vicious cycle of chasing Facebook praise, I try to repeat this brilliant line from Coleman, “Refuse to be paralyzed by astonishment….even the astonishment that others feel after you’ve created value for them.”

  • Brittany is a writer for the Pacific Legal Foundation. She is a co-host of “The Way The World Works,” a Tuttle Twins podcast for families.