addicted to praise
August 28, 2012 3:29 PM   Subscribe

I am utterly enthralled with validation and praise, to an unhealthy extent. I want to change this.

I have gifts and talents and redeeming virtues and believe on an intellectual level that my value as a human being ultimately derives from being a creation of God whom he loves and wants the very best for. However, this intellectual affirmation doesn't actually bring me pleasure, self-esteem or joy. Instead, being acknowledged and praised by others does.

I am mid 30s, female, married. No children.

I am often so hungry for adulation and praise that:

1. I drive people away at times with my need to be the center of attention
2. I trade things that aren't fully mine to give away (like my affections as I'm married) or that are improper trades for the thrill of validation
3. I disregard the fact that I am not looking out for the best interest of others or myself in my fixation for praise and my pursuit of desirability/likeability; i.e. I recognize that I am sometimes using others to feed my ego

I am sickened to admit that skeevy lines such as "I thought of YOU last night while I made love to my wife" thrill me. The power of eliciting desire in another is an intoxicating rush. It feels like a fast roller coaster or a really good dessert. And the examples are not confined to only sexual adulation (although that is a VERY powerful rush) - being seen at work as the go getter, the brilliant amazing etc give me that same thrill. Being complimented on my culinary prowess by friends does it for me too. All manner of praise gets me feeling high and loved and wonderful.

At this point I am not interested in talk therapy to get to the etiology of this unhealthy behavior. I recognize that there is likely a strong a direct link between my emotionally abusive childhood experience at the hands of my parents and this constant desire for validation. I'd like to focus exclusively on ending the behavior as it's very destructive and not at all demonstrative of the kind of person I want to be, especially as a Christian disciple called to humility and unselfishness.

My question for the experienced in the hive is: how? How to narrow the gap between who I want to be (the humble loving girl who doesn't crave attention) and who I am? Are there specific CBT techniques I could apply to change my lust for praise? Will I ever, when I'm "healthy" be free of the dopamine pathway triggering effect of adulation or will it be a temptation or mental health issue I will have to battle lifelong like a drug addict struggles with the temptation of the thrill of a chemical high? Steps I've taken so far are to think on and acknowledge the problem and enlist my best friend as an accountability partner in managing the more destructive elements of this behavior (like the acting out sexually).
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I'd like to focus exclusively on ending the behavior as it's very destructive and not at all demonstrative of the kind of person I want to be, especially as a Christian disciple called to humility and unselfishness.

But you can do this in therapy. FWIW it sounds like low self-esteem to me.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:39 PM on August 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

This is really something that a therapist can help you with. All I can say is that it's good you're facing up to this, as many people never do.
posted by tel3path at 3:42 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Facing Codependence, by Mellody, Miller, and Miller might be helpful to you. Also, the work of Martha Beck might be worth looking at.

As for specifics about Christian views of "pleasing others" vs. "pleasing God" I think you can't do better than The Cloud of Unknowing and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. (You can tell I'm old-school about this stuff!)

the dopamine pathway triggering effect of adulation

I think this is probably likely to be a very limiting metaphor for you as you think about this. This is 100% in your control, even if part of it is a biochemical process.

Also suggest The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook as a possibly fruitful starting place.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:48 PM on August 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

Agree with everyone that therapy really isn't about Sherlock Holmes-ing the source of counterproductive and life-limiting behaviors, and that you could work on these skills in therapy starting from the very first session, but.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:49 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're human, you'll make mistakes, that's what happens, and it's all okay. Acknowledge it, apologise if needs be, and move on.

Being complimented on your cooking and being perceived as a go-getter - everyone wants to be valued and liked and praised in some way. Why is that not okay? It's awesome when someone says they like something about you or something you've done. Don't beat yourself up - you're exactly like most people.

1. I drive people away at times with my need to be the center of attention

Do and say less. Observe and listen more.

2. I trade things that aren't fully mine to give away (like my affections as I'm married) or that are improper trades for the thrill of validation

Role-play with your partner, go away together, pretend you're different people, experiment regularly, have fun. If that doesn't work - consensual non-monogamy.

3. I disregard the fact that I am not looking out for the best interest of others or myself in my fixation for praise and my pursuit of desirability/likeability; i.e. I recognize that I am sometimes using others to feed my ego

Volunteer. Make something. Be a part of something as a team or group. Value the things that other people are good at doing - not in an over the top way, but just make them feel a part of whatever it is you're doing. The more you do that, the more other people will see you as wanting to connect, not wanting to be the centre of attention.

And therapy.
posted by heyjude at 3:58 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is going to sound really nuts, but you should read some old school children's books. Many, many of the female fiction characters during the 1800s were meant to teach young girls to grow up into women who quietly did good works for others, were charitable, did incredibly hard work, put everyone before themselves, and would die before accepting praise and not deflecting it to god or their husband.

As much as I love Anne of Green Gables, these were pretty fucked up life lessons-play the part of the good god fearing wife but never challenge the power of the men of the household, remember that as a female you're worthless-but as a contemporary adult with a critical eye, I think you could handle the sexism while absorbing some of the lessons about being Good, Good, Good without ever expecting anything in return.
posted by Juliet Banana at 4:05 PM on August 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

If possible, select a hard challenge which not only cannot be pursued via this pathway but is actively sabotaged by being the center of attention and public adulation. One possible challenge: Healing what was done to you in childhood. If you do it successfully, you will make tons of people incredibly uncomfortable and they will be happy to heap abuse on you. Really making significant personal change generally requires significant privacy.

Ideally, the challenge in question should be intrinsically rewarding in its own right and objectively (not subjectively) measurable, even if you get zero validation. For me, getting well when doctors claim it cannot be done has served that purpose. It not only does not get praise, it has gotten public abuse heaped upon me because I get called a liar, charlatan and snake oil salesman. I persist in my path in spite of the abuse because the alternative is politely accepting a slow, torturous death. So it is well worth it, though what it gets me is the opposite of social validation and adulation.

Another possibility: Get involved in something very grass roots, preferably something which cannot be accomplished via a top down approach. The egomaniacal stuff will actively sabotage that kind of work. In order to succeed, you have to find a way to keep attention on a goal and off of you and your ego. It helps if you are deeply invested. That will help you hang in when the going gets rough, which it likely will. So choose some issue that really hits a nerve for you, personally because it is a problem you have or a loved one has.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 4:05 PM on August 28, 2012

This might not be of much help as it's not specific advice, but I think the most important thing is to find some way to accept yourself for who you are. There's no gap between you and the person you want to be - by which I mean there's no need to transform yourself into a different person. You're as "healthy" and good as anyone else. It's the actions that are problematic (According to you. I have no idea and cannot judge that sort of thing.), not your feelings. Even saints feel temptation.

Therapy is probably the best idea, like DarlingBri said, because that can connect you to someone who can be objective and supportive on an ongoing basis. But in the meantime, whenever you feel the urge to do something you know you shouldn't, just try to step back for a moment and take a look at why you feel that urge now. There are no wrong or "bad" answers, and after a little self examination the urge will be less difficult to deal with.
posted by Kevin Street at 4:20 PM on August 28, 2012

Another vote for therapy. I understand that you say you aren't interested in exploring this avenue right now, but without knowing your reason for taking that off the list, I think it's worth it to reconsider why.

Honor your need for attention. We all *do* need it. Wanting positive attention to some degree is what makes society possible. Our survival depends in large part on cultivating a good reputation. It's not unusual for many of us to sometimes get a little carried away with this. Your childhood might be part of it - but it might just be one part. Is there anything else going on in your life that's causing you difficulty or stress right now? Your feelings could be a signal that you need to fix something - leave a poisonous job environment, for example.

Think about strategies ahead of time for the kinds of situations you have trouble with, and develop a plan for either getting away or defusing the situation. You may not get it exactly right the first few times. It's ok. Show yourself some love for trying, and keep at it.

Find ways to get positive attention that aren't harmful. Volunteering is good. Take an acting or storytelling class.

Find exciting things to do that will give you a buzz and a sense of accomplishment - hiking a challenging path, swimming with dolphins, lifting weights, knitting a pair of socks - something that scares you a little but seems interesting. Trying new things and getting out of your comfort zone will bolster your self-esteem.

Does your husband know how you feel? Does he pay attention to you in a way that makes you feel heard and validated? Can you tell him "I feel I need some extra reassurance tonight, can you give me some attention?"

But again - therapy.
posted by bunderful at 4:21 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Okay, so this is a recommendation for therapy, but not for individual talk therapy.

That DBT workbook Sidhevil linked to? It's great, but it might be even more helpful to do the exercises it contains as part of a group that meets weekly. The groups are like, eight people, and you don't really get into talking a whole lot about your personal history. It's more like a book group, where everyone gets together and says, "I found this part really helpful," or, "I don't know if I can get behind radical acceptance yet." And there's a therapist who helps everyone learn the components, who is sort of like a book group facilitator in that she leads and focuses the discussion. It's a good way of learning/practicing DBT. Definitely take a look at the book before you jump in with both feet, but if you end up liking it or learning from it, you might consider joining a group.
posted by brina at 4:26 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

I feel like not many of the actions people are suggesting are likely to help you. If your main drive in life is to get attention and adulation, then almost anything you do can be manipulated to that end.

I believe you need to change your thinking about this and, therefore, only therapy plus very focussed reading, like the DBT-type books recommended by Sidhedevil, are likely to help.
posted by tel3path at 4:40 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

You know, what you are describing sounds like very like addiction. "Enthralled", "thrill", "rush". Dopamine, adrenalin, oxytocin... powerful stuff, and with low self-esteem as a driver, I wonder if you can "kick" this behavior on your own. I really believe you need to rethink your position on therapy.

In the meantime, can you focus on things you love to do, think about, experience that require solitude? Things you enjoy that you can/must do alone, without an audience? What do you, alone, love?

Working towards change isn't one, and your friend cannot be your therapist. Think about where your flirtations may be leading. Is it where you want to go?
posted by likeso at 4:50 PM on August 28, 2012

Heh. *does indeed sound very like addiction.
posted by likeso at 4:56 PM on August 28, 2012

At this point I am not interested in talk therapy to get to the etiology of this unhealthy behavior. I recognize that there is likely a strong a direct link between my emotionally abusive childhood experience at the hands of my parents and this constant desire for validation. I'd like to focus exclusively on ending the behavior as it's very destructive and not at all demonstrative of the kind of person I want to be

People are complex beings. If you have faith, you can appreciate that God made us that way, if it helps. You recognize that you have issues that probably stem, at least in part, from your childhood, issues which now, twenty or so years later, are causing you to act out destructively, hurting people around you and sabotaging your own success and happiness.

These problems have been over two decades in the making and yet you cannot take the time to explore them in therapy? Stop kidding yourself. You cannot solve a complex issue with five-minute fixes.

Asking your friend for help is a great idea, but she (he?) cannot be there 24 hours a day, sitting on your shoulder, whispering in your ear that you are engaging in attention-seeking behavior.

Not only that, but even if your friend could do that, it wouldn't address why engage in the behaviors you do in order to get that praise. Lots of people want to be praised! All of us need positive strokes. You know that you need them to an unhealthy extent.

Even if you correct the behavior that earns it, denying yourself that praise will not make you "humble" and "good" in the long run, it will just make you feel miserable and deprived.

Normally, in a healthy relationship, you could say to your partner, "I need you to tell me more often that I am sexy, beautiful, desirable!" You could also learn to appreciate you intrinsic value, rather than counting on your outward beauty or sex appeal (fleeting qualities that will pass in time and then what?). After all, as you say, you are a talented professional. You could be volunteering your time or working hard on perfecting projects, any number of positive paths are available to you. But they aren't enough.

This isn't because you are a bad person. On some level, though, you don't think you're good enough. Though you deny it, you sure sound as if you don't feel like you deserve the praise others give you. So you are caught in this cycle of needing the praise, again and again, because even after you get that reassurance you're still left feeling empty inside. There's a hole there, and you keep shoveling praise into it, hoping to fill it up, and the hole still stays half empty. And now you are trying to fix the problem by cutting your shovel in half. How is that going to work?!

Wouldn't it be nice if, instead, you didn't feel the need for others to validate you? If that hole wasn't there at all?

Yeah, that's what therapy does. Please reconsider seeing a professional to work on these issues. A professional, by the way, who will also, in the meantime, give you that positive validation you need in a healthy, constructive manner.
posted by misha at 5:09 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

At this point I am not interested in talk therapy to get to the etiology of this unhealthy behavior. I recognize that there is likely a strong a direct link between my emotionally abusive childhood experience at the hands of my parents and this constant desire for validation. I'd like to focus exclusively on ending the behavior as it's very destructive and not at all demonstrative of the kind of person I want to be, especially as a Christian disciple called to humility and unselfishness.

1) Therapy doesn't necessarily mean exploring childhood trauma. It is entirely possible to do useful work in therapy that's focused on modifying your current thought-and-behavior patterns.

2) Christ didn't JUST call us to humility and unselfishness. Those are part of the picture, but not the whole picture. Christian virtue also requires you to be a whole, sane, healthy, self-confident person, and right now your need for approval is undermining that. True humility comes from a place of security and confidence: once you know in your heart that you are a good and worthy person, then you can quit grasping for honors and prizes and all that crap and just do what you know is right. Working on that security and confidence in therapy is something that will ultimately bring you closer to God, by giving you the strength to live the way He wants you to.

3) There are a lot of Christian therapists out there, at least some of whom are happy to incorporate religion into their practice when they have a patient who's also a Christian. Ask around.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:16 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Does your husband know how you feel? Does he pay attention to you in a way that makes you feel heard and validated? Can you tell him "I feel I need some extra reassurance tonight, can you give me some attention?"

I was thinking something along those lines too. I have also struggled with feeling very needy for attention and affection, due to emotional abuse from my family, and wound up often partnering with men who didn't want to give me that attention, which I would react to by acting out even more. As well as being a desperate grade grubber - I once cried about getting a A- on a quiz in graduate school in my 30's,that's how bad I wanted that validation.

I think a lot of my improvement is due just to sheer growing older and (hopefully) a little wiser, but I also credit my relationship for a good amount as well. My boyfriend and I have a dynamic where he is very attentive and affectionate and demonstrative, and while I certainly return the feelings and we're very egalitarian, he just has much more of a desire to give. I was resistant to that for a while, feeling like I couldn't just accept the attention, it was too egotistical, but once I finally accepted that I could accept the gift of his intense attentions, I gradually found that I didn't need to act out or look in inappropriate places for validation so much anymore. And I've started to internalize it more - even if something happened to my current relationship, I now know what it feels like to really accept love, and would carry that internal feeling with me.

I guess my feeling is that it's okay for you to want the attention and affection that was withheld from you as a child, when it was most formative. And I think that the more you believe that you are worthy of it, the less you'll look for it in places that don't work for you.
posted by Neely O'Hara at 5:21 PM on August 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

Mindfulness is a really good tool for this because the more you practice it the easier it gets to identify the spiral (however it is manifesting) and interrupt it with questions about how, exactly, does this conform to your values?

I've been in a similar place as far as validation/attention goes - not sexual but still getting some of that validation from people other than my partner. And we had an awkward incident where I was upset (panic attack) and our friends were more attentive and helpful than he was, which really shifted the spiral to wanting more of that attentiveness from them because I was so angry at my partner for not realising/not helping, and I was in need of that attentiveness because I was also heading into a bad internal spiral anyway. Mindfulness helps/allows me to identify that process and interrupt it BEFORE acting.

Does it mean I don't want validation/approval? Hell no. I am still going to want them to give a shit if I feel upset, or tell me they like my writing, or my cooking, or whatever. But it doesn't mean I am stuck in a spiral where not only do I want that, I try and find ways to invoke that, and I get caught up in that being the end result as opposed to whatever it is that I am actually creating.

This all comes from therapy though. We don't really work through whys (although I usually get there on my own) we just work on the now.
posted by geek anachronism at 6:10 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

You realize that this is destructive behavior. This is frankly further than many people get in our modern society where we are told that one of the main purposes of life is to "be successful". I would second the recommendations of formal therapy.

While I would not normally post the following, since you made more than more reference to your Christian faith, I though that this account of the Desert Fathers might be of some help. It is one that I have found edifying when such feelings arise:

A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, “Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.” So the old man said, “Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.” The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, “Didn’t they say anything to you?” He replied, “No.” The old man said, “Go back tomorrow and praise them.” So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, “Apostles, saints, and righteous men.” He returned to the old man who said to him, “Did they not answer you?” The brother said, “No.” The old man said to him, “You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too, if you wish to be saved, must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.”
posted by Tanizaki at 7:11 PM on August 28, 2012 [12 favorites]

I used to have a manager who was like you. He tried to hide his craving for approval, but it was painfully transparent. My co-workers would always flatter him to get stuff, then would laugh about him behind his back and talk about how stupid he was.

Whenever somebody praises you, I think you need to ask yourself privately whether the compliment is genuine, or if they are just flattering you for their own personal amusement. Ask yourself if maybe they're privately laughing at you at how gullible you are. (If you have it this bad, odds are that at least some of them are.)

My thought is that once you realize how full of crap most people's compliments are, you'll start to distinguish more between empty compliments and genuine praise, and will start demonstrating a strong preference for the latter. And wanting genuine praise isn't bad at all, if you've legitimately earned it. Your real problem (in my opinion) is being unable to distinguish between the two types, because that's a weakness that will almost certainly be exploited.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 8:18 PM on August 28, 2012

The book Women, Sex and Addiction by Charlotte Kasl is perfect for you. There's a similar one from an explicitly Christian perspective; I can't recall the title right now but the word stone or stones was in it.
posted by desjardins at 8:46 PM on August 28, 2012

Here it is - No Stones: Women Redeemed from Sexual Addiction

Before you think, what? I'm not a sex addict! let me assure you that these books are really about the addiction to validation, and sex is simply the manifestation.
posted by desjardins at 8:52 PM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

While wolfdreams might have a point, I'm not sure that keeping that uppermost in your mind is such a great idea. Yes, you could be making yourself ridiculous and you should be aware of that... But if you start suspecting other people's motives, you could turn into the person who elicits tributes from the masses and then coldly disdains the offerings as unworthy.

I've sincerely dished out praise to (what I thought was) a generous and insecure friend only to have it thrown back in my face. This does not feel good. I couldn't tell if she was just up herself, or if she was testing my loyalty by waiting to see if I'd earn back her attention by doing something humiliating (maybe she was too unaware of the effect on me to realize that she was asking me to do something humiliating). If even positive actions get turned against me, I can't stick around, and meanwhile she has confirmation in her mind that I was never really loyal in the first place.

So, again... This is really a job for a therapist, I think. Really.
posted by tel3path at 2:55 AM on August 29, 2012

I am going to suggest a book to you that has been a massive help to me, and I think it will be to you as well, and that is "Loving What Is" by Byron Katie. It's extremely light on woo and heavy on practical thought exercises you can do to break these patterns that you want to break.
posted by jbickers at 6:08 AM on August 29, 2012

I went through this to an extent. What helped me, unfortunately, was making a mistake. Not a big one, thank god, but one that was humbling. It was the kind of mistake I'd made before in my desire for validation and attention. This time, there was more at stake to me emotionally and I realized the 'pleasure' of validation was so fleeting and empty. It made me face up to the ugly truth of why I had pursued that attention in the first place.

There's something kind of phony about this kind of validation. Which only makes you crave it more, because you doubt it yourself. The phony kind of praise also makes it easy to overlook the real, more subtle praise and validation you might be getting.

You have to hold yourself accountable and you have to change your perception of the 'pleasure' the validation it brings. That pleasure came at a cost that is easy to ignore. One idea on how to hold yourself accountable: tell your husband or at least imagine telling him about craving sexual attention from other people. There may be some underlying lack in your marriage or life that leaves you attention-starved. You will never solve those problems trying to seek fantasy validation.
posted by Katine at 9:17 AM on August 29, 2012

I wanted to mail you but you didn't leave an address, so please forgive the length of this response. I think that the suggestions everyone else has given so far are very helpful and important ones.

The answer that I want to give you is different because you are a Christian than it would be otherwise, and I'm giving it as a Christian sister. Non-religious folks, please don't take offense.

Because you have approached this as a spiritual concern, I believe that the first and most important thing that you can do about this trouble is to bring it to Him in prayer. My suggestion is that you don't just pray for a solution to this problem, but that you pour your heart out to Him about the issue- about how this bothers you, about how you can see it harming yourself and the people around you, about how you're worried because it doesn't seem to be answering His call to humility, about how much you love the attention and praise that you get, about how you feel addicted and you're not sure how to stop or what else to do- any other feelings that you have- bring them all to Him. He already knows all about it, but it may help you to confront this with Him.

Remember that He loves you so much and no matter what mistakes you make, He's always there to hold your hand while you try to get through it- you're not alone! And if you're not sure how to act, He is willing to guide you. It might take a long time to learn to pay attention to His guidance, but you have your entire life and no matter how many times you fall, He will pick you back up.

If you have some mature Christian friends that are in a place in their walk with Him where you would like to be, maybe you can emulate them or even ask for their advice or guidance. They might be hard to find- if they are humble, you probably won't notice them at first! But if you can find them, even one, that you trust to help you, you might benefit, and sometimes having an accountability partner can make it easier to stick to our resolutions.

Something that you might want to try is monitoring your behaviour for a while- maybe a week or so. Not trying to change it, just monitoring it. You could keep a journal, and at night before bed reflect over the day and whether there were any times during the day where you behaved in a way that you aren't happy with.

This is something that helps me. I write these instances down, in as much detail as possible. What was going on, where I was, what I did and said, how people reacted, how I felt at the time, how I feel about it now, why I think I behaved the way I did, any other thoughts or feelings or ideas that I have, and how I would prefer to behave instead in future situations. This makes the changes that I want a lot more real and specific than just a vague desire to be more humble or less attention seeking or kinder or whatever. Now, I don't hold myself to any kind of rule or arrangement about how I must behave in the future- I just consider how I would prefer to behave.

I find that what happens is, over time, I start to notice these unwanted behaviours sooner- like within a few hours of doing them, instead of at the end of the day. And then within a few minutes of the behaviour. And after a while I realize that I'm engaging in the behaviour I'd like to change while I'm doing it. And eventually, I realize when I'm about to do it. And I can then choose to do something else. It gradually creates an awareness, and with that comes the ability to change. But be gentle with yourself. However many years it took you to get into this place, you deserve that many years to get out again. It probably won't take that long! But it's ok if it does. You don't have to wake up perfect tomorrow morning. You must be kind and loving to yourself.

Something else that I try to remember when I'm being especially approval- or attention- seeking is that, it's His opinion of me that really matters. And that He loves me, and that there's no love more important than His, and nothing I can possibly do to loose that love- but that the best way for me to demonstrate how much I love Him is by showing that love to others in the way that He asked me to; which is by serving them, not myself.

I know that this all sounds like really nice theory that's almost impossible for a real person to put into practise and I won't try to convince you otherwise because I'd be lying. I struggle and stumble with this reqularly, and it's a slow road. But the fact that you want to change this is the most important, more important than a billion mistakes. You will get there eventually, I'm sure of it.

I hope that this hasn't been too long of a message- if you'd ever like to talk some more, please feel free to get in touch- I would love to hear how things go for you.
posted by windykites at 12:10 PM on August 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

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