Why are some people so gratuitously cruel? It’s more than “because they can”…in my opinion, it is because they get something out of it…a feeling of superiority, perhaps.
My grandmother once told me that if you look hard enough, you can always find something to compliment another person on. I decided to test that out and, sure enough, she was right. Even in the case of a co-worker who dressed like Ugly Betty and wasn’t much more attractive…she was a very nice person who had a wonderful, infectious laugh. The day I said to her “I just love your laugh!” she lit up like she had been plugged in…and seeing her so delighted made me feel good, too.
Years ago, after years of wanting one, my husband gave me a pretty little Yorkie puppy for Valentine’s Day. I was over the moon…she was so cute, and such a little sweetheart. We took her with us everywhere, bought her jerseys and cute outfits and a pretty pink collar with her name spelled out in rhinestones and my husband even sent to America to get her a dog stroller (pram) because walking on a leash in crowds was a terrifying exercise for her (as an adult she weighs less than 7 lbs…as a puppy she wasn’t even 2 lbs!). We went to “slow food” and farmer’s markets and craft fairs and other outings with our little doggie girl securely leashed into her pram and she was such a delight. She is very outgoing and loves attention, so when people would stop to greet her, she would wag her tail and raise up to be petted and even give out kisses if her admirer was so inclined. Every weekend there were at least two or three people who would whip out their camera phones and take snaps of the cute little Yorkie wearing a frilly dress, her hair done up with a bow, and sitting sweetly in her pram.
And then one Saturday morning at the farmer’s market held at the nearby ostrich ranch, we ran into someone who didn’t admire the little dog but who couldn’t be bothered, like most people who didn’t find her overwhelmingly cute, to just walk on by, saying nothing. She stopped and bent over the pram and Puddin’ began wagging her tail and raising up into a “sit up” position to get petted. The woman ignored her and turned to me and asked “What kind of dog is this?” “A Yorkshire Terrier,” I told her, whereupon she proceeded to tell me, in indignant tones, that my dog was not a "real" Yorkshire Terrier, she was a poor example of the breed and should never have been allowed to live! She went on to point out every fault she perceived the dog had, ending with a reiteration that my precious baby was such a poor example of the breed that she should have been put down rather than sold to someone gullible like me. And then she stomped off in a huff. Not only was I shocked and stunned, so was the dog: accustomed to being adored and petted…and being highly intelligent…she knew that for some reason she did not meet with that woman’s approval and she sat in the pram, ears down and tail tucked, as if she had done something worthy of a scolding.
Now, I have bred dogs in the past and I am well aware of breed standards. I already knew that Puddin’ would never make it as a show dog, but I didn’t want to show her, I just wanted a sweet little dog to cuddle and play with and she fit that role admirably. Spunky and with a cheerful, loving temperament, she was everything I had expected and more. And after that dreadful woman’s diatribe, my poor puppy sat in her pram with what can only be described as a “hangdog” look, and her only sin had been to attempt to greet the woman and bestow a little Yorkie love on her.
I cannot fathom why that person would take such issue with my dog…she’s not a show dog, but she is healthy and personable and well-mannered…what’s not to like? The only thing that I could think of was the possibility that this woman had a show-quality Yorkie of her own and it made her feel superior…and to reinforce (or milk) that feeling of superiority, she had to belittle my dog (and probably any other dog that did not meet show standard). It was not about my dog at all, but all about her.
I am uncomfortable with praise and have been all my life. A curt “this is good,” is all I can take without feeling squirmy, but I don’t feel that way about others. You can wax eloquent about how brilliant my husband is, how cute my kids are, how endearing my dogs, and my sense of pride just blossoms. Go on like that about me or my attributes or my achievements and anything beyond “ya done good,” makes me feel uncomfortable. And I don’t know exactly why.
When all of those people admired my little Yorkie, I felt proud and, seeing how she loved the praise and attention, felt good for her—I liked seeing her happy and obviously enjoying the admiration. And when that awful woman scorned my little puppy in such harsh terms and sharp tones, I felt bad for the dog as much as for myself because it was obvious that the little sweetie knew she was being maligned and the set of her ears and tail showed she felt bad about it.
I get comments and letters all the time from people who have read posts on this blog and took away information that helped them change their lives for the better. I received one such letter over the weekend and, while reading it, began to have an awareness of my own feelings on the subject. On the one hand, I am always very pleased to hear that people have been motivated by what I write and as a result, begin looking critically at their lives and taking responsibility for making changes. On the other hand, as soon as someone writes something greater than “Thank you, Violet,” when they get into more lavish praise or fulsome commentary, I start to feel uncomfortable. Just what the hell is that all about??
It’s odd, but I notice that when someone says something nice about me to another person, I am gratified but when they say it to me directly, I feel uncomfortable. I have tried to better define that “uncomfortable” feeling I get and the closest I can pin it down to is that I somehow feel vaguely threatened. That, of course, is absurd—how can anyone feel threatened by being praised? And yet, there it is—I do not know how to appropriately respond, on an emotional level, to being praised and appreciated. Intellectually I get it, intellectually I am pleased and gratified…but emotionally, I shy away from feeling pleased and gratified and feel somehow threatened by it.
I just checked the thesaurus for synonyms for “threatened” and was rather surprised by what I found: endangered, vulnerable, susceptible, exposed, helpless, defenceless, disappearing, in danger. And it begins to make a little better sense…if you use my little dog as an example, she had come to have an emotional investment in the positive interactions she had with people: their praise and admiration made her feel happy. And that correlation between the praise of others and her feeling of happiness left her vulnerable, exposed, and defenceless to the killjoys of this world, like that woman who thought my dog should be perfect or it should be dead. Puddin’ approached this woman, all doggie smiles and innocence, expecting a pat on the head and some positive-sounding noises and instead, she got what sounded to her like a scolding. She had no idea why she was being scolded, what she might have done to deserve it, but she knew she was being found wanting and that woman was hostile about it.
Now, this was a puppy…imagine if it was a child? This little dog had faith in the world and in strangers…up to that moment, her every interaction with people outside the family had been positive, and her little spirit bloomed. She was a happy dog and she projected that and people responded to it by giving her positive attention, which made her an even happier dog. And then that woman happened by and stuck a pin in her balloon.
But she is a dog and she recovered…her detractors were few and her sunny disposition drew positive attention. Even today, at 5.5 years of age, she is still a happy dog, eager to meet new people and exchange greetings with them.
But what about little Violet? What happened that the child grew into a woman who feels vulnerable, exposed, endangered by being directly praised? What occurred that, instead of feeling proud and pleased when the recipient of praise, my first instinct is to feel powerless and imperilled? I also notice that I often give others credit for ideas that were, in fact, my own and that I am pleased when they receive the praise instead of me.
This is undoubtedly linked to my childhood and my narcissistic mother but I can’t, for the life of me, remember a time in which I received negative attention specifically for accepting praise from another. I do know, however, that NM was always give centre stage and that any accomplishments I made were, one way or another, attributed to her. If I got an A on my report card, it was because she “wouldn’t accept anything less and the kids know it.” If I won a prize at a talent contest, it was because of her sacrifices in paying for lessons and the amount of time she “selflessly” devoted to making my costumes, putting on my make up, and fixing my hair. Whatever I achieved, she usurped. Perhaps I divined that objecting to her taking my limelight was a dangerous thing to do, and that the safest course of action was to simply step back and deflect onto her all praise and credit for whatever it was I was being lauded for.
It makes sense but, quite frankly, I have no recollections of anything like this. But, ordinarily, I am not a shy, retiring kind of personality but rather a gregarious sort, known for my ability to tell funny stories…it doesn’t seem to fit with the woman who easily gives credit to others and deflects praise as being uncomfortable. It tells me that there was something in my childhood…probably very early in my childhood…that makes me shy away from positive attention directed at me by others. Something that gave me sense of foreboding from praise, a feeling of being threatened as the recipient of positive attention…as if I were stealing the thunder from a great and powerful giant.
How deeply buried this must be that it is only now surfacing, more than 60 years later…and I still have no clear sense of what it is. But rather like finding a black hole, I can only infer an event…or series of events…from what evidence is available to me: an outgoing personality known for entertaining conversation who systematically deflects praise and avoids taking credit for successes and good ideas. Something is definitely wrong here…even my dog revels in praise and positive attention…why am I afraid of it?