Does praise make you bigheaded?



Does praise make you bigheaded?


“So have you put up your fees now you’ve got a fancy trainer of the year award?”  said my brother after a couple of pints.


I scoffed and said ‘Of course’, adding that I also now insist on a chauffer driven car and a red carpet whenever I arrive to deliver a training session.


This exchange is how my family often discuss things in life.  Humour!   Births, deaths, boyfriends, job losses, hair loss and awards tend to be infused with a few one line quips.  I realised this recently, when I travelled up north to visit my loved ones for the weekend.  Although we have a wonderful relationship and get on brilliantly, we don’t talk easily about feelings or acknowledge achievements without lightening the mood.

The strange thing is, as much as I love the laughter that goes along with our endless banter, I felt a bit sad when I returned to London. I secretly wanted a bit more praise from my loved ones.  I yearned to talk more about my experience of achieving something that felt important to me.  I wondered why I felt like this, and started to assess whether it was a deep-seated insecurity that I needed their approval.


Or perhaps I was a closet diva wanting them to say ‘We’re proud of you’, clink a glass of bubbly and say ‘You rock’.


As I thought more about our use of banter, I realised how it ‘s simply the ritual of my upbringing and the cultural norms of Merseyside, my hometown. We were taught to laugh at ourselves, the world and not take life seriously.  Bantering, sarcasm and quips are the customary way to deal with life. It’s our way to bond and our way to cope.


But I also wondered about the negative impact of this cultural trait. When we use humour in times of success, we are also undermining ourselves.  My tendency to laugh at myself makes me humble, but has probably also stopped me enjoying the moments that have gone well, or taken action to promote myself more voraciously.  

But why?


Surely success is a natural reason to crack open the champers, party and revel in it all. Surely celebrating success is also a way to bond? 


As I thought more about ‘success’, I realised what a minefield of a topic it is.


As I began to dig into the neuro science of behaviour, I read that success for one individual may mean that we can become a threat to the group.  Our achievements can mean a change in the status quo and disturb the people closest to us.  When we start to stand out, it can stir up all sorts of dynamics, from envy to loss.

It impacts us too.  At a deep level, our primitive survival instincts can sense that separation from the group.


As much as we are loved, when we begin to grow or change, there may be a sense that people feel threatened and undermine our achievements in small, subtle ways.  Humour is a classic tool to lower status.  A sarcastic quip whips us into line, reminds us not to become too big for our boots.  It’s a safety mechanism that counteracts the danger that we may leave people behind.


I want to be clear here, I don’t think it’s something that people in our community do intentionally. I think it’s an aspect of culture that has developed to create cohesion and safety from danger. The tall poppies syndrome is famous for this in Australia.

The point I want to make is if we are not aware of how success changes dynamics, then it can be a turbulent experience.


One client, an internationally renowned music composer described how painful it was for him when he achieved success in his early years.  “If I ever failed, then I’d be consoled by my family. But when I did well, they’d start to tell me not to let it go to my head.”


He went on to have increasing success, but talks often of how loneliness has been part of his life.


The flip side is when clients feel resentment towards other people’s successes and find it difficult to praise others.


I know a talented singer who describes how she struggles to watch anybody else performing. She has such a deep sense of envy at the injustice when she sees other people, less talented than her, getting jobs that she thinks she could do better.



So how do we handle our own success? Praise or not to praise?

From a neuroscience point of view, the key to success is to learn how to give and receive praise generously.  


If we undermine ourselves or other people’s success, then we send a message to our unconscious which says ‘success is bad’. We are creating unconscious patterns that are more likely to affect your confidence and your results.


When we learn how to fully celebrate our own successes, we are role modelling and reprogramming these limiting mental habits.


Giving and receiving praise is a habit that will create a much healthier way to build bonds, create community and encourage everyone to increase their capacity to grow.


I believe that if we learn to celebrate success, then we are teaching ourselves and others that ‘success is possible and success is a good thing’.  It will stop us from sabotaging ourselves and will help us feel closer and more connected to the people around us.


So – celebrate your own success today by giving yourself permission to feel joy, pride and renewed confidence in your own efforts.  And celebrate the success of the people around you.


Finally, I want to finish by acknowledging my own brilliant family.  This blog is to talk about a cultural issue. I am really lucky to have their love and support and I want you to know how much they mean to me.  My brother is a talented musician, who has steadfastly maintained a career in music, developed a sound business that is flourishing. I’m proud of him!


What about you?


Who and how can you celebrate your successes today?  Do leave a comment below.


6 responses

  1. I know that Liverpool way all too well, having been brought up in the same style of laughing and joking rather than celebrating. I purposely chose the name of my business (Success Revolution) to celebrate success – my own and other people’s success.

    Well done you – on your award, and on writing a fabulous piece. Now let’s celebrate!

    1. Thank you so much Zoe. Yes, I love liverpool very much for our light hearted energy. I often talk with warmth about the people and their humour. I love the fact that you’ve taken the leadership step of creating a business to challenge this cultural limitation. Do let me know if you’re doing any events in Liverpool as I’d love to come and celebrate with you! Nicky x

  2. Years ago I used to work with a music producer who came from a posh area. He was the only one from his circle of friends who had chosen a creative profession, and in his mid thirties he still had to work extra in a bar to make ends meet. His friends were all well paid executives, doctors and lawyers.
    I admired him for never giving up, and eventually he became very successful, both creatively and financially. But when we worked together I sometimes felt sad, because he didn’t seem to agree on any of my ideas, or believe that anything I said could have any value. All this was of course expressed in the fashion of friendly banter! And I did my best to laugh it off, but still…
    Many years later I went to his 50th birthday party. All his friends from school were there, and they held a speech for him. It was funny, and everyone was laughing, the birthday boy laughed most of all. But I felt such a lump in my throat. The message throughout the whole speech was that this incredibly successful man was a moron and a loser! Every stupid thing he might have said or done in his life was ridiculed. Not a word about his fantastic achievements.

    After that evening I admired him even more. If I had friends like that I doubt I could have done half of the things I have achieved in my life. OR – is it possible that developing the ability to laugh off any criticism, be it masqued as a joke or not, actually HELPS us create a successful career? With friends or co-workers who don’t give you any credit for anything you do, you just have to dig your heels in and fight harder for your ideas and dreams…

    1. wow, that is such a poignant story – thanks for sharing Lena.

      I think you have a point here about can it help with success, I think it is a useful strategy for creative people certainly to learn how to defend themselves from negative feedback to keep moving forward. The more successful people get, the more mixed feedback they get, so it’s important to know which to listen to and which to bat off.

      The danger is that they become so hardened to it, they can become desensitized. (Which is why he may not be very generous to you either).

      That’s why, in my blog – I was pointing to the idea that we may be successful, but we may not fully experience the pleasure of it. The barriers we put up to praise can lead us to being numb and a bit cut off.

      So – with his own group of friends, I know that men tend to find bantering a way of bonding with each other. He might actually hate getting positive feedback if this is the culture with his group.

      Yes – the competitive nature of his group who put each other down may indeed drive him forward. But why? I would still say that if it drives them forward, it’s because at a deep level they actually wish to be acknowledged!

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