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Balancing Praise and Criticism

Ideally all of us would be able to take in compliments and criticism in a balanced way. When someone remarks that we did an outstanding job on a project or looked smashing, we’d feel proud and glow inside. When someone expresses disappointment that we hurt their feelings or left chores undone, we’d feel badly that we let them down or failed to live up to reasonable standards. We wouldn’t expect to never make mistakes, nor assume we’re always in the wrong and can’t do anything right.

In my work, I use an analogy which seems to help people envision what I’m talking about. I imagine that emotionally balanced people have two equal strips of Velcro inside them: one each for positive and negative comments they receive. Whichever comes their way, praise or criticism, it sticks to the appropriate Velcro strip. In this way, we’d get to learn about ourselves and how well we are doing in the world. Again, ideally, we would value each Velcro strip equally and recognize that both are necessary to emotional health and growth. We might have a strong reaction to comments—be ecstatic or bummed out—but that would not prevent us from taking in what is said, acknowledging it, and using it for self-betterment.

However, many people do not possess two equal Velcro strips: either they can only stand to hear positive things about themselves and, therefore, deny or ignore any negatives, or they only hear the negatives and do not believe the positives. My work is to help them acquire the strip that is missing. Not surprisingly, people who have an oversized negative strip do well in therapy as they develop or enlarge their positive strip. However, folks who can only bear to hear positives don’t take well to therapy which (in large part) is about finding out and fixing what’s wrong. (As an aside, you may notice that these two kinds of people often couple up, but that’s another story.)

The reason I raise this topic of being balanced with compliments and criticism is that many people expect to feel good about themselves when they arrive at a healthy weight, but don’t because they can’t take in positive comments. Instead of feeling pleased by praise, it causes discomfort. If you have trouble achieving or maintaining a comfortable weight, you may need to work on accepting and acknowledging the nice things people say about you. This capacity grows with practice and will help you in many areas of your life, not just around body issues. The goal is to genuinely enjoy praise and compliments, while also being able to tolerate criticism and negative feedback. Remember, mental health is appreciating the good, the bad, and the ugly!