Praise, Potato Chips, and the Dark Side

During the last week of 2017 and the first couple of days of 2018 on the Star Wars movies, binged I did. I heard Yoda warn me that fear, anger, and hate to the dark side, leads it does. But what about the various expectations that praise produces? People praised Anakin’s powers, particularly Obi-Wan Kenobi in his belief that Anakin was the promised one, the one to bring balance to force. Granted, Anakin lamented to Padmé that he did not feel he was good enough for Obi-Wan, pointing to Anakin’s own sense of shame. Yet how much did the praises and expectations of others fuel his shame? The storyline reveals Anakin’s fear of loss. Does this include his fear of losing another’s approval? To what degree may praise implicitly set us up, particularly when we are afraid of losing it? Is there a dark side to praise?

Now before you believe that I am issuing an ultimatum that demands we refrain from giving praise, let me assure you: this is not the case. Instead, this blog is an invitation to reflect upon the possible dynamics of praise when we are hooked on or addicted to the praise of others. Several weeks ago, I wrote about loving the enemy within, i.e., the inner critic, the inner jackal voice, or the tyrannical conscience. I noted how fear and anxiety demonstrate a need that is going unmet in us. In this blog I am underscoring the inner critic’s feeding frenzy on anxiety and fear that is fostered by praise (it is important for the reader to keep in mind, as stated in that blog, that this fear and anxiety points to our own unmet needs, so this is an opportunity to be curious about ourselves, not more demanding of us).

I am specifically speaking about nebulous praise. Like potato chips, it satisfies for a little while, but it lacks substance.

  • Excellent!
  • You’re amazing!
  • You’re so gifted and talented.
  • You will go far in life.
  • You have a destiny.
  • God’s hand is upon you.
  • The pastor hearing, “Great sermon!”
  • Receiving 105 likes on a Facebook post.

When we first hear it, we may inhale it without much reflection, feeling encouraged, uplifted, and buoyed by it. Like a moth to a flame, we are magnetically pulled towards it. However, in a short period of time, its light, fluffy content leads us to wanting more. Like a bag of potato chips, we cannot stop at one chip (You know, an open bag is an empty bag). We must have more. Like a fish seizing the bait, we are hooked. It is at this point we may notice some mild anxiety surfacing.

  • If we are pastors, the anxiety may appear as we prepare for the next sermon as we wonder, “How can I top last week’s sermon? What if they don’t like it?”
  • If it is about the lasagna we made that was described as “the best ever,” we sense a little tension when we make it again. After all, we made it the same as every other time, so how was the last one “the best ever”?
  • If it is a paper we just wrote for a class, we may experience internal pressure to do another repeat performance, only better.
  • If we just graduated, we may have received many accolades both verbal and written about our future destiny as a major change agent; however, when weeks turn into months and then years, we may wonder, “How am I suppose to go far in life without a job? What do they think of me now? Have I disappointed them?”
  • If our hilarious Facebook post generated the recognition of most of our friends, we may become apprehensive when our next post fails to do it again.

Like eating one potato chip, we desire more praise. When it is not forthcoming, we may try harder as we sense the anxiety increasing, which is fodder for the inner critic. The inner critic begins to interpret the silence of others as disappointment, disapproval, or abandonment, which nurtures feelings of shame. We intuitively know that somehow we have to match or exceed our last effort if we do not want to disappoint others, and thereby receive more praise (potato chips). Unfortunately, when we are set up by nebulous praise to live up to another’s expectation, we do not specifically know what that expectation is. How high is their bar anyway? How far do we need to reach to impress them?

Perhaps it would be helpful to discuss nebulous praise in light of criticalness. Unlike another’s criticalness which signifies the other’s need has been unmet, nebulous praise indicates a need has been met. Yet criticalness and praise share a common trait: both fail to inform us what the needs are. These unknown needs (unmet and met) can be like a whip that drives us to do better in order to gain the other’s praise. Herein lies the dark side of praise. For instance, if a pastor hears, “Great sermon,” the need for encouragement may have been momentarily met, but the pastor is not being specifically informed what made the sermon great, which may provide more satisfying and lasting encouragement. Was it affirming? Validating? Growth producing? Healing? Convicting? Intellectually stimulating? If the person says, “Pastor, in the first point of your sermon, I felt so excited because it affirmed what the Spirit has been speaking to my heart about my own walk with God,” the pastor is more able to celebrate with the parishioner about a certain way in which the hearer experienced God’s ministry to him. Notice the difference. Nebulous praise is imprecise, leaving the hearer wanting more which may lead to attempts to meet another’s unknown and indeterminate expectation that is followed by anxiety and perhaps shame (similar to criticalness). Expressed specific appreciation, however, concretely informs the person what it is that has transpired for a specific individual in a particular instance at a certain time, which may be followed by positive feelings such as satisfaction because a need to contribute was met.

Like potato chips, nebulous praise tastes good, but the lack of real substance fuels our desire for more. We want to be satisfied, and we mistakenly believe that nebulous praise will accomplish this task. Unfortunately, nebulous praise tends to be performance-based, not being-based. This means, rather than centering on who we are, nebulous praise highlights what we do. That is, the other is judging that we have done something well. This tantalizes our taste buds, pushing us to excel more so that we become dependent on others to be our gauge without knowing the precise measurements. In summary, with nebulous praise we make an interpretation, internalizing an unexpressed, indeterminate expectation of us. This in turn generates anxiety and the inner critic’s voice that produces shame. This is the dark side of praise.

In reflecting on the Gospel of John, I see Jesus’ resistance to the specious pull to praise’s dark side with its performance-based underpinnings. The introduction to John (chapter one) highlights Jesus’ being—who Jesus is. He is God (v. 1); he is eternal (v. 2); he is the Creator (v. 3); he is life and light (v. 4); he is human and divine (vv. 1, 9-11); he is the Lamb of God (v. 29); and he is the tabernacle of God (v. 14 and 2:19-22). Through the very person, the being of Jesus, God ministers to the world. As I have stated in previous blogs, Jesus’ being is God’s action.

More importantly, Jesus knew who he was so that he refused to bow to the pressures of humanity. This is indicated in John 2:23-25, which reads:

Now while Jesus was in Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover, many people believed in his name because they saw the miraculous signs he was doing. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people. He did not need anyone to testify about man, for he knew what was in man.

As we read this, we notice that the miracles, or the signs, pointed towards Jesus and who Jesus was, but the miracles alone failed to generate a lasting belief. Later in John we see the people praising Jesus out of an expectation that he would be their King and overthrow the Romans (12:12-16). Rather than submitting himself to humanity’s desire to do what they wanted so that they would continue to believe in him (e.g., more signs, overthrow the Romans), Jesus resisted the pull of humanity’s approval. Jesus understood that God chiefly ministered to the world through Jesus’ being, and he was not dependent this approval given by human beings, but that of God the Father (chapter 17). In essence, he knew who he was.

How does Jesus’ resolve to glorify the Father and his embrace of himself influence our reflection on the dark side of praise? I believe that God does use our actions to minister to others, but I wonder if our performance-based culture causes us to overlook how much God uses who we are. Our personality and the family and friends that shaped that personality. Our interests. Our desires. Our passions. While others’ nebulous praise and our interpretative expectations tend to accentuate what we do, causing us to focus on our performance, our successful acts are not the full picture. John presents us with an invitation to minister out of who we are and who we are becoming. In other words, ministry flows out of who God made us to be.

I leave you with lyrics from a song by Sara Groves called “This Journey Is My Own”:

So much of what I do is to make a good impression
This journey is my own
And so much of what I say is to make myself look better
But this journey is my own . . .
And why would I want to live for man, and pay the highest price
And what does it mean to gain a whole world, only to lose my life . . .
And now I live and I breathe for an audience of one
Now I live and I breathe for an audience of one