Living With Praise

standingovationIn the seven years I’ve been broadcasting commentaries for Vermont Public Radio, I can’t tell you how many people have reached out to me by phone, email, or in passing, to tell me how much they liked one my pieces they heard. Often, I’ll post a link to a commentary on Facebook and friends will “like” it; sometimes, it will even be shared. Occasionally, strangers I meet treat me like a celebrity because they’ve heard me on the radio. The attention is very flattering, of course, and I’m genuinely pleased when someone praises me for saying something unusual and/or unpopular. That’s when I feel I’m doing my job, being a writer. Why then, do I remember exactly the number of emails I’ve received taking me to task?


One was a letter sent in to the station complaining about a pro-hunting piece I’d aired years ago. More recently, a listener complained about a piece I wrote about wearing recycled clothes.

That I can remember these listeners’ complaints practically verbatim but can’t remember the details from the hundreds of listeners who’ve emailed me with kudos tells me how much harder it is to hold on to praise. It also tells me how penetrating anger can be.

There’s no question: I hit a nerve, causing two listeners to hit their keyboards and spit venom at me. I tell myself that’s good, that I ‘got to them’ and isn’t that the purpose of writing? Maybe. But it burns.

In retaliation, I’ve parsed these letters and found gaping holes in logic and grammar, and located the places where they’ve misunderstood what I said, misrepresented it, or simply disregarded it. I’ve worked over my poison-pen replies (never written, never sent), and churned and burned in anger and disdain. In time, however, the anger dies down, leaving me to wonder why it is that criticism smarts in far greater proportion than praise.

I’ve received a thousand-fold more praises for my work, but I’ve given them less attention. Why is that? Why is it that I give negative sentiment more weight than positive feedback?

The only answer I can come up with is: That’s the way I’ve been trained.

And if it’s just a matter of training, then I can be retrained.

The need to retrain myself, to really pay attention to what my readers and listeners have to say became apparent when Into the Wilderness came out. Strangers wrote me personal letters, sent me emails, told me their stories and sought my advice. That experience taught me how wonderful it is to reach an audience I’m only vaguely aware of while I’m head down at my desk, trying to channel my thoughts into words against deadline. As a result, I vowed that when I read something that moved me, I’d send the author a note.

I also vowed to thank readers who’ve taken the trouble not just to read what I write, but to tell me about it – tell me what I wrote made them think or feel, maybe how it gave them hope or inspiration. And I’m no longer speaking of praise just for my radio commentaries, or my novel, or my newspaper columns, but also about the feedback I get from this blog. I’m generally and genuinely overwhelmed and overjoyed by the replies to these posts.

Ultimately, what thinking about my disproportionate reaction has been to criticism versus praise has shown me is that I must reverse how I respond to the two and give more attention – and more acknowledgement – to praise.

photo: M. Shafer

photo: M. Shafer

Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist and educator. She lives in southern Vermont.

16 thoughts on “Living With Praise

  1. Hi Deborah, I really enjoy all your posts and relate to what you write. I love the honesty and relevance of what you write. Your posts inspire me to keep on going! They also give me practical information about how to do it! Thank you!

  2. As soon as I saw your post title, I thought of the chapter in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, in which she writes “We want honest support and encouragement. When we receive it, we don’t believe it, but we are quick to accept criticism to reinforce our deepest beliefs that, in truth, we are no good and not really writers.” After reading your piece, I’m not sure if that is the root of why you held onto those criticisms, but I think Goldberg has a point. It’s easy to dismiss praise – your friend, or your parent, or a loyal reader who loves everything you write *has* to tell you you’re good, right? That’s what I always tell myself.

    Regardless of why you focus on the criticism, I think Goldberg offers sage advice when she writes, “Really stop when someone is complimenting you. Even if it’s painful and you are not used to it, just keep breathing, listen, and let yourself take it in. *Feel* how good it is. Build up a tolerance for positive, honest support.”

    I think your new approach to praise is a good one. Soak it up. Give it the attention it deserves. Just like you deserve the praise you are given. And you do deserve it. Thank you for a thought-provoking post!

    • Andrea,
      Thanks so much for Natalie Goldberg’s advice. It’s always reassuring to learn that one is not alone, that others have been here, and that there are many ways to address the issues.
      “Taking it in” is a challenge – and its own reward. Thank you for your thoughtful comments – and your kind words.
      Best, Deborah.

  3. Our brains evolved with a negativity bias, did you know that? It means we are actually programmed to pay more attention to the unpleasant rather than the pleasant, and have to train ourselves otherwise. We learn more quickly through pain than we do by pleasure, because our ancient ancestors needed to react quickly
    to harmful things in order to survive. So no surprise you find yourself behaving this way! I was so relieved when I discovered this fact and realised it wasn’t just me. You’re so right, we all have to work at getting the balance right, and it does mean spending more time taking in the good, and giving it more attention. Thanks for another excellent post. I enjoy all of them.

    • Very interesting! Thank you for this information, which makes evolutionary sense. But surely, it’s time to evolve further, no? I think so.
      Thank you for your kind words. Deborah.

  4. Some people just like to bitch for the sake of it. We tend for forget that, especially if they seem intelligent in their rebuke. But bitching is bitching no matter how eloquently it’s done (or not). Living with praise IS easy. Learning to distinguish the difference between constructive feedback and subliminal hostility is difficult if you tend to be an open-minded and receptive person because I think that naturally makes you start from the point of consideration and respect. So then, we expect a like reaction and not everyone starts at that point.
    There is an art to criticism/feedback about subject matter that upsets us. We’ve all been angered at some point and probably had a knee-jerk reaction. I tend to dismiss the kind of criticism you’re talking about as just that – uncontrolled response because somewhere deep inside you hit a very sensitive nerve and the response is probably unrelated to whatever subject you’re talking about.
    And that is the inevitability of sticking our necks out, huh?
    Keep talkin’ Deborah!

    • Hi Laura,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. It’s so true that we writers sometimes hit an inflamed nerve. Even done unintentionally, it’s painful – and part of the reader’s journey, not necessarily the writer’s. This reinforced my determination to be compassionate toward the complainer as well as to myself. And yes, you’re absolutely right: we stick our necks out and it stands to reason someone tries to chop of our heads!
      Thanks for your wisdom and encouragement. Deborah.

  5. It could be that praise for your children is what you expect as their due and negative responses are therefore hurtful and memorable. In my case, (being the chicken that I am) I try to stay away from writing about issues that will get negative responses. Only two bad emails? You must be doing something right.

    • It’s interesting – I don’t mind the responses that challenge what I say or inform me of an angle I’ve missed or information I didn’t know. The ones that get to me are the ones that diss me, call me bad/wrong. In fact, I like to stir the pot of ideas, make readers if not exactly uncomfortable, then challenged to think harder or see the world differently.
      Thanks for your provocative comment!
      Best, Deborah.

    • Hi Julie – The gender question is an interesting one. I think it’s more about personality than gender though, as I see my husband react to criticism similarly. It’s a matter of being criticized not for what you think but for who you are that smarts . . .
      Thanks for your comment. – Deb.

  6. Great post. When I receive criticism or negative feedback, I instantly believe it, suck it in, hold it close, and feed it. When I receive praise, I question. I come up with excuses. ‘Of course he has to say that, he’s my husband.’ There have been complimentary comments where I had to spend a lot of time searching out the excuse, finally ending up with the fallback line of ‘they’re just being polite.’ Why do I believe negative feedback without question, and have to justify positive feedback? Just like you said here. It’s the training. We can be our worst enemy.

  7. Hi Lisa,
    We can be our worst enemy – true, but not inevitable. I believe we can retrain ourselves. Not easy – but possible. I’m trying!
    Thanks for reading and commenting on the post.

  8. Pingback: Writing With Praise | Live to Write - Write to Live

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