Depression, Praise & Undoing Success


On my good days, praise is exciting, gratifying to hear. On my bad days, until recently, praise launched the automated program called Undoing Success. It started with a weight of doom sinking into the center of my chest. There followed in quick succession an attack of intense anxiety and a mental emptying of every idea and word I’d ever known about the subject at hand.

If a teacher in school praised me, I’d stare in emptiness at the very next question I was asked. If my fellow students joked that I’d probably get the best score on a test, I would sit down in the midst of such anxiety that I couldn’t think straight and had to guess at answers. Much later in life, if I heard a lot of praise for a report, I’d make a hopeless muddle of the next.

The problem was at its worst when I blocked out all awareness of depression and lost my defenses against it. At those times, I never thought – oh, I’m depressed so I need to turn down the volume of that negative voice. Not at all. I simply listened and agreed completely with the F-streaked report card that voice was describing. There was no difference between depression’s verdict and my own thinking: I know what I’m worth, even if I can fool a lot of people. When someone did or said something to contradict that negative self-concept – like praising me or rewarding success – my depressed mind was ready to prove how wrong they were.

Remarkably, I was not conscious of the many subtle and ingenious strategies I used to prove that I couldn’t do a job I had mastered long ago. I had only the anxiety I mentioned and a whisper in my mind: They shouldn’t have said those words of praise. My reaction was different from the dulled and scattered thinking that also accompanies depression. That went on too during the bad times and was an especially useful ally in the war against praise.

Fortunately, there were also long periods when sheer determination to reach a goal pushed depression far into the background. I cycled the drive to climb with the drive to fall over long arcs in some periods, short ones in others. I remained so many data points on this curve for a long time, convinced I had no power to change. Then, as I’ve written before, something shifted, and depression has become a minor irritant rather than the dominant force it was for so long. But this particular problem has a life of its own, and it’s not always easy to catch it in time. I decided I needed a new strategy to stop the process.

A daydream scenario came to me that seemed to work. Let’s push this fight against praise to the next level. I’ll sue myself to end all praise. And so was born the strange case of John1 v. John2.

Here are some of the grounds of complaint filed by John1 against his better half, John2.

  1. He has been cheated out of his inheritance of anti-praise and condemnation which had been legally bestowed upon him by the last will and testament of his parents.

  2. Subverting his role of trustee for this will during John1’s youth and continuing his efforts for years afterward, John2 repeatedly suborned teachers, employers and friends to praise John1 for one fraudulent success after another. By these deliberate ruses, John1 suffered incalculable pain and suffering over a period of several decades.

  3. Even more insidiously, the defendant infiltrated and undermined John1’s mental, even spiritual states. By slow poisoning of the imagination, he implanted obviously false bursts of energy, creativity, ambition and talent which had no basis in actual fact. On repeated occasions, this subtle poison deluded the plaintiff and compelled him to endure the excruciating pain of elation and unsuitable enthusiasm.

  4. The fact that John1 had been able to deflect some of the worst tortures and deceptions perpetrated by John2 does not lessen, excuse or alter in any way the tortious conduct of the defendant. Only by considerable sacrifice of time and opportunity, and often at the expense of years of rightly deserved depression and hopelessness, was John1 able to undo the conspiracies of praise.

  5. John1 further alleged that John2 employed accomplices, John3 and John4, who assumed the noms de guerre of Messrs. Humor and Hope for this purpose. Their plot consisted of befriending John1 under these false names in order to induce fantasies about his innate capacities of humor and hope for success in life. It was demonstrated that, apart from the illusory states so induced, John1 possessed neither of these qualities. This elaborate conspiracy continued for several years and for a time effectively lured John1 into acceptance of such false beliefs.

  6. John1 requested complete restitution of the specific and lengthy list of missed opportunities for anti-praise and condemnation to which he was entitled by law and by fact. He further requested that the massive burden of debt that was rightfully his, due to what would have been a highly effective program of undoing success, be restored to him, compounded at the current average prime lending rate for failed-future options. For the severe emotional trauma of enduring falsely earned praise, the plaintiff sought treble damages.

This daydreamed defense has been extremely effective in removing the fear that used to be the companion of praise. I can’t say I’d recommend this form of therapy to anyone else, but giving the friends of depression a working over in the imagination often gets the job done for me.

How well do you handle praise?

Image Credit: Some Rights Reserved by notsogoodphotography at Flickr

6 Responses to “Depression, Praise & Undoing Success”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Renee says:

    I have been thinking about this lately after a fight with my partner when we both said ‘I don’t feel appreciated’ and then I realized that in reality, I try to thank/praise him consistently. It’s like he’s just not capable of receiving that love and acknowledgement when he’s depressed. I think I am the same way. When I am depressed I crave that so much, thinking I’m not getting it at all, but I probably am, I just am not able to receive it. There is also the fact that I (we) tend to isolate and not ‘do’ much of anything when depressed, so that there is no particular action for others to notice or ‘praise’. Then that makes the spiral continue. It has never been easy or natural for me to just ‘know’ that I’m doing a good job – or, that I’m just ‘good’. I think this is normal for many (depressed) people.

    One of the signals of depression, in fact, is when I feel envy or anger (rather than showing support and love) about other people’s accomplishments and talents. I know that I am not that kind of person in reality, maybe it is “Renee 2”.

    I do really like this piece of yours – a brilliant idea and one that will stick with me in terms of working things out.

    I hope that you can accept that little piece of praise 🙂

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Thanks, Renee –

      The envy about other people’s accomplishments has been a good indicator for me as well. I hate to be “John2” especially since many people walk away knowing only that guy. Did you ever see the film version of Prozac Nation? The central character is always screaming at her friends and alienating them, then screaming at herself for acting that way. I’m glad I’ve learned how to block that sort of thing when it starts to come back.

      And, yes, I can live with that little bit of praise – I guess. (Of course, if you really knew me …. etc, etc. – just kidding!)

      Thanks for commenting.


  2. Very clever post, John!

    Daydreams work well for me, too… especially on the bad days when not much that’s outside input tends to get in. Or maybe I’ve just read one too many graphic novels where they do stuff like this with the characters 😉

    • john says:

      Thanks, CK –

      You’ll have to help me out with graphic novels. I have a great book on how comics communicate, but I haven’t gotten into the novels. Any recommendations would be welcome!

      My best to you — John

  3. Barbara says:

    Hi John
    My handling of praise in the past really depended a lot on my mood. At times I could be genuinely appreciative, if a little shy.
    Currently, the praise really needs to start with me. If I can’t acknowledge my own successes/progress, then all the outside praise in the world is wasted on me. I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing, but it is what is.
    The portion of your article I most related to was the use of humor and your recognition of its separate identity.
    I have one sister, two years younger than I. She also happens to be my only close living relative. We have a less than desirable relationship, difficult would be the kindest word. For most the years I’ve known her, she has declared herself over and over, between the two of us as the funny one. I guess, as opposed to me, the depressed one who rarely laughed at her jokes/joking.

    When I started working with the therapist I have, it became apparent that even depressed people laugh, for there I was sitting with her doing it. Yet I kept hearing the conditioning from my sister, believing this can’t be me. I’m not my sister, don’t have her talent. It was my therapist one day that said, Barb, it will probably be your sense of humor that saves you. So a compliment, lesson, some conditioning at least dented all in one fell swoop. Another layer of trust added, too. For both my therapist and myself. I don’t think it is my therapist lying to me to get me to laugh. I have to believe there is a genuineness in our interactions. So humor, invaluable, even when it seems most inappropriate or unlikely sometimes.

    • john says:

      Thank you, Barbara, for that personal story – I to used to believe the characterizations that came from my family. For example, my brother was the creative genius, I was the unimaginative plodder. Thank God your therapist could get you to see qualities you’d assumed you didn’t have. Especially humor! Among other wonderful effects, it gives a different perspective by putting together two different settings for the same idea – in one the idea is grim, in another the idea is hilarious. That helps break old mind patterns and is so helpful.

      Thanks for coming by – and my very best to you!


By clicking the Submit button below you agree to follow the Commenting Guidelines