Being True to Yourself Despite Praise and Condemnation

Yesterday I wrote, “Most of us spend our lives trying to change ourselves through alternate praise and condemnation.  Indeed, we are trained to do so.  But praise and condemnation are not paths to lasting change and anyone who embarks upon them will backslide again and again.”  In response, The Cognitive Dissenter insightfully pointed out that bending ourselves to the praise and condemnation from others was a very good way to alienate us from ourselves: “So tempting and easy to do but so betraying to our true selves”.

I would like to make two comments here on her insight.  First, and most simply, I think it is possible — perhaps even commonplace — for us to become alienated from ourselves not only through bending ourselves to the praise and condemnation from others, but also from bending ourselves to the praise and condemnation from ourselves.

Consciousness functions a bit like an editor or censor.  “She has green eyes…no, emerald.” “I am happy…well, somewhere between happy and really happy.”  It often second-guesses what we’re doing.  “Did I do that well enough?”  “Did I do it the right way?”  “Should I have called Sally?”  “Have I started too late on my taxes?”  It can be extraordinarily critical at times, and yet lavish with exaggerated praise at other times.  “Damn!  I can’t get the remote to work.  I am so worthless around electronics!” “I can’t believe I scored that goal.  I am completely more awesome than I ever thought I was.”  Anyone who has had the fortune of experiencing an awareness when consciousness was not present knows that all of that editing, censoring, second-guessing, blame and praise goes out the door with consciousness.

Now, consciousness is to varying extents a useful tool in dealing with the world.  How many of us could get along without it?  Yet if we take it too grimly — say, by paying undue attention to its praise or blame of us — it’s constant and often contradictory chatter will toss us one way and another until we become alienated from ourselves.

Of course, there is quite often a very close relationship between the praise and condemnation we receive from others, and the praise and condemnation that originates with us.  For one thing, we often amplify, put on an endless loop, or otherwise modify the praise or condemnation we receive from others.   But in practice, it’s not always that hard to differentiate between what began with others and what began with us.  Hence, we can sometimes find ourselves misled by our own praise and condemnation of ourselves.

Next, The Cognitive Dissenter’s insight raises to my mind the question of how we can be true to ourselves?  As it happens, Sey intelligently raised a closely related issue the other day on a different post: “I’m sort of scratching my head trying to understand this true to oneself thing. If we systematically peeled off the layers of socialization, would we find a core ‘self’ — or nothing?”

At first glance, it would seem we cannot talk of being true to oneself without first defining what is the self.  And as Sey points out, that is no easy task.  Yet, I believe we have a work-around here.  Instead of first defining what is the self, we might simply state in general terms what happens when one is true to themselves.  Thus, as I wrote yesterday: “I propose being true to oneself occurs when what you feel, what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony with each other.”  By “harmony”, I mean that what you feel, think, say, and do compliment each other, rather than conflict.

Now I believe that is a key test of whether you are being true to yourself.  That is, you will find it to be the case to the extent you are being true to yourself, but not the case to the extent you are not being true yourself.

Now, it’s my contention the harmonious relationship between what you feel, think, say, and do can be broken up depending, among other things, on how we respond to praise and condemnation.  Furthermore, when me handle praise and condemnation unskillfully, we seem very likely to lose that harmony, and thus become to one extent or another alienated from ourselves.

Ultimately, I suppose, we should ourselves take full responsibility for how we respond to such things as praise and condemnation.  I would argue for our taking responsibility on two grounds: First, not many people will take responsibility for us, so we should, for the sake of our well-being, take it for ourselves, and next, because we don’t actually need others to take responsibility for us given it is possible for we ourselves to deal skilfully with praise and condemnation.

Those, at least, are my views on this issue of the role praise and condemnation perhaps too often play in alienating us from ourselves.  To those of you who have patiently read all 881 words of this tedious blog post, my profound thanks.  To those of you who have cheated by skipping most of it and who are now only reading the second to last paragraph, my profound admiration.

At any rate, what do you make of the role, if indeed there is one, that praise and condemnation can play in alienating us from ourselves?

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8 thoughts on “Being True to Yourself Despite Praise and Condemnation

  1. This reminds me of a conversation I had just yesterday with my daughter about the role and purpose of anger. In the Mormon culture, people are taught from the time they are children to “turn that frown upside down and smile …” It can be difficult to find people within that culture who are truly authentic because they have been so thoroughly conditioned to hide and suppress their feelings. Hence, there is a lot of passive aggressive behavior and other unhealthy expressions of emotion.

    When one leaves the Mormon cult there is often a lot of anger — stems from the realization that one has been methodically deceived by a corrupt organization, being shunned by family members and other loved ones, etc. Enter someone like me who starts blogging about it mostly for cheap therapy and the anger and bitterness come through loud and clear until it has served its purpose and moved on. Working out that anger and putting it to bed is a process and a very necessary one at that.

    But some of the old habits die hard such that even among the exMormons, there are those who are critical of one who is “too angry.” It is still seen as something negative that must be defended and justified.

    Anyway, I think I have a point around here somewhere. Maybe it is that there are seemingly infinite cultural and social messages telling us who we are supposed to be and what is appropriate, etc. Sometimes we need to tell those messages to f*** off, simply be quiet and let ourselves be. And maybe doing that will help us find that harmony between what we feel, think, say and do.

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    • I think I can relate to your thoughts and feelings about anger — but not because of anything a church taught me.

      CD, I was raised by a very decent, competent, and intelligent woman with a wonderful sense of humor who had nevertheless either acquired, or had herself been taught, two or three imperfections. One of those imperfections was that she taught me to systematically repress anger. Her ideal was that anger would never be shown in any circumstances.

      It took me ages to learn how to be angry. I don’t mean that I wasn’t angry until I learned how to be angry. I was angry quite often when growing up and into my early adulthood. But what I didn’t know was how — and how not — to be angry. More specifically, I didn’t know how to appropriately express anger, nor how to avoid working myself into a rage when I felt anger, nor how to avoid nursing anger so that it turned into grudges and resentments, nor did I know a host of other ways of managing anger.

      So, that’s the background I bring to understanding the folly of your former Church and the Mormon community in the way they advocate “dealing” with anger. I will say right now that their way of dealing with anger — ignore it, repress it, dismiss it, and then enlist every busybody in the community to censor those who display it — looks suspiciously similar to what I’ve learned from you is their way of “dealing” with sex.

      As for the way you handle anger on your blog, CD, I see anger, but I don’t see any uncontrollable rages that reduce or destroy the intelligence, wit, insight, decency, and significance of your posts.

      Now, I strongly agree with those who advocate that people coming out of an abusive situation — as both you and I have — “get over it”. But “getting over it” is almost never a matter of “just” getting over it. Instead, as my very clever and competent therapist pointed out to me, we who have come from abusive situations usually must go through a process of mourning that is identical in process to mourning a death. And allowing ourselves to, at some point, feel and express anger for our abuse is a crucial part of that mourning process. It is very much one of the natural steps in that process. We should not nurse anger, but we should certainly accept it when it comes.

      Living well is absolutely the best revenge. But often, before you can live well, you must mourn.

      When I began reading exMo blogs a few months ago, CD, I mistakenly thought you all were like ex’s from mainstream Protestant denominations. But I’ve been disabused of that notion. It now seems to me that former Mormons typically face challenges on an order of magnitude greater than, say, the average former Methodist or Presbyterian. Most of those problems are unnecessarily caused by the corrupt desire of the Mormon Church and community to control people. I think anger is quite an understandable and natural response to that bullshit.

      Last, in reference to “Sometimes we need to tell those messages to f*** off, simply be quiet and let ourselves be.”, I think that might sometimes work, but my guess is a more lasting solution will come from thoroughly and dispassionately observing precisely what those messages are, on a very fundamental level, and exactly how they operate. Once you thoroughly and dispassionately understand what a poisonous rattlesnake is, you no longer need to condemn it. You will act appropriately towards it even without the mere commentary of condemnation. Isn’t that the case?

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      • Oh, I agree with you Paul — particularly that we go through a mourning/grief process because we have experienced something of a loss … although I feel/know I gained myself in that process. It’s like getting rid of confining chains that I had perversely been taught to love because I thought they were good for me, and gaining my freedom. So, in one sense, losing nothing and gaining everything.

        I also agree that we must understand and recognize the poisonous rattlesnake. But I do find it enlightening in a different (maybe complimentary?) way to sometimes take a few deep breaths and find that peaceful place within myself.

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  2. “Man is in the world and only in the world does he know himself”

    I believe that the self is a public thing, praise and condemnation make us. Lucky we have some agency regarding what we attend to.

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    • For once, I’m in what might be basic disagreement with you, Stephen.

      On the one hand, I do agree with you that “Man is in the world and only in the world does he know himself” — depending, of course, on defining both “know” and “self” in the most usual ways for a Westerner.

      Where you and I depart is when you say, “praise and condemnation make us.” I’m of the opinion praise and condemnation only make a superficial self. Most often, superficial even by Western standards. Allow me to submit that I can point out all day you are a decent man, and you can even take my praise to heart, but in the end all of that will on some deeper level mean less to you than what you yourself say or do that’s decent. Am I making any sense?

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      • Yes you’re making sense.
        But I haven’t changed my mind! 😀
        I regard praise and condemnation as positive or negative feedback in either internal or external dialogue (or perhaps both at the same time)
        In a sense reward and punishment. Attention and value judgements are involved but I suspect these are themselves shaped by praise and condemnation. (or positive/negative feedback if you prefer)

        I think we are social creatures that are shaped by the responses we evoke in the world – praise or condemnation.

        Your saying I am a bum will not a bum make me. If, on the other hand everyone I’ve ever met said I was a bum I would be truly extraordinary if I thought I were a dececnt man.

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