The Praise Drug
Appraise the Praise: Are You An Addict?
Separating malignant narcissistic supply from healthy human interaction is an uncertain business, but if you have the following symptoms, pay attention.
Sign #1: Infinite praise tolerance. Everyone likes praise, up to a point. "The normal person," writes Sam Vaknin, PhD, in his book Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited, "is likely to welcome a moderate amount of attention—verbal and nonverbal—in the form of affirmation, approval, or admiration. Too much attention, though, is perceived as onerous and is avoided." I feel this way when kindly strangers introduce me as a public speaker; they cite jobs I held 20 years ago, quote complimentary bloggers who've confused me with Martha Stewart, throw out wild ad libs to disguise the fact that no one present has ever heard of me. This evokes in me the weird blend of pleasure, gratitude, and revulsion I'd feel if the emcee publicly fondled my toes.
If you feel this way when someone really pours on the praise, you're probably not a true praise addict. A worst-case user has absolutely no upper limit on praise tolerance; such a person, as Vaknin puts it, "is insatiable. He directs his whole behavior, in fact his life, to obtaining pleasurable tidbits of attention." I've seen this with many clients like Sarah. They can absorb astonishing amounts of praise, quantities that would make most people deeply suspicious and slightly nauseous. They often have friends who feed them narcissistic supply when they run out; such relationships are another symptom of praise addiction.
Sign #2: A flattering sidekick. Sarah, for example, had a best friend named Mona who, in exchange for reflected glory, continually reminded Sarah of her every conquest, achievement, and victory. "You know," Mona would say during one of Sarah's low periods, "with your good looks and the connections from your sorority, you could have gone right from college to Hollywood. You're just too self-sacrificing. When I think what you gave up to be a perfect wife—you should write a book about it. Really. The world needs to know."
I never actually met Mona, but Sarah repeated her words to me. Often. She wanted me to reaffirm them, but at the same time, I could tell she knew there was something off about Mona's praise-a-thons. Like all addicts—including you, if the shoe fits—Sarah was aware on some level that her obsession wasn't healthy. If you've got a Mona, or a stable of Monas, you've got a problem.
Sign #3: Extreme praise avoidance. Are you breathing a sigh of relief, knowing you've never in your life sought narcissistic supply? Not so fast. Some praise addictions (my own comes to mind) raise their ugly heads by making the addict want to jump off a bridge rather than accept a compliment.
Reacting to praise by feeling paralyzed with shame, like the wallflower caught in the spotlight at the prom, can signal a "dry drunk" praise addiction. Some dry drunks lust for tributes as insanely as Sarah but fear negative attention so much they obsessively avoid getting attention at all. Others actually get praise by avoiding praise, seeing humility as a virtue, and making damn sure everyone knows how humble they really are.
By now I assume you're hopelessly confused about whether or not you're a praise addict. You can take the "Are You a Praise Addict?" quiz to find out. In the meantime, if you think you might not be walking the safe Middle Way between excessive approval seeking and total approval rejection, the recovery advice below can help you achieve sobriety.
The 4-step plan to end praise addiction