The Praise Drug
Step #3: Let your hungry soul find its real food. Withdrawal pangs usually increase until the addict reaches a seemingly bottomless abyss of longing. When you get there, you'll recognize it as the state you've been avoiding all along. In it, you'll feel an unendurable sense of being absolutely alone, forever cut off from the one thing you really need, the thing for which praise is a shoddy substitute. You know the word: love. Of course, if you're a praise addict, you don't know what that word means. It's probably alien to your experience. Fortunately, it is not alien to your nature.
"Your ego has all these wants," said spiritual teacher Ram Dass in a 2000 lecture. "Your soul has only one want. It wants to get to merge with the Lover. Merge with the One." He wasn't just mouthing platitudes; after a lifetime of physical and intellectual vigor, Ram Dass suffered a stroke that left him in a wheelchair and slow of speech. People continued to attend his lectures not to admire glibness or agility but because Ram Dass actually seemed to know what "merging with the One" felt like. He knew that this mystical-sounding process is simply what the soul—or true self, if you prefer—does when we stop interfering.
Sarah repeatedly tried to fast from compulsive, joyless praise-seeking. She always caved and called Mona, until she developed bronchitis at a conference where no one knew her. She couldn't be her usual splashy, chatty, false self, even on the phone. When she returned home after a virtually praise-free week, her cat, Dandelion, greeted her at the door. Sarah crouched down, arms open, hoping for a hero's welcome. Dandelion simply sat and looked at her, like a cat.
"But instead of trying to pull her in," Sarah told me later, "my heart sort of...went over to her. I felt something between us. She didn't need me at all, but she accepted me absolutely." This was Sarah's first conscious experience of actual love—not the unctuous, machinating, toe-fondling liaisons of the ego but simple awareness of connection to another being. Sarah sat down on the floor beside Dandelion and wept with relief.
Step #4: Practice love—and practice, and practice.... Recovery wasn't easy for Sarah. For many months, she'd slip into praise-seeking when she felt pressured or nervous. Genuine love felt tenuous, unfamiliar. But as she focused on it, she felt herself healing like a broken bone that had finally been properly set. She spent more and more time with Dandelion, less and less with Mona. Slowly, her praise-based relationships, including her marriage, fizzled and died. She learned to be with people as Dandelion was with her, accepting them without needing them. Her heart often "went over" to create something between people, without anyone saying a word.
I ran into Sarah recently at a party, and she looked more radiant than ever, though quieter and calmer than I remembered her—five years clean, sober, and openhearted, rather than overwhelmingly impressive. Oh, yes, you'd have admired Sarah if you'd met her when I did. But if you meet her now, you'll love her.
Martha Beck is the author of six books; her most recent is Steering by Starlight (Rodale)
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