joining in with | praise-and-shame


With fantasy comes praise and/or shame. Which are the flip-sides of the same thing. Either way, someone else is conferring their judgment as to how much you align, or don’t align, with a particular fantasy. Actually, it looks like that’s all one can do with fantasies: judge them from afar. We could never ever be with, intimately within or near, our fantasies because structurally the fantasy is elsewhere. Thus, when we fantasise we are in the position of judging the resemblance on our current circumstances/identity with an imagined goal.

I got the praise side of life throughout my primary and high school years. I saw the shame game played out, but I rarely got the brunt of it myself (occasionally I did, and how I remember it now I was in various situations of not feeling motivated to do various school tasks, and hoping that the teachers or my parents, themselves teachers, might actually ask me about my feelings and motivations – ie, “why aren’t you motivated, Luke?” especially I suppose given I usually was… I’m not sure I would have known the answer at all, but I wanted someone to care about my feeling in all this, not just encourage/coax/coerce me to complete the task, as is. Thus, shamed into doing it.) But it only took two and a half years for the entire dozen years of my schooling to collapse in a heap. Story is that I got high marks in my first year of composition training at university (essentially, I was copying/apprenticing my composition teacher, which helped me learn some treatments of musical form that I find very valuable even now), and then in my second year everything ground to a halt, and I only just managed to hand in a portfolio of half-written compositions… many late nights and mornings walking and loping about Mitchelton where I was living at the time, stressed, trying to come up with ideas. In third year it became obvious things weren’t getting any better and realising I was experiencing a creative block of at least 1.5 if not 2 years by then, I deferred uni by middle of third year. A great friend of the time, and house mate, helped me see I was stuck on the ideas formation phase of the creative process – and I then quickly realized it was because my goal was: “write music that will be impressive, to my teachers, my peers, my self, anyone really.” (a version of the ‘have-people-think-I’m-amazing’ fantasy). And thus I could never move on from coming up with ideas and drafts, because it is impossible to actually work out what idea is most impressive to most people. A total fantasy. I could only then move out of this block by coming up with a different creative criterion, that had nothing to do with impressing people and thus nothing to do with the opinions of other people (ie, my imaginings of their possible future opinions of me). Back then, it was: compose the simplest possible piece of music (which I suppose actually meant to me: taking one thing I liked and turning that into a form). Not an impressive piece, not a good piece, but a simple piece. And then I started to create music that I really liked to hear, and liked to create… so it got my into a dream space: I began to actually play with actual instruments (like a cello and four track recorder lying about my house left over from a loan by someone to my friend who by then had moved himself). Getting into playing with what was available to me here and now. So praise is just as bad as shame. 

If we refuse to praise or shame, then what? 

Ignoring and indifference is not it (although often adults should just shut up). But what about joining in. And this could mean joining in quite overtly – okay, I can see you are into this or that, well that seems to connect to my interests in this other stuff, so would you like me to join in here with you… or, I’m observing this or that so how can I add to this (if a child roars, roar back! Or play the scared mouse! Or pretend that the roar deafened you ears! Etc). And joining in could just mean a joyous but respectfully silent observation (you like staring at the sunset and warming in it’s strange expanse? Well humans are like sunsets too!). Joining in could also mean offering my thoughts and opinions, and interests which might even be contra or in defense of a position that someone else is taking over (if the roar is too load, I can tell my boys that it’s hurting my ears! But there’s no shame in this, or praise for being quieter… I’m just marking out a threshold of material existence. Actually sometimes I like the idea of marking out the choice that becomes theirs, if they continued at or beyond the threshold… “if you wanted to hurt my ears, then shouting in them would be a good way to do it…” and maybe then if they haven’t got the humorous implication, I’ll add: “and btw I don’t want to have sore ears!”). Of course, not joining in becomes an option too. But then it’s a matter of the intensity of dreaming together (joining in, not joining in) rather than the ranking of the appropriateness to one’s fantasy (praising an apparent alignment, shaming an apparent misalignment). 


So praise is just as bad a shame. 

That’s something that the non-violent communication (NVC) mob think as well (also called ‘compassionate communication’ in Australia). Both praise and shame are violent. Both are forms of coercion.

Compliments and praise, for their part, are tragic expressions of fulfilled needs. 

Whether I praise or criticize someone's action, I imply that I am their judge, that I'm engaged in rating them or what they have done. 
Praise and reward create a system of extrinsic motivations for behavior. Children (and adults) end up taking action in order to receive the praise or rewards. 

Praising and compliments as damaging judgments 

In Nonviolent Communication we suggest not giving compliments or praise. In my view, telling somebody they did a good job, that they are a kind or competent person... that’s still using moralistic judgments. 

We suggest that positive judgments are equally as dehumanizing to people as negative judgments. We also suggest how destructive is to give positive feedback as a reward.

If you look at the research you will see that, yes, most children and employees work harder when they’re praised and complimented... but only for a very short time. It last until they sense the manipulation, that this is not gratitude from the heart. And when people sense the manipulation, the production no longer stays high. 

Expressing gratitude in NVC 

How we express gratitude in Nonviolent Communication? First, the intent is all-important: to celebrate life, nothing else. We’re not trying to reward the other person. We want the other person to know how our life has been enriched by what they did. That’s our only intent. 

To make clear how our life has been enriched, we need to say three things to people, and praise and compliments don’t make these three things clear: 

1. What the person did that we want to celebrate, what action of their part enriched our lives. 
2. How we feel about that. What feelings are alive in us as a result of what they’ve done. 
3. What needs of ours were met by their actions.

Marshall Rosenberg, Non-violent Communication


Praise and shame. They are the stock of contemporary education and management. Consider the foreword by Erich Fromm introducing Alexander Neill’s manifesto on alternative schooling (he started the democratic school Summerhill in the 1920s in Germany before it soon moved to the UK). 

The overt authority of the 18th and 19th centuries are contrasted with the anonymous authority of the 20th century, where coercion has replaced the whip:

While the teacher of the past said to Johnny, "You must do this. If you don’t, I’ll punish you"; today’s teacher says, "I’m sure you’ll like to do this." Here, the sanction for disobedience is not corporal punishment, but the suffering face of the parent, or what is worse, conveying the feeling of not being "adjusted," of not acting as the crowd acts. Overt authority used physical force; anonymous authority employs psychic manipulation.

Erich Fromm, foreword to Alexander Neill's Summerhill: A radical approach to child-rearing (1960)