Nothing grows without delight. Green-thumbed gardeners know this, and so do child-friendly parents. Showing delight in someone’s growth gives the person fuel to keep trying. Good bosses do it, the best spouses do it, and we should do it, too. Enthusiasm for our progress is the most powerful motivator we have.
Praise from others can be as big as a whoop of joy, or it can be as subtle as a softening of the eyes. But whatever form it takes, the person being praised feels proud she did it right. In childhood, praise guides the way, like a light along the path. There is no mystery to it; we just follow the smiles. Later on we learn to give ourselves that good feeling by feeling proud of ourselves. Pride is the natural feeling of delight in growth.
But all too often, healthy pride gets confused with narcissism. If we are proud of ourselves, some of us fear we will be disliked or taken down a notch. As a result, some people superstitiously deny themselves pleasure in their accomplishments in order to ward off a comeuppance. Pride has even been labeled a sin, and acting conceited is a definite no-no.
Another practice that has given healthy pride a bad name is effusive praise for the smallest childhood success, from earning tokens in the classroom to the trophy glut at Little League. Many self-respecting adults are turned off by this over-praise, sensing that the children are being done no favor. In fact, research has shown that many children over-praised for success end up becoming more cautious and less motivated than the kids who were praised only for their amount of effort, successful or not.
However, if you as an adult are trying to make positive changes in your life, then you must notice and take time to feel good about even your smallest successes. To do so is just as important as figuring out what you wanted to change in the first place. We have to teach our brains that it is good to grow, and we do this by allowing ourselves to take pleasure in our changes. The pleasure we feel tells the brain to keep laying down these new tracks of changed behavior.
Unfortunately, we often discount our success moments, not pausing to enjoy or analyze our success. Yet without focusing on what we did, it makes it nearly impossible to repeat it. There are plenty of times when we spontaneously experience a positive shift or do something differently with good results. We might feel a lifting of depression or an absence of anxiety. We might interrupt a self-critical thought or speak up for ourselves. But instead of noticing and celebrating our positive changes, we might tell ourselves not to get a swelled head. Even worse, we may tell ourselves that because we feel so good, we are sure to have something bad happen soon, just to even things out. The brain then learns to stop construction on that new outlook or improved self-concept because it is causing anxiety, not pleasure.
We downplay our best moments when we should be enjoying and learning from them. Instead of dashing past our best moments when things are changing for the better, we ought to be asking ourselves how we did it. If we don’t analyze and take pride in what we did right, we will not know how to get there again nor will we have the enthusiasm to keep trying. We would be like those artist elephants in the zoo who wave paintbrushes over paper, creating beauty that they have no way to ever replicate. We like it, but we don’t know how we did it. Analyzing why we feel better makes it more than a happy accident; it makes it a conscious skill we can hone further.
Deliberately pausing to feel delight over our changed behavior encourages more growth. But many people find it hard to feel proud of themselves for very long. They squirm and resist, minimizing the fact that their changes had a huge impact for the better on their emotional state. Many times people do not think it is possible to really change, and they ignore the evidence of it as soon as they do it. Phobic about praising themselves, they undo their delight and accomplishment, insisting they are the same old people. What a way to guarantee they will stay the same old people.
If you want to keep having good feelings and a better life, learn to analyze what you are doing right and make a point to feel good about each improvement. You are not being prideful or vain. You are simply learning to feel proud of yourself for well-earned success. That warm glow in your chest and that broadened sense of possibility are the natural, organic results of feeling what you are supposed to feel when you are getting it right. If you make a point to stop a moment and enjoy it, you can fan that spark into a sustaining fire of motivation. If you close it down too quickly out of false modesty, you extinguish not just the good feeling of the moment, but your energy for the future.
Take every chance you can to feel good about feeling good. Build up your tolerance for enjoying the feeling of pride; it is what successful people have always done to keep their motivation strong. You won’t be an egoist; you will be an enthusiast. Then you can pass it along to others.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.