Toxic Praise: What is it, and how harmful can it be?

According to Webster’s Dictionary, praise is defined as “an expression of approval and commendation; “he always appreciated praise for his work” (Webster, ’20). Toxic praise is what I describe to be a compliment that is intended to be positive but instead has the potential to create harm or be internally destructive.

One of the biggest pillars for myself, and the blog especially, is my commitment to be honest, and transparent. Moving forward this meant that I had to look at myself and my own behaviors, and dissect and address which is helpful versus harmful. If you have ever done this yourself I am sure you could confirm that taking your own inventory is the farthest thing from easy. One of the habits that I am trying to unlearn is minimizing aspects of my conditions and their symptoms. Not because I want sympathy, but instead because I want to be honest and create an understanding that will, hopefully, organically lead to empathy and better relationships with my support systems.

Relationships cannot be built on anything less than the truth, right?

Over the years I have been called a variety of adjectives: stubborn, strong, resilient, brave, just to name a few. I don’t know that I would call myself many of those, though stubborn is a label I cannot deny. On their own, each of these is not particularly detrimental. So where is the line between supportive praise and toxic praise? Toxic praise, in my opinion, sets an individual up to fail. In my experience, toxic praise does not recognize an individual’s humanity, while also placing them on a pedestal.

Remember, the higher the pedestal, the farther the potential for them to fall. Below, find examples of toxic praise that I have received most recently.

  • “I don’t know how you do this. How do you handle all of this?” 
  • “You’re so strong, you never give up.” 
  • “You are always so positive.”
  • “Look at you, always smiling and cheerful!” 

Now, as I’ve said these were not intended to be harmful. However, each of them has the potential to be.

“I don’t know how you do this. How do you handle all of this?”
I think this one, in particular, is one of the most harmful. First, I know no other life or way of being, so commending me on simply living my life and handling the difficulties that come with it has the potential to be a back-handed compliment. I have always been someone who believed that humans have a few instincts- first and foremost, the instinct to not only survive but to thrive. I “handle” this by simply getting through the day and doing what I have to do in order for that to happen. Many, if not all, could do that also if that were their only option.

“You’re so strong, you never give up.”
YIKES! If you believe that, you have not seen me in my most vulnerable moments. This is said to be a motivator and an acknowledgment of my supposed strength, but the problem with that is that it leaves no room for my humanity. I choose to keep on going, yes, but sometimes, I get tired. Sometimes, I’m overwhelmed. Other times, frankly, I crumble. Praise statements like the one above can be harmful because it puts a fair amount of pressure on me. It makes me feel as though having a moment of weakness is simply that: weak. It’s not. It’s human.

“You are always so positive.” “Look at you, always smiling and cheerful!”
These examples are the two that I have the most experience with. Honestly, they are also the very statements that make me feel as though I can’t have a moment of humanity. These are the phrases that make me feel like a failure when tears fall from my eyes. Yes, while I TRY to make the best of my circumstances, while I TRY to be positive, to expect someone to be “cheerful and always smiling” simply is not realistic. Frankly, can you imagine how much your cheeks would hurt if you smiled all the time?

I hope that each of us takes a moment to think. Before you give someone praise or a compliment, ask yourself if it can be interpreted in another manner. Support comes in many forms, and while verbal praise is certainly one of them, so is empathy and honesty. Take a moment to ask someone how they are truly doing, and be okay if the answer is anything other than positive; respond accordingly. Approach first with support: what do you need from me at the moment, how can I support you?

Remember, it’s okay not to be okay.