Ever think of praise as a bad thing? It can be…

So I think a big ‘Thank You’ is in order to everyone who commented on my last blog. Your comments were all really supportive and helpful to me.

In the last posting I was really upset about my flatmate announcing that he wanted to find another place to live next year. He’s a really good friend and I’m sad to know that we won’t be living together next year.

But I have to say your comments were all really helpful in helping me realise that he is looking for a place that is more to his standard and comfort level – and not about me being an overly obsessive, particular person (which I suppose I worry that I might be). I know that I can be very self-centred in my thinking and can forget easily that the problem isn’t something just about me. I mean, in this case it’s just that our idea of tidy is different. I suppose that in the past I’ve had a habit of making things out to be about some quality that I don’t possess or how I should change as a person. It’s definitely the perfectionist in me saying that I should be the perfect person to everyone. When I’m not I feel like I’ve let people down. Of course that isn’t true (even I know that) but it is still something I seem to strive for.

In thinking about this, I can see how, over the years, I’ve always had to present myself as the ‘perfect’ child – the one with perfect grades and perfect relationships. I was told (not encouraged) to get A’s from a young age by my parents. When I did I got rewarded with praise, not only from my parents but by everybody else (teachers, other family, and friends). Praise of that sort has become a sort of drug for me. After a few years I no longer needed my parents to tell me to get an ‘A’, instead I did everything I could to earn it because I lived for the praise. In fact, I can recount several moments where I tried hard to get a prize just for the attention and the praise.

I was praised for getting into my first degree. I was praised even more when I got honour roll for my high grades throughout that degree. I received even more praise when I was accepted to do a post-graduate degree. I then became class president. Imagine what happened when I won 3 prestigious national scholarships when none of my classmates did? Yup, I was praised by the dean of the department, my parents, and classmates. Then I got into medical school. Praised. Consistent honour roll student every year since then with several assessments graded ‘distinction’ – Praised.

So what the hell am I complaining about here? I don’t expect to garner sympathy for achieving good grades – but I hope you’ll see that I’m getting at: I was never given the option to fail and that I aim to achieve almost just for the praise. No one has ever told me, “Hey, Aron, it’s cool if you fail a course” or  “Aron, don’t sweat it – just do the best you can”. But my parents have always held me to such a high standard and I think that if I failed at something they would think less of me. My father has told me, on a few occasions, that he sees me as the more ‘likely to succeed son’. Once he said it in front of my older brother – not in a mean way, but in a very matter of fact way. Imagine the pressure that can make one feel?

So that I’m losing a flatmate was a bit of a shock because in my own mind I’m good at everything. I still can’t bring myself to tell my parents that I have to find two flatmates instead of one for next year. I suppose I’m thinking of their comments and how they’ll view me. To be honest, I can deal with the fact that he’s leaving, but I suppose, now that I write about it more, that it’s truly how they’ll react that’s bothering me.

My partner was the first person who noticed that I’m addicted to praise. He saw that I would call my parents and tell them all about my successes during any given phone call. He said it was annoying to listen to. He just said, “Aron, keep it to yourself”. But he didn’t realise that my parents really liked hearing about my successes (they really do – they ask what I’ve accomplished all the time). When I explained this he gave me an earful of ‘the real world’ and explained that this sort of thing wasn’t normal behaviour. So that was helpful to know – being around my partner is really grounding because I think he has lived such a more normal life than I have.

Ok – side point. What do I mean by my boyfriend has had a more normal life than me? Ok, it’s time I gave you all some background on me. So I grew up in a very different world to most people. My mom’s family has been wealthy since as far back as anyone can remember. We have cleaning staff in the house. We have summer homes. We have parties that cost too much money. We also have status. I don’t wait in the line anywhere. I get ‘collected’ at the airport when I go home. My mother and her brothers squabble about art work and where it should be hung. But here’s the deal – that’s my mom’s side of the family. My dad (who married in to this family) worked very hard to create his own business and his own wealth (which he has succeeded at). So one half is old money and the other half is new.

To keep me and my brothers as normal as possible my parents sent us to state-run schools. I went to school in a middle-class neighbourhood where some kids’ parents were factory workers and where others’ parents were doctors. Despite an education in the ‘real world’ I was still pretty sheltered. In fact I was 12 before I learned that not everyone had a cleaning staff. I didn’t clean a toilet for the first time until I was 21.

But the influence I’m used to having and the praise I’ve always received from certain others (specifically friends of the family, business relations of my parents) have been because of our family’s status. I’ve always done my absolute best to maintain my family’s image by doing what is expected of me (which is, in effect, never to fail). So it’s been slightly pressured for me.

And where is this all going? What does this have to do with the beginning of this post (Which, you might recall, is about me being happy for your help with my flatmate problem), well it’s that I feel like a lot of my life is about doing things for my family and that I feel like I always have to be perfect. I feel like I can’t just be ‘run of the mill’. I feel like losing a flatmate just because I’m clean is a black mark on me, which is a reason why this issue is bothering me so much. But what I need to do is just take my boyfriends advice and realise that normal people aren’t obsessed with being perfect. They strive to be the best they can be and accept that sometimes things work out a different way than planned because of this.

Since living in the UK I have to say I’ve learned quite a bit about being normal. I chose to live in shared accommodation since I got here since I never had that chance before. I really wanted to see what living in shared housing was like during university. Living with others has helped me learn more about who I am. I suppose that’s what I’m doing. My partner has seen a change in me, but says that I am probably still hard to live with because my expectations of others are based on the bubble that I came from.* Effectively I like a clean house because my house at home has never been unclean. But then I have to realise that most people are used to a different level of clean than I am.

So, I guess I’ll have to figure out what I’ll do for next year. I will tell my parents what happened. I might just say f*ck it and get my own apartment for next year. Then I can worry less about the potential for flatmate issues and keep the place how I like it. I’ll figure that out soon enough.

So, I’m curious — what are your thoughts about this?  Does anyone else feel pressured to be perfect by their families? If so, has it become ingrained in you as a result that you just push yourself to succeed? Have you difficulty in admitting your faults to others (family, friends) because it unsettles the view others might have of you?


Comments Posted

Comment by Greta posted on Sat, 27/02/2010 18:51

I do feel a little pressured to be perfect by my family. I always had this problem of an older sibling who was always more perfect than me etc… It doesn’t affect me as badly as you though. I’ve long given up on trying to get praise of my parents or anybody else really. Why is it so important? I’ve always been alone and and any achievements were for me alone and nobody else. The biggest problem that came out of this is that I have troubles admitting mistakes or problems to my parents. I couldn’t ever mention that I have debt and actually can’t afford to live the way I do if it weren’t for my boyfriend. It’s just the way it is I guess. Parents have this kind of effect on all children I think. I haven’t met a single person who didn’t feel pressured by their parents in any way.

Comment by Rees posted on Wed, 24/02/2010 04:23

First off, you must be exhausted living your life that way! It’s okay to fail from time to time, and it’s certainly okay to do your best! In fact, it’s okay to not even do your best! Do you realise how rarely people genuinely do put everything they have into something, to strive to achieve, to throw their hats over the wall and give everything they’ve got? It’s really not as common as you might think. Secondly, I think that you’re right to want to share your triumphs with the people closest to you. You’ve obviously put a lot of work into achieving certain goals and it’s fine to feel pride in that. Having said all that, there are a few things that came to mind reading your blog that I’d like to share with you…

There’s this fantastic series of comics called “Sandman” by Neil Gaiman. and one issue, “Fear of Falling,” deals with this guy who’s putting on a play, and he’s obsessing and stressing out and thinking of cancelling the whole thing because in his mind it has to be perfect. He’s also having these dreams where he keeps climbing all the way up these stairs to nowhere, and then falls off the top. He keeps waking up before he hits the ground, but he’s terrified he’s going to die. So the night before the first performance, he’s thinking of cancelling the whole thing after weeks of rehearsals and selling tickets and what have you, and he goes to sleep, and has the usual dream. However, this time Dream comes and visits him, and gives him two pieces of advice.

The first piece of advice is “It is sometimes a mistake to climb, it is always a mistake never even to make the attempt.”

The second piece of advice, the words that change his perspective and give him the courage to put on the play, are “Sometimes, when you fall, you fly.”

On a more personal level, I have definitely felt the pressure from my family to succeed, and I feel I’ve been a disappointment to them even if they say the opposite. When I was eleven my parents had me sit an IQ test and join MENSA. I scored 162, which is supposedly a big deal although I hadn’t done anything to earn it, and there was a lot of pressure for me to do well in exams and go to university, which neither of my parents had.

I only ever failed one exam whilst living with my parents, and I loved it! I was taking my A-Levels, and I knew that even if I failed everything in my second year I had more than enough points through my AS Levels alone to take the course I wanted (I was taking five classes each year). I did very well in all subjects and was in the top three students in the college, but one exam I hadn’t even bothered with. It was the most advanced level of Pure Maths, which was something I had no interest in (I like math, but only when I can see the real-world application) and would never be of any use to me in the real world. I also realised that I had scored so high in the first three tests I sat (between 95 and 97&) that I would only need to score a few percent in each module to score a 50% average and receive a C grade. I then decided to just not give a crap about the last module. and it was exhilarating! I left the exam room early for the only time in my life and scored a U for the module, but a B for my Math A-Level as a whole. And when I left the exam early, the last one I had to sit that year, I went to the record shop and bought a copy of Short Music for Short People, a CD I had been longing for and love to this day! I’m glad I left the exam and went for it.

So I guess I’m saying I definitely know where you’re coming from, and still feel like I’m letting my parents down if I’m not living up to their expectations, and I also feel they expect more from me than my brother. I certainly find it hard going to admit I have a problem to anyone else, family, friends, tutors, counsellors, whomever. Still, my advice to you is to find an area in your life where you can afford to fail and still enjoy yourself in the process (I had a great time in my math class, even if I didn’t retain anything). I get that Med School must be extremely high pressure and you can’t afford to goof off, but is there something you can do just for fun and not feel the need to master? It’s okay to fall from time to time.