How to Make Positive Feedback Stick
By Meng-lin (Benny) Hsieh, Counseling Psychologist in Taiwan
You might have heard a saying: "Positive feedback is like Teflon, while negative feedback is like Velcro." This experience is true for many of us, but especially so with people who struggle with anxiety related problems. Sometimes negative feedback can be helpful towards self-improvement and even ward off undesirable behaviors, but if a person can only register criticisms and not compliments as well, you can see how taxing that is for that individual's well-being. What is it about positive feedback that makes it so hard to stick?
The Context of Praise
When a person hears praise, the sincerity of the praise is sometimes called into question. Is the praise specific or vague? Is the positive feedback about something I actually did? Was there a slight pause when the person was thinking of what to say? And perhaps most important of all, why is this person giving me a compliment? Some people might find it unnecessary to question the intent of the praise-giver, but as human beings we are programmed to enjoy autonomy, so when it comes to receiving positive feedback spontaneously, it's natural for folks to want to watch out for ulterior motives or even possible manipulation.
Exactly who is giving the praise matters as well. The relationship between the evaluator and the recipient of the positive feedback matters. A teacher who is well liked and trusted and whose opinions are respected, their praise tends to have more of an impact. How often a person hands out praise sometimes impacts its effectiveness, too. If you have a friend who indiscriminately compliments others, when you receive a compliment from her, it's hard not to think "oh, well, she says that about everybody."
Even though our brains are exceptionally good at processing information, sometimes it tries to take shortcuts in order to save energy or fill in the gaps when there just isn't enough data. When the mind "fills in the blank" in a systematic manner, it's called a cognitive bias. This kind of guesswork can be right some of the time, objectively speaking, but our brain will treat such conclusions as facts if we don't take the time to examine them.
One relevant example is "confirmatory bias". Confirmatory bias means that we tend to register or even actively seek out information that proves our original beliefs to be correct, while dismissing information that disproves our ideas. If we already hold negative beliefs about ourselves, confirmatory bias will cause negative feedback to become more apparent than positive ones. For instance, a person who thinks of themselves as incompetent at their job would sometimes ruminate about all of the times that they have failed in the past, while in reality there may be some aspects about their experience that are neutral or maybe even positive, but are just overlooked during the rumination. Confirmatory bias also pushes the individual to discount positive feedback, because it doesn't match with their ideas about themselves. Praising someone when they're not ready to hear them may actually make them feel worse, because they might attribute such feedback to pity.
It's easy to assume that positive feedback feels good to hear. But in some cultures compliments or approval are rarely verbally given. In Taiwan, where I grew up, people are expected to dismiss compliments or risk being perceived as arrogant. In my and similar cultures, people learn to feel self-conscious when being evaluated, whether the evaluation is positive, neutral, or negative. When I went to graduate school in the U.S., I remember blushing beet-red the first time someone told me "you're not from here? Wow but you sound American. You speak English well." Even though that person was trying to give me a compliment, I felt pretty uncomfortable. I kept trying to remind myself that taking a compliment and being humble doesn't always have to be mutually exclusive. When it comes to giving and receiving positive feedback in my work, I try to remind myself that not all people experience compliments in the same way, and it takes time to really get to know the other person's background and experiences to know what kind of feedback they are more likely to register as genuine while at the same time minimizing feelings of self-consciousness.
3 Ways that Can Help You Accept Positive Feedback
Human beings are multi-faceted. More likely than not, we each possess negative and positive qualities about ourselves. If you find it difficult taking in positive feedback from others, here are three ways that can help.
Make a List
This one is straightforward. Jot down all the positive feedback you receive throughout your day, and read through the list at a different time. Sometimes all it takes is some time for compliments to really sink in. If positive feedback doesn't stick as easily, we can help them out by paying them more attention. This way if we catch ourselves heading down a negative spiral of self-criticism, we can take out the list and remind ourselves, "yes, I didn't do so well on this particular project, but I did get compliments about…, and here's some actual proof."
Imagine a Good Friend Making the Compliment
Sometimes it feels weird telling yourself to take note of your own positive qualities. In these instances, imagine instead of you, it's a trusted close friend giving you positive feedback. You may even remember them actually complimenting you once or twice during the process.
Cultivating gratitude can help improve your mood. There is research demonstrating how just by keeping track of things that happen throughout the day that you are thankful for can result in an overall higher level of life satisfaction, and may even lead to better relationships. One simple way to keep track of things you feel grateful for is gratitude journaling. Take 5 minutes out of your week to answer this prompt: "What am I thankful for this week?" It could be appreciation for people showing their care and affection towards you. It could even be gratitude for having a sunny afternoon after a string of rainy days. Whatever it is that you feel thankful for, write it down, either as a list or in a paragraph. People who practice cultivating gratitude are better able to access positive core beliefs about themselves and those around them. In the long run, having such core beliefs activated will help you register positive feedback from others more easily.
You might feel like it's difficult to let go of the standards you hold for yourself at first. For some people, it can be particularly hard to cut themselves some slack. Some may fear that they will achieve less if they give up their self criticisms. Others are afraid that their true selves will result in disappointment or even rejection. The thing is, when negative self talk is getting in the way of your goals by making you paralyzed with self-loathing or fear of messing things up in the end, then perhaps by taking a step back and acknowledging that both your strengths and weaknesses make up who you are, you will be better able to accept your limitations with grace.
In the animated film Wreck-It Ralph, the villains of arcade games start their support group by saying: "I'm bad, and that's good. I will never be good, and that's not bad. There's no one I'd rather be, than me." Like many things in life, it's not about one or the other (focusing only on positive versus negative qualities), but finding a healthy balance that best works for you and those you care about. And self-compassion allows us to have that space and freedom.
Greenberger, D., & Padesky, C. A. (2016). Mind over mood: Change how you feel by changing the way you think (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
Henderlong, J. & Lepper, M. R. (2002). The effects of praise on children's intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. , 128(5), 774-795.
Henderlong, J. & Lepper, M. R. (2002). The effects of praise on children's intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 128(5), 774-795.
O'Connell, B. H., O'Shea, D. & Gallagher, S. (2018). Examining psychosocial pathways underlying gratitude interventions: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Happiness Studies, 19, 2421-2444.
Photo by Anna Shvets: https://www.pexels.com/photo/photo-of-people-reaching-each-other-s-hands-4672717/