You'd never have suspected that Sarah was an addict, unless you'd seen her a few hours after she'd glowingly received an award or ovation, when she was curled up in bed, anxious, needy, already jonesing for a fix.
Sarah was abusing something more powerful, insidious, and accessible than any street drug: the adoration and esteem of others that some psychologists call narcissistic supply. Simply put, she was addicted to praise.
Her entire life revolved around eliciting positive attention from others, and she succeeded magnificently -- but always insufficiently. Being praised launched her briefly into manic giddiness, then dropped her into troughs of depression that made King Lear look like Howdy Doody. You may have some experience with this particular addiction. And your background may have put you at risk.
If your parents linked their acceptance to your achievements, if you were educated in a competitive system, if you ever participated in sports, theater, a job, motherhood -- in short, if you live in this world -- then you've been set up to get hooked on praise.
Now, you may be the unusual individual who's untouched by praise addiction. You may savor compliments without wanting them, enjoy performing well even if no one notices, love working whether or not you're succeeding. If so, you have my deepest respect (and you don't really care).
But if you ever walk in Sarah's fashionable, excruciating shoes -- seeking approval obsessively, riding increasingly painful waves of hollow elation and overwhelming despair -- it's time to sober up.
Appraise the praise: Are you an addict?
Separating malignant narcissistic supply from healthy human interaction is an uncertain business, but if you have the following symptoms, pay attention.
Sign #1: Infinite praise tolerance. Everyone likes praise, up to a point. "The normal person," writes Sam Vaknin, PhD, in his book "Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited", "is likely to welcome a moderate amount of attention -- verbal and nonverbal -- in the form of affirmation, approval, or admiration. Too much attention, though, is perceived as onerous and is avoided."
I feel this way when kindly strangers introduce me as a public speaker; they cite jobs I held 20 years ago, quote complimentary bloggers who've confused me with Martha Stewart, throw out wild ad libs to disguise the fact that no one present has ever heard of me. This evokes in me the weird blend of pleasure, gratitude, and revulsion I'd feel if the emcee publicly fondled my toes.
If you feel this way when someone really pours on the praise, you're probably not a true praise addict. A worst-case user has absolutely no upper limit on praise tolerance; such a person, as Vaknin puts it, "is insatiable.
He directs his whole behavior, in fact his life, to obtaining pleasurable tidbits of attention." I've seen this with many clients like Sarah. They can absorb astonishing amounts of praise, quantities that would make most people deeply suspicious and slightly nauseous.
They often have friends who feed them narcissistic supply when they run out; such relationships are another symptom of praise addiction.
Sign #2: A flattering sidekick. Sarah, for example, had a best friend named Mona who, in exchange for reflected glory, continually reminded Sarah of her every conquest, achievement, and victory.
"You know," Mona would say during one of Sarah's low periods, "with your good looks and the connections from your sorority, you could have gone right from college to Hollywood. You're just too self-sacrificing. When I think what you gave up to be a perfect wife -- you should write a book about it. Really. The world needs to know."
I never actually met Mona, but Sarah repeated her words to me. Often. She wanted me to reaffirm them, but at the same time, I could tell she knew there was something off about Mona's praise-a-thons.
Like all addicts -- including you, if the shoe fits -- Sarah was aware on some level that her obsession wasn't healthy. If you've got a Mona, or a stable of Monas, you've got a problem.
Sign #3: Extreme praise avoidance. Are you breathing a sigh of relief, knowing you've never in your life sought narcissistic supply? Not so fast. Some praise addictions (my own comes to mind) raise their ugly heads by making the addict want to jump off a bridge rather than accept a compliment.
Reacting to praise by feeling paralyzed with shame, like the wallflower caught in the spotlight at the prom, can signal a "dry drunk" praise addiction.
Some dry drunks lust for tributes as insanely as Sarah but fear negative attention so much they obsessively avoid getting attention at all. Others actually get praise by avoiding praise, seeing humility as a virtue, and making damn sure everyone knows how humble they really are.
By now I assume you're hopelessly confused about whether or not you're a praise addict. You can take the "Are You a Praise Addict?" quiz to find out.
In the meantime, if you think you might not be walking the safe Middle Way between excessive approval seeking and total approval rejection, the recovery advice below can help you achieve sobriety.
The path to recovery
This program has only four steps, but think of it this way: If they had 12-step programs for praise addicts, people at the meetings would undoubtedly praise one another for avoiding praise. Madness! I believe the truncated program below is a wiser course of action.
Step #1: Admit that you have a praise problem. The first time Sarah consulted me, I asked her to describe herself in one word. I was shocked when she coolly replied, "Dead." The vibrancy she radiated was part of her accolade-seeking act, fueled by the brief highs she got from her binges.
To change her pattern, Sarah had to admit that praise had never helped her feel whole or content, only giddy. This was the step that allowed her recovery to begin. If you're a praise addict, take it.
Step #2: Don't feed the need. Like food addiction, praise addiction is complex because it's impossible to simply eliminate your drug of choice. Some amount of narcissistic supply is normal and healthy (and people probably won't stop giving compliments).
In order to break a praise addiction, however, it's useful to "fast" for a few days. Ditch your Monas and avoid other chronic praisers until you begin to long for a compliment. Craving is a good thing, because learning to feel the need without acting on it is crucial for recovery.
Most praise addicts who fast go through severe withdrawal pangs, including intense anxiety, inexplicable rage, and terrible weariness. If you ride these out, the emotions will begin to change; if you give in and call your Mona for a hit, the pain will go back to lurking just beneath the surface of your consciousness.
Step #3: Let your hungry soul find its real food. Withdrawal pangs usually increase until the addict reaches a seemingly bottomless abyss of longing. When you get there, you'll recognize it as the state you've been avoiding all along.
In it, you'll feel an unendurable sense of being absolutely alone, forever cut off from the one thing you really need, the thing for which praise is a shoddy substitute. You know the word: love. Of course, if you're a praise addict, you don't know what that word means. It's probably alien to your experience. Fortunately, it is not alien to your nature.
"Your ego has all these wants," said spiritual teacher Ram Dass in a 2000 lecture. "Your soul has only one want. It wants to get to merge with the Lover. Merge with the One." He wasn't just mouthing platitudes; after a lifetime of physical and intellectual vigor, Ram Dass suffered a stroke that left him in a wheelchair and slow of speech.
People continued to attend his lectures not to admire glibness or agility but because Ram Dass actually seemed to know what "merging with the One" felt like. He knew that this mystical-sounding process is simply what the soul -- or true self, if you prefer -- does when we stop interfering.
Sarah repeatedly tried to fast from compulsive, joyless praise-seeking. She always caved and called Mona, until she developed bronchitis at a conference where no one knew her. She couldn't be her usual splashy, chatty, false self, even on the phone.
When she returned home after a virtually praise-free week, her cat, Dandelion, greeted her at the door. Sarah crouched down, arms open, hoping for a hero's welcome. Dandelion simply sat and looked at her, like a cat.
"But instead of trying to pull her in," Sarah told me later, "my heart sort of...went over to her. I felt something between us. She didn't need me at all, but she accepted me absolutely."
This was Sarah's first conscious experience of actual love -- not the unctuous, machinating, toe-fondling liaisons of the ego but simple awareness of connection to another being. Sarah sat down on the floor beside Dandelion and wept with relief.
Step #4: Practice love -- and practice, and practice... Recovery wasn't easy for Sarah. For many months, she'd slip into praise-seeking when she felt pressured or nervous. Genuine love felt tenuous, unfamiliar.
But as she focused on it, she felt herself healing like a broken bone that had finally been properly set. She spent more and more time with Dandelion, less and less with Mona.
Slowly, her praise-based relationships, including her marriage, fizzled and died. She learned to be with people as Dandelion was with her, accepting them without needing them. Her heart often "went over" to create something between people, without anyone saying a word.
I ran into Sarah recently at a party, and she looked more radiant than ever, though quieter and calmer than I remembered her -- five years clean, sober, and openhearted, rather than overwhelmingly impressive. Oh, yes, you'd have admired Sarah if you'd met her when I did. But if you meet her now, you'll love her.