When Acknowledgment Backfires

Owning our Brilliance
How come that is so much harder than owning our Challenges?

© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
from the Black & White Thinking category
part of The Challenges Inventory™ Series

Performance Pressure

Most of us can’t get ENOUGH positive feedback, even if we deflect it for one reason or another – as most of us tend to do.

WHY would anybody toss aside positive comments, you ask?

Check inside.  Why do YOU?

The causes of deflection are varied and individual-specific, but there are a few categories in which they tend to cluster.

For example, because:

  • We aren’t developmentally ready to let our awareness of our own expertise, learned or innate, really sink in
  • We’ve internalized the cultural meme that there is something intrinsically wrong with “owning” our brilliance.  Admitting that we are aware of what we do well is frequently considered conceited, ego-based, or heaven forbid narcissistic! (Odd, isn’t it, that owning our Challenges is laudable?)
  • We’ve learned that people who compliment frequently have an agenda beyond encouraging us to bask in the glow of accomplishment — and we’ve equated “compliment” and “acknowledgment” (NOT the same things at all).
  • We’ve learned in the past that acknowledgments are some kind code — a sneaky way that others let us know that somebody’s trying to raise our bar — usually them.

Acknowledgment Avoidance

As I explored with you over two years ago in Doling out the Cookies (one of the reward and acknowledgement articles in the TaskMaster™ Series):

Besides the feeling that there is something wrong with endorsement, our knee-jerk responses often point to a paradigm leading us to embrace the idea that unless we are perfect, we might as well be worthless, undeserving of acknowledgement: a perfect example of black and white stinkin’ thinkin‘.

The underlying concept that keeps that particular example of black and white thinking in place is the idea that things of value are pure examples of absolute consistency. That’s insane!

Be sure to check out the sidebar for how links work on this site,
they’re subtle (scroll UP) ==>

“Compliment Reticence”

I’ve been aware of our skittishness with compliments for decades. I’ve watched it play out from both sides of the lens: noticing the reluctance to give them out as well as a reluctance to let them in.

But once in a while I am reminded anew that sincere acknowledgment sometimes backfires as well.  This seems especially true in the neuro-diversity community — for a great many reasons that seem to be encapsulated in one of my favorite quotes from someone from the ADD community.

I believe he meant it in jest, but I have heard the underlying truth of his words come back at me in many different ways — both in my own knee-jerk reactions to certain acknowledgments and those of more than a few of my clients over the years:

“You do something right ONCE
and they hold it against you for the rest of your life.”

~ Mel Levine


When somebody gives us, metaphorically, a bad grade, we can usually limp by on the hope that we will do better next time.

We don’t even have to LIMP if
we really didn’t try very hard, or
didn’t give ourselves enough time to do a very good job.

But what happens when people acknowledge us – giving us what we might consider a good grade?

Most of us are slightly aware of a subtle continued performance expectation that, at times, rides along with acknowledgment.

Whether intended or not, an acknowledgment often feels like pressure to *continue* to perform at a level we fear we will be unable (or unwilling) to maintain. (see last year’s Expectations set by Appearance for more on this concept)

Often that “good for you” feels more like a demand than a true acknowledgement: “See, you can do it when you really try.  So just try harder!”

Those of us who tend toward black and white thinking tend to experience “continued performance” pressure more frequently.  Do you think there might be a link between the two?

An unusual reaction

Not long ago, I left a strongly positive “Good for YOU!” comment after the very first brave attempt of a brand new young blogger.  I know how eager I was for MY first comment when I first started blogging, and I wanted to help create a positive experience that might encourage future attempts.

The result?  Her mother reported that this particular youngster shut down completely after ONE post — didn’t seem to want to do it again at all.

Totally anti-activation.

I do realize that I’m not 100% responsible for whatever happens after I leave a comment on a blog, but in this case I had a strong suspicion that the internalized implication of “continued performance” pressure was at least part of the overwhelm that resulted in the shut-down — even though those of you who read my articles KNOW I didn’t mean to imply she was expected to do anything at all.

Those of you with ADD/EFD kids and teens might want to keep that in mind when your encouraging comments seem to backfire.

Entrenched in the Past

I also had the experience where one of my attempts to acknowledge simply couldn’t get through the negative filters of one of my friends. Every attempt to explain what I was trying to say using different words seemed only to further trigger her black and white thinking around the topic.  She became more and more defensive.

I wish I could say that I handled it better, but I finally raised my voice and fired off one last salvo before letting the entire matter drop, “I’m trying to ACKNOWLEDGE you, for heaven’s sake — would you just let it IN?”

Mind you, most of my friends are fairly self-actuated souls and this woman in particular has done a great deal of introspection throughout her life. 

It made me wonder how many times that I have responded negatively to something said to me that was intended as an acknowledgment.

Like I said in an earlier article, The Virtues of Lowering your Standards, That’s the tricky thing about Black and White Thinking: few of us believe that WE do it unless it is pointed out to us, example by example. Until [we] become aware of an unproductive habit, it’s impossible to do much of anything about it, and the beat goes on.

What does all this have to do with ACTIVATION?

Ah, Grasshopper, think about it.

When we remain unaware of our unconscious expectations, we have a tendency to avoid tasks where, because we have received it in the past, we expect negative feedback.

So the next time you find yourself “procrastinating” – unable to MAKE yourself get started – take a moment to ask yourself what you expect to happen once the task is completed.  If your imagination begins to turn against you, rewrite the script.

Just because it always HAS doesn’t mean it always MUST!

© 2014, 2017 all rights reserved
Check bottom of Home/New to find out the “sharing rules”
(reblogs always okay, and much appreciated)

Shared on the Senior Salon

As always, if you want notification of new articles in this Series – or any new posts on this blog – give your email address to the nice form on the top of the skinny column to the right. (You only have to do this once, so if you’ve already asked for notification about a prior series, you’re covered for this one too). STRICT No Spam Policy

IN ANY CASE, do stay tuned.
There’s a lot to know, a lot here already, and a lot more to come – in this Series and in others.
Get it here while it’s still free for the taking.

Want to work directly with me? If you’d like some coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading this Series (one-on-one couples or group), click HERE for Brain-based Coaching with mgh, with a contact form at its end (or click the E-me link on the menubar at the top of every page). Fill out the form, submit, and an email SOS is on its way to me; we’ll schedule a call to talk about what you need. I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!)

You might also be interested in some of the following articles
available right now – on this site and elsewhere.

For links in context: run your cursor over the article above and the dark grey links will turn dark red;
(subtle, so they don’t pull focus while you read, but you can find them to click when you’re ready for them)
— and check out the links to other Related Content in each of the articles themselves —

COACHING LINKS at end of all posts

Related articles here on ADDandSoMuchMore.com

Other supports for this article – on ADDandSoMuchMore.com

Related Articles ’round the net

BY THE WAY: Since ADDandSoMuchMore.com is an Evergreen site, I revisit all my content periodically to update links — when you link back, like, follow or comment, you STAY on the page. When you do not, you run a high risk of getting replaced by a site with a more generous come-from.

About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

8 Responses to When Acknowledgment Backfires

  1. Pingback: HELP needed and offered #Flash4Storms | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. lifelessons says:

    I can’t imagine that the reason for that young blogger’s shutting down his/her blog was because of your praise and if it was, it reveals problems much deeper than a simple blog. Perhaps a deep-seated need to be a rebel and it was humiliating to have a mainstream adult acknowledge and laud his/her efforts? At any rate, as you know, you have nothing to feel guilty for.

    I once wildly praised a blogger, followed him and gave him a link to an article I’d written that addressed the same issue he had addressed in his blog. He wrote back, incensed that I had put a link to my blog in his comments and accusing me of just commenting to build my own readership. He said he was ceasing to follow my blog and that I should do the same for his.

    As shaken as I was by this vitriolic response to my gesture of approval and wish to communicate on the matter he had raised, I actually have rarely done a link since, except to a few blogging friends who request them. I guess as much as we become accustomed to a friendly world of blogging, we never really can be sure what response our comments might arouse.
    mgh added white space (double returns between paragraphs) to help with readability for those who struggle with longer strings of text; words unchanged

    Liked by 1 person

    • Drats – my first response disappeared into the ether! 2nd attempt.
      Thanks for reading and ringing in. That young blogger did, in fact, have a rare and difficult mental health disorder with a high oppositional piece to it. I felt bad when my attempt to encourage her seemed to have the opposite effect.

      As for that rude blogger you encountered – rage disorder, perhaps? Many folks discourage links in comments, however (or won’t approve them) because of the proliferation of linkspam, so maybe it was the timing. I rarely leave links either after a similar (but less disturbing) experience – unless the blogger has requested help in their article.

      I TRULY don’t have time to repeat info that I’ve already published simply to avoid leaving a link. If they can’t appreciate my [time consuming and NOT income generating] attempts to help, I avoid their blog ever after.

      Since my blog attracts SO much linkspam (millions, according to the spam counter on my sidebar), I have had to set my spam filters to trash comments with more than one link and now must approve all comers (and never approve obvious marketing links – and I check first).

      But I welcome links to positive-minded relevant content – several, even, as long as each is left in its own comment. It saves me time, since I must search the web for my Related Content links otherwise.


      • lifelessons says:

        I know. I feel the same way. People frequently mention something they’ve written without giving links and it would be so much easier just to be able to click on a link rather than Googling or searching on their blogs. I think you have to look at the sender, their blog and their intent, if it is not a case such as yours where you have such a large spam flood that you have to take specific precautions. The irony was that I had many more followers than this man and he was much more likely to draw followers from me than me from him…but. Yes. I let it go.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Black and White Make-wrong | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  4. wendy says:

    Oh boy I needed to read this. I did a really good piece recently. http://picnicwithants.com/2014/10/16/bad2014-blog-action-day-2014-inequality-in-mental-health/
    I got a lot of attention from it, and have been asked to write a guest post for another blog.
    I was excited at first.
    But now, I’m so stuck.
    I feel like I’m not good enough to do this.
    I’m writing too much.
    I don’t sound professional enough.
    I’m going to sound preachy.
    I don’t think I’m a very good writer. (I really do have a hard time when people tell me I’m a good writer…..when you have offered to have me do a guest post on your blog, I have just frozen. What would I write about…how could I? I’m not a “real” writer.)

    The only reason I wanted to do this post is because it is for a Bipolar blog and I have been reading a few of my bipolar peeps blogs and thinking…there are things you need to understand about getting and staying stable. People often think…Oh I have meds now that’s all I need to do. they post about going out and drinking and such….and hanging out with the same people who were used to them as they were with their old crazy emotional swings, and they don’t explain to these friends that they aren’t the same, they need their support or they can’t stay in those relationships. It’s hard but it is necessary.
    How do I say that without sounding preachy.

    Well I’m working on it.
    I’m going to say how I learned I had to do it.
    but I don’t want this to be a LONG post.
    Bipolar people have short attention spans…they need short post…preferably with bullet points. lol.
    So I’m working on it…or I was…then I got stuck and I haven’t touched it for 3 days.
    procrastination. YES!

    I’m the same way with my art. I get a lot of compliments or acknowledgment and suddenly I feel like I can’t do anything as good again.
    What if my next piece isn’t as good?

    yet I feel I live for praise. I need to hear i’m good at it. It’s a double edged sword.

    Yeah, I need to get over that. haha

    good thoughts. thanks.
    I’ll get back to work on my article.


    • naaah! You don’t need to “get over it” – you need to reframe it.

      Internet “publication” is neither High School English or text book formal, remember. It’s more like talking. Share from who you are.

      Most people will be grateful you jump-started their own thinking, a few folks will be amazed, and a few will be filled with judgment. (true no matter who you are and what or where you write).

      NOBODY has your own personal challenges, Wendy – even though they all have their own. Sharing in a written format (vs. “writing”) is “simply” your gift to the world (and you KNOW how generous you are!)

      Make it be about them, not you, and you’ll be GREAT!


And what do YOU think? I'm interested.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: