Seeking love and supportive feedback in all the wrong places
The young woman’s eyes filled with tears. “Neither of my parents really cares about what I do or think. I’m not even sure they love me. Maybe they didn’t even want me. It hurts me in my stomach to think about it.”
The conversation above is nearly true. (I changed a few details to protect my friend’s privacy.)
Not feeling cared for or recognized in the way we expect can hurt for sure. I know. For a good part of my childhood and young adulthood, I was convinced my parents didn’t love me.
The proof for me was that they never gave me a birthday present. I was born on Christmas Day. Every Christmas morning, my sisters and I would awaken and rush into the living room to see what presents Santa and our parents had given us. Everything we wanted and more were always there — except for one thing: a birthday present for me.
On my ninth birthday, the only birthday card I received was from an older woman down the street. That was proof enough for me — no one really cared about me. Never mind all the Christmas presents, the clothes that I received throughout the year, all the driving to take me places. In my mind, they did those things out of obligation. If I didn’t get a birthday present, that must mean they didn’t love me.
Fast forward a couple of decades. I became friends with Jo Bowens Lewis, who was then studying to become a transactional analysis therapist. She explained to me how people with different “love currencies” can fail to recognize love offerings from one another. If you are in a French restaurant and try to pay in Brazilian currency (reais), chances are the restaurant won’t accept it because reais are not seen as money. So you keep offering something valuable to you and they think you are offering them junk.
Love, praise, and recognition work that way. One person offers help and another offers gifts. Still another offers hugs and lots of “love you’s,” and a fourth offers it by working quietly behind the scenes. I was expecting my parents to demonstrate love at Christmas through a birthday gift. They were offering it through Christmas gifts.
Supportive feedback in the Workplace
Fast forward another couple of decades and I’m talking to an up-and-coming star in his organization whom I’ll call Don about Eliza, his new manager. “She never recognizes me,” he explains. “I just completed a major project — I pulled a miracle in finishing it on time and in budget considering all the headaches we had with the subcontractors. All she did was sit me down and explain the next project she was assigning me. Not a word of thanks or praise or anything.”
“Did she know how challenging an assignment it was?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, she knew. When she gave it to me, she told me that she didn’t know if I would be able to pull it off. I was insulted even then because of the way she gave it to me.”
Was Don seeking supportive feedback in the same currency as Eliza was accustomed to giving? Possibly not. I suggested that he test his assumptions about her by asking, “What if?” (Reframing Change, Chapter 2). “What if Eliza thought by assigning you a new more challenging project, she was giving you the highest praise possible?” His eyes grew wide with surprise at that.
“Oh, no, really?” he said, clearly bemused by the very thought. “How would I find out?”
“How would you?”
The logjam was broken and he was now considering the possibility that the praise currency he was seeking was different from the one she might be using.
“What is the praise currency that is used most frequently in your organization?” I asked.
He paused to reflect on this. “Sometimes before or after a meeting, someone will start talking about how he had accomplished this or that. And then others will chime in with their successes.”
“Do you ever join in?” I asked.
“Of course, not,” he responded instantly. “It reminds me of little boys standing by a building trying to see who can pee the furthest. I never wanted to join the game.”
I stayed silent, knowing he would figure this one out without any prompting.
“Okay,” he finally said. “If this is the praise currency that they use, I suppose I should also.”
“Either that,” I responded, “Or decide you will go on a campaign to get them to recognize and use your currency.”
“In other words,” he teased, “I shouldn’t wait 20 years for someone to finally give me a birthday card?”
“You got it.”
After I finally told my mother that I had missed getting a birthday gift during my childhood, she responded that if she had known it was that important to me, she would have wrapped any one or two or three of those Christmas presents with a big bow and given them to me as a birthday present. She hadn’t done it because I never told her.
What to do if we’re not getting the recognition we are seeking?
When we are looking for recognition or attaboys and not getting it, we do have options. The major option is to not just accept that this is the way it has to be, especially if there is the possibility that others don’t know we are missing it. Here’s what we can do:
- Ask yourself “what if” there is a love-praise currency mismatch. What is the norm in that organization or culture for demonstrating caring and appreciation?
- Ask a trusted friend or colleague for assistance in figuring out how to handle the situation. My older sister had no trouble being vocal in her wishes as we were growing up. Had I checked it out with her, I would have learned how to ask for what I wanted.
- Consider giving it to yourself. If the work culture allows it, tell others about your accomplishments and beam as you tell them. Praise someone else’s accomplishments and then tell about your own. Many work cultures expect people to promote themselves. People who don’t may get bypassed.
There may be other ways as well.
- How have you handled situations in which you haven’t received the praise or acknowledgments you were seeking?
- What do you recommend someone do?
1. See Reframing Change, Chapter 2, for how to test assumptions
2. Gene Chapman’s Five Love Languages proposes a concept similar to “Love Currencies”.
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