How praise and pressure go hand in hand

Since I was seven, I have received fair amounts of praise for my writing. I was always the kid that reveled in having my poems read out loud in class, won prizes for short stories, and was showered with compliments from my grandparents who proudly displayed my work on their mantels. When I think of my childhood hobbies, I picture my younger self sitting at my dad’s desktop computer and cheerily typing away for hours, creating entire worlds and developed characters in my brain and coming up with pages and pages of content that I would later print out and force other people to read. At the time, writing was just something I absolutely loved to do. The acclaim that came with it as my parents/teachers/friends raised their eyebrows with delight and told me I was a great writer was just a nice bonus rather than an incentive to keep creating.

For most of my life, this was how it worked. I felt as though I was lucky enough to have found my true calling so early, and began donning the persona of “The Writer” among my friends, who rolled their eyes while I got over-excited when we got new writing assignments in class. When I was eleven, I had to take exams to get into a new school and found that because there was a creative writing section on the test, I was actually enjoying myself during the hour-long struggle. My joy was not based on the fact that I thought the examiners would like my work as much as I did; I was more enthralled by the process, the pen on paper. Any praise from my teachers just spurred me to go on.

As I’ve grown older, writing is no longer something that I can look at in the same way I once did. What was once a pastime is now the answer to the daunting question “what do you want to do with your life after high school?” in the same way that the innocent and imaginative stories I once paraded around without proofreading have turned into carefully cultivated essays that make me nervous to turn in. The added bonus of praise is no longer simply a bonus, it is something I have come to expect as an indication of quality, and something I now rely on. When the praise does not come, I am left aimless and confused, worried that perhaps any talent has finally run out or, even worse, my lack of talent has been exposed. The pressure to impress others is one deeply seeded in my mind and makes me afraid to produce something that is not up to their standards, rather than focusing on my own.

For exactly this reason, this article took me way too long to write. My innate worry of publishing something that others might think was not my best work made me scared to write when I was uninspired. This led me to think: why was I so preoccupied trying to achieve praise from others to the point that of disregarding my own practice? I know I am probably not the only person who sometimes feels the need to be validated with compliments from people I respect, especially when I doubt myself, but at what point does it become unhealthy and counterproductive to rely on and be crippled by feedback, both good and bad? I recently read a passage from a book called “Playing Big” by Tara Mohr, in which she writes the importance of “unhooking from praise and criticism,” and how, ultimately, “you are going to have to write for you—for your joy, for your pleasure, for your self-expression, not for anyone else’s approval.” It’s important for us to remember, in any area in our lives, that there will always be someone who dislikes what we may produce. There will always be critical comments to be made about anything. When we rely on the opinions of others, we are placing our own worth in the hands of someone else, when, really, it should come from ourselves. The moment when I can write something and form my own criticisms and my own praise is when I know I will be recovering the simple bliss of writing for myself and not for anyone else.