The research tells us that to improve children’s behaviour and educational outcomes, we should apply the 5:1 ratio of praise. This means that for every criticism or reprimand, we need to praise them or offer positive feedback five times. In the classroom, this approach has been shown to reduce disruptive behaviour, improve engagement in tasks, predict IQ increases and academic outcomes, increase focus and attentiveness, and foster a positive and caring climate. If parents apply this rule, they can help children improve their optimism, resilience, and self-worth, and buffer their risk of mental health issues.
So… what if we took this research and applied it to the way we spoke to ourselves?
What if we used it to heal and nurture the flawed, frightened, and misbehaving child inside ourselves?
Perhaps we could improve our relationship with that child, and help them overcome their fears and struggles. We might find that we flourish, mentally and emotionally, with our own renewed optimism, resilience, and self-compassion.
How often do you praise and criticise yourself?
Unsurprisingly, research has shown that speaking to ourselves with disapproval, condemnation, and uncompromising demands for high standards can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and even physical health problems. It interferes with how we experience positive life events and jeopardises our ability to form positive and healthy relationships.
Of course it’s important to recognise and acknowledge when our actions are not in line with our goals or values. This is a normal process of self-regulation and self-improvement. But many of us let these reminders morph into all-out character assassinations, and neglect to balance our self-criticism with appropriate recognition of our efforts and wins.
While we can’t change the experiences of praise and criticism we had in our own childhood, we can certainly examine how much of it we’ve internalised and make adjustments accordingly.
Using praise effectively
To experience the positive effects listed above, praise must be delivered wisely. There are evidence-based guidelines we can follow to maximise the benefits of affirmative praise with our inner child.
According to research, effective, life-changing praise meets the following criteria.
Don’t reserve your praise for times you achieve things of note. Your worth shouldn’t be attached to your grades, your salary, your position, or your visible wins. In fact, we need praise and encouragement even more when we don’t have obvious achievements and measurable milestones boosting our morale.
E.g., ‘While I didn’t win this contract, I did a really good job of researching the topic and my proposal was written beautifully. My writing skills have really improved this year.’
You can’t fake it with yourself! Even if it means you have to start small, make sure your praise is genuine and believable. Sometimes, you just need to recognise the effort it took to get out of bed this morning, or the fact you remembered to floss.
E.g., ‘Getting up was hard today, but I took actionable steps to feel better and got on with it. That shows persistence and resilience.’
Encouraging competitiveness with others is only effective as long as you’re ‘winning’. Make sure your praise relates to effort and improvements you notice in yourself, not whether you’re ‘better’ than other people.
E.g., ‘Through hard work and applying myself, I’ve learned a lot about this skillset this year. My knowledge and ability have improved noticeably.’
Instead of vague statements like ‘You’re doing a great job’ and ‘You tried your best’, praise is more effective when it is specific and targeted.
E.g., ‘Attending that event took real courage. I challenged my own fears, which shows how I’m growing.’
The problem with achievement-focused praise is that awards or promotions usually involve external factors outside our control. The problem with ability-focused praise is that it encourages children to stick to what they are naturally good at, and doesn’t facilitate development or growth. Praising effort and process leads to a growth mindset, increased persistence, and a higher likelihood of continued learning and self-improvement.
E.g., ‘I worked really hard at maintaining and improving my relationships this year, and came up with some really creative ideas to stay connected’.
Putting it into action
Like any new pattern of behaviour, creating a new habit takes effort. You could set alarms throughout the day, tie your self-praise practice to routines you already have, leave sticky note reminders around the house, or keep a daily journal of things you did well. Writing praise down means you can revisit it on days when it’s difficult to find inspiration.
I think this quote says it best, and can most certainly be applied to ourselves.
‘Go and love someone exactly as they are. And then watch how quickly they transform into the greatest, truest version of themselves.’
It can be hard to create new habits, particularly if we’ve been conditioned from a young age to engage in self-criticism and harsh negative self-evaluations. A trained and experienced Gestalt therapist can help you recognise and work through the blocks you encounter, and improve your self-worth and self-efficacy. To speak to us about finding a supporter on your journey to self-acceptance and self-love, contact us for a free consultation call today.