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How Narcissists Weaponize Praise

How could something so good feel so bad?

Key points

  • Praise we've earned can be motivating and help us build confidence.
  • Narcissists may use praise to control others by manipulating their sense of self-worth and relational security.
  • Narcissists may use praise as love, as intimacy, or as unearned entitlement, and they may pair praise with abuse to disempower others.
Source: alina_polina/Adobe Stock
Source: alina_polina/Adobe Stock

Ah, praise. It can lift us up and send us flying to lofty heights. It can validate, it can motivate, and it can inspire. And, as is true of anything with the power to make us feel so good, praise has a dark side. In the wrong hands, praise has the power to harm.

Understanding Praise

  1. Praise is not love. Praise is conditional and may be offered or withheld. Love, particularly of a child, must be freely given regardless of performance, behavior, or "status." Love is always there. Praise comes and goes.
  2. Praise can only be granted by others. Where there is praise, there is always the absence of praise, because praise can only be granted by someone else. As a source of self-worth, it is not sustainable or sustaining because it is external, fleeting, and ultimately beyond our control.
  3. Unearned praise is disempowering. Whereas love only feels genuine when it is freely given, praise only feels genuine when we've earned it. Unearned praise disempowers others, particularly children, by sending the message that praise is an entitlement rather than something earned with hard work.
  4. Praise can lead to over-reliance. When we lack feelings of self-love and cannot validate ourselves internally, we can become over-reliant on external praise from others.

How Narcissists Weaponize Praise

As we know, the narcissistic personality tends to be relationally antagonistic: competitive, exploitative, and oppressively controlling. Narcissists themselves often seek out praise, and they often use praise to manipulate and control others.

  1. Narcissists use praise in place of love. At the core of the narcissistic personality is a flawed belief that praise is love. In dysfunctional narcissistic families and relationships, acceptance is conditional and praise is used instead of love. Using praise as affection fosters insecurity in others and gives the narcissist control over their sense of relational safety and self-worth.
  2. Narcissists "love-bomb" with praise to fake intimacy. Love and intimacy are developed through reciprocity, shared vulnerability, and earned trust. Intimacy should never be experienced as a fiery explosion. But narcissistic people often engage in love-bombing, in which they use excessive praise, attention, and flattery to seduce others into unwarranted trust and premature commitment.
  3. Narcissists treat praise as entitlement. People, particularly children, who are reinforced for their efforts internalize a sense of agency and earned confidence, which fosters self-esteem and healthy independence. By contrast, praising people for being special or superior rather than for their hard work fosters an unearned and therefore insecure sense of entitlement. By granting "special" status and privilege to a chosen few and by denying it to others, narcissists dictate what people value in themselves and those around them.
  4. Narcissists use praise to foster dependency and reliance. By alternating praise and forms of abuse, narcissists foster dependency and even reliance in others. Children or partners treated to this type of manipulation can become trauma-bonded to the narcissist, who uses intermittent reinforcement to control the activation of their fear response (fight/flight) and reward system (dopamine).

We all can benefit at times from praise that we've earned. Humans are social animals who naturally seek validation from the group, and praise for our efforts can be motivating and help us build confidence that can sustain us through times of trial and adversity. But praise used as a substitute for love or intimacy, granted as an unearned entitlement, or paired with abuse is manipulative and disempowering, and it can create trauma bonds between narcissists and those they seek to dominate.

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