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Admiration. Helpful or Hurtful?

I have been thinking about admiration quite a bit lately because my admiration for a small number of people has been sky rocketing. Admiration is something I have never shied away from. Since I was little, admiring people has pushed me forward in life and helped me live more closely to my values. When I was a primary-aged child, I found children's authors and illustrators so inspiring that I was writing and drawing all the time. The teenage me looked up to anyone with a colourful and creative style (whether their art, make-up or clothes), TV adventurers and documentary makers who travelled across the globe to meet people and see places, as well as individuals who dared to speak up about injustice and stand up for themselves or others.

In my early twenties, finding my feet in work and relationships, I found admiration helpful for forming my identity, giving me direction and strengthening my determination. In times of crisis, admiration has made me resourceful. Asking myself what an admired person would do under these circumstances can forge resilience and help in a search for solutions. Lately though, I have found myself admiring a small number of people so much that I have to ask: is admiration actually helpful?

Before I try to answer that question though, let's take a closer look at admiration. Admiration is a social emotion (that is, an emotion felt in the context of other people's thoughts, feelings and behaviours, such as shame, embarrassment, guilt or envy). Admiration is usually associated with liking and respecting someone for who they are or what they do; being in awe of, or admiring, their abilities or their character.

In my opinion, admiration tends to happen when we see a quality within someone that we feel is worthy of deep respect and that is the result of skill, talent, strength or some other positive quality. I think admiring someone often involves thoughts like: 'wow, how do they do _______ so well?'. For me, thoughts that follow are usually curious: 'How did they get so good at _______?' 'Where did they learn how to ________?' or 'I wonder how I could improve my _______?' Admiration for me causes intrigue: I want to know more about the qualities, skills or abilities that I find admirable. For that reason, admiration inspires me, impels me to learn and moves me closer towards my goals.

pastel colours background. text reads: Admiration for me causes intrigue: I want to know more about the qualities, skills or abilities that I find admirable.

However, I reckon that admiration is a close sister emotion of envy. Envy (another social emotion) is when we long, often desperately, for something that someone has that we don't have. Envy is usually associated with uncomfortable feelings: a twinge or a pang of envy. This emotion is not to be confused with jealousy though. Jealousy, also a social emotion, is when we fear something we have may be taken from us by someone else i.e. feeling jealous of the new person in class or at the office because you fear they may 'steal' friends or opportunities.

Urges associated with jealousy are usually to control, protect, or fight for what we have. By contrast, envy is often accompanied by the urge to strive for the thing that someone else has that we want or emulate (copy) the person that we are envious of. Although jealousy and envy tend to get negative press, in the right contexts and in sensible proportions, both of these emotions can be helpful; they can make us work for things we want, put the effort in, or win competitions etc. After all, each emotion has evolved for a reason and has a purpose (have a look DBT Skills Training Handouts & Worksheets by Marsha M. Linehan. Guilford Press; 2nd edition.

I think it's a given that envy is associated with striving to have the thing or quality that someone has that you don't. However, it is very possible to admire someone and not want to seek out these admired qualities or abilities for yourself. Whilst envy often seeks to grab and rush and chase and push, admiration does not need to do these things. Admiration can be from afar because it's possible to admire and not want to possess. I can admire people in documentaries who climb Mount Everest and yet no part of me wants to reach the peak myself.

I think the soft glow of admiration can quickly slip into more painful pangs of envy, especially when sadness or fear is involved. Take, for example, admiring a colleague at work for her ability to manage tricky conversations. If I start to compare my own ability to be tactful in a harsh and self-critical way ('I am so bad at handling tricky conversations compared to her'), then this can cause fear ('what if I lose my job?' 'I am so rubbish' ) which can then cause envy: 'I need to be as good as her at holding difficult conversations and I need to improve myself fast'. For people with BPD, I know how thought about not being good enough can suddenly morph into thoughts about self-harm or suicide. I wonder if admiration can be a pathway to feelings of inadequacy and even worthlessness for people with BPD, a trauma history or other emotional difficulties. Isn't it telling that I (and I suspect many others) are full of admiration for others, but don't stop to think about whether others may admire us?

pastel background and black text reads: 'each time let myself rest when I am tired I am telling myself that I am worthy of care and that I am good enough as I am in the place I am right now.'

So what is helping me when admiring thoughts turn into thoughts about of incompetence or defectiveness? The remedy for me lies in becoming more trusting of myself and my abilities and more comfortable in who I am and in my skillset. It's not easy. It's not something that happens overnight. It's something that for me is very much a work in progress. What does that work look like? Well, each time I let myself rest when I am tired, I am telling myself that I am worthy of care and that I am good enough as I am in the place I am right now. Every time I feed myself when I'm hungry, I am giving myself the same message (I had an eating disorder when I was younger). Each moment I act in line with my values, say no or stand up for my wellbeing, I am affirming to myself that my way of doing things is okay; I don't have to be the same as everyone else. I have my own needs. I am my own person. Other people don't own me.

Just before I wrap up this post, I just want to say that I would never want to remove envy from my life. I would never eradicate an emotion, no matter how painful, because emotions are natural and they have important functions. Envy has shown me what I want most in life; whilst painful, it has made me turn corners instead of continuing ahead. I enjoy admiration because it can brings warm and even soaring feelings of wonder, awe and respect. However, I want to make sure that admiration stays joyful and curious for me, rather than being one of my gateways to self-loathing and self-punishment. I want admiration to be something that inspires me to learn and develop, not a stick I beat myself with.

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