The Narcotic of Flattery

The flattery of others, writes William Ian Miller, is “narcotic and addicting. It preys on two desperate and inescapable desires: to be thought well of by others and to think well of ourselves . . . We desire and need approbation so badly that we seem more than willing to accept counterfeit coinage as real.”

–          Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung , Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies (2009), citing William Ian Miller, Faking It (New York: Cambridge, 2003), 96– 97.

The key problem is that such things, like all narcotics, easily develop both dependence and tolerance. Thus, we come to require our daily dose, and we must increase both the dose and frequency of flattery necessary to maintain our equilibrium.

And, in such a state, we worry more. By its very nature, flattery requires a group—it is not an individual vice, but rather a patron-client relationship. In a sense, the flattery goes both ways: the flatterer is flattered in his turn, since flattery would be of no value if the flatterer’s truthfulness was in question. And, to crave and respond to the flattery of even a great social or intellectual inferior grants some importance to the giver of flattery, if only by implication. We are not, after all, flattered when the family dog is happy to see us.

This requires the exclusion of others upon whom the flattering circle look with bemused tolerance, snide disdain, open contempt, or anger. Such outsiders may be deemed unworthy of either the giving or receiving of flattery, but those who simply will not play the game incite even more ire.

Yet, as a result, those in the group know too well the rolled eyes or knowing glances offered behind others’ backs, and realize (even if they only half admit it to themselves) that they too could be out as easily as in. Only more flattery can still this fear, for the moment.

The irony is that anyone or anything that requires others’ validation or approval is of uncertain merit anyway. Shakespeare and Bach are not geniuses because everyone says so.

Besides, such counterfeits can buy nothing of lasting value anyway, any more than narcotics promote on-going well-being. Far too soon, those who are either pushers or clients in the great chain of flattery end up cut off—alone, with their delirium tremens, in the dark.