Your likes, hearts, and flattering comments are bad for my brain

I’ve been publishing controversial thoughts, essays, books and software for half my life. It has endowed me with a thick skin to repel the haters, and kept me going whatever they said. But after close to two decades of having my work often judged favorably, I’m still no better at dealing with gestures of adoration.

In fact, I think it’s gotten worse, as technology has gotten better (or more conniving, if you will) at feeding me a steady drip of likes, hearts, and flattering comments. The line hooks straight into a part of my brain that never thickened up and remains as tender as ever.

This recurring burst of endorphins is addictive. And while you can certainly be addicted to worse things than gestures of adoration for a job well done, it’s an addiction none the less. One with many of the same side effects as any other addiction.

For one, it cultivates dependence through vanity. The intrinsic lure of the work is diminished by the extrinsic reception to the work. Waiting for the crowd to please the work rather than the work to please the mind.

This dependency stokes anxiety, and can lead to downright manic behavior. I’ve found that when I publish anything that hits a nerve with the crowd, it’s my own nerves that are pierced by ricochet. I can ruin a perfectly good day by publishing a piece that bites. An endless cycle of refreshing for flattering comments, watching incrementing retweet counters, and seeing the likes stream by.

It gets worse as the tolerance builds. If the last thing I published saw so and so much engagement, then anything less on a subsequent piece is at least somewhat a failure. What a perverse bar.

I think it’s this ever-increasing tolerance that has ruined many creatives. The more powerful and immediate the gratification of adoration, the more severe the withdrawal from its absence.

Just look at actual rockstars. How many of them turn up as insecure wrecks in need of actual drugs to supplement or replace the pleasing of the crowd? The natural high of other people cheering you on is only poorly substituted by packaged chemicals, but at least it’s something to soothe the withdrawal.

As with most substances, though, it’s the dose that makes the poison. If you’re not used to having your work judged favorably, the initial high of seeing it so can give a real kick. One that might well provide the motivation to keep going when you were otherwise close to quitting. It’s a boost. That’s not in itself a bad thing.

It’s the long-term exposure that does the harm. It’s the building of a tolerance. The cultivation of vanity. It’s not the first hit, but the forty-fifth.

It was a week’s worth of abstinence from Twitter and Instagram that brought about this reflection. It felt liberating. Liberating not to play to a crowd with the power to instantly judge the performance. Liberating to be free from the likes, the hearts, and those flattering comments.

I’m not sure I want to go back.

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