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on admiration

June 10, 2011

My edition of Random House Webster’s College Dictionary (1995) defines admiration as: “a feeling of pleasure, approval, and often respect or wonder”. Who wouldn’t want more of that in their life? Except that I’ve realized that I usually use admire/admiration in very specific circumstances, that are often problematic. When I “admire” the category of people who do X (or don’t do Y), that’s fine. But when I say I “admire” an individual, Person A (and sometimes the artwork made by Person A), I use that word to convey both an emotional distance between us, but also a mismatch in social rank. I see that person as “above” me. And I see that person as someone who disdains me. So I admire someone instead of liking or loving them because I don’t think they’d like or love me back. After all, I’m “beneath” them.

Thinking about people I’ve admired rather than liked/loved, I see how pernicious their influence has been on my opinions of my self. If I admire someone who doesn’t admire me back, maybe they are right about me. Maybe I should try to get rid of, or least hide, the parts of my self they don’t like. If I hide or disappear enough of me, maybe they will like/love me back. Presto! My shadow is born!

And in my experience, no matter how much of myself I hide or try to diminish, Person A continues to dislike and/or fear me.

I think admiration is about social approval. It’s about acknowledging that I’m not mainstream, but I know I’m “supposed to be” mainstream, or wish I were. It is internalized social norms that are toxic to you. So the more you put them on display, by acknowledging society’s disapproval and dislike of you, the more they corrode not just your self-confidence, but your very sense of self. If you admire people who hate you, then you hate yourself. And you think you’re right to.

I think I need more liking and loving in my life, and less admiring.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. lalouve permalink
    June 12, 2011 03:41

    I fing this a fascinating read. I am occasionally the recipient of admiration; it makes me terribly uncomfortable, and I think you’ve put your finger on part of the why (the rest is the feeling I am not what they think and I cannot possibly live up to those expectations), When my students do it, I can cope, because the distance is expected, and they are not in social contact with me, thus not likely to be influenced to hide parts of themselves. It’s also fine when it’s someone I admire back, as the distance and inequality is then not present.
    Of course, I am nowhere near the mainstream myself; possibly that limits the negative ifluence admiration has on those doing it? But I have seen those that admire me for my morals think of themselves as less morally upstanding than I am, and I don’t like that.

    • June 12, 2011 12:04

      I’ve rarely been told that someone admires me, so perhaps that’s why it seems so destructive. I think the concept of admiration could be useful (per the dictionary definition), but clearly I (and you) have complicated and unsettling feelings about it; probably worth more thought anyway!

  2. June 12, 2011 04:58

    I agree about how admiring seems to function when it’s about a person’s work or sometimes a particular person, where it seems to denote distance and iniquity, but personally I have this weird undercurrent to it as well, where it’s an unstable situation even for the admired (especially if they don’t know if they want to be admired or how they’ve become admired). To be admired is, in my experience, not to be understood or cared for but about doing things the *right way* and like you said not in some *abnormal* manner. It’s a role at least some people seem to be forced (or force themselves) into, which can hurt them, significantly at times.

    Of course, that pain is paid for with the unfortunately insubstantial “admiration,” so I think it’s clear that to be more admired is to have greater status, so we shouldn’t go overboard thinking of the “admired” as victims. It’s basically privilege all over again – the system hurts everyone, sure, but some people far, far more.

    • June 12, 2011 12:14

      “To be admired is, in my experience, not to be understood or cared for…” To me, this one line encapsulates a lot of what I was fumbling toward. Something seems attractive, but for unknown reasons, so you’re right, understanding and/or affection do not seem to be involved. In fact, I’ve often found that when I admire someone’s work, and then talk to them about it, or their artistic process, or their worldview/philosophy, I discover that our ideas about the world are not at all similar, and that I find their views offputting. (Iow, it’s not a case of, “wow, look at this different but wonderful viewpoint — now I’ve learned something!”; it’s more, “oh, that’s how you think? Um, that’s interesting… and I just remembered I need to be somewhere else right now. See ya!”)

      I think exploring this topic further would be helpful.

  3. June 12, 2011 08:05

    What about people who admire you? Do you feel that someone who admires you is making you disdain them, whether or not that is their intention?

    I can only speak for myself, but it does happen occasionally that people admire me, usually for reasons I don’t think particularly admirable, like being the church choir all by myself or walking two miles to the swimming pool. That makes me want to hide the things I’m good at, or keep the things I just do out of (their) sight, so they’ll stop admiring me. Not to make them like me: once they’ve misadmired me I don’t care any more whether they like me or not (yes, and I know that’s bad of me).

    • June 12, 2011 12:26

      As an adult, when people have told me they admired, well, things I had done, not me, I also found that experience uncomfortable. The things they admired were things I felt were necessary and right and “what any caring person would do”, so it felt odd to be admired for them. Except then when I thought about what other people in those situations had done, or not done, none of them chose the actions I had, so maybe my idea of “what any caring person would do” is setting the bar much higher than most people think is necessary? I don’t know. Clearly I need to think about this more.

      I don’t think it’s “bad” to not care if people like you or not. It takes a lot of emotional energy to worry about that, and it’s never under your control anyway, so it can be exhausting, and then fruitless in the end. I think it’s smart not to care about being liked! (Difficult to pull off, though; we are social animals after all.)

      • June 12, 2011 12:44

        It does make me not do things I think are good in themselves when I stop doing things to make people stop admiring me! Nearly quit the choir over a gushing woman once.

        ::thinks:: I don’t know if I actually admire people near enough to notice that I’m doing it. I have a friend who Gets Stuff Done all the time and I could very well admire her for it, and I think I did once, but she’s needed me to get her out of a tricky situation so often that we’re just a pair of friends who need one another very badly occasionally.

      • June 12, 2011 13:05

        Other people’s admiration is not under your control, though, same as whether other people like you, or don’t. If you wouldn’t do something to cause people to admire you, surely you shouldn’t stop doing it for the same reason either?

        I don’t think it’s “admiration” between friends, because as you said, there’s not distance — you’ve both seen each other in good times and bad. You know each other, which seems to me to be very different than admiring. (I could be wrong, though. Wouldn’t be the first time. 🙂

  4. Kathy permalink
    June 14, 2011 12:03


    As I think about it, my use of “admire” centers more on the “respect and wonder” part of the definition. Even if I use the word imprecisely, it’s actions/results I admire – not entire people. So, while there may be a sense of hierarchy or mild envy (I admire things I cannot do, or cannot do as well), it’s not between me and the object of my admiration in our respective entirety.

    I have a (pleasant) coworker who – at ten years my senior – runs marathons. He gets up at 4:30am every day to train. I admire that – I’m impressed, and he’s “better” at training than I am because I’m just not that dedicated. I’m not even positive I could do what he does if I *did* set my will upon it. I don’t see that as making him – in reality, or just to me – a better/more worthy person than I am, though; he’s just better at achieving this specific thing.

    Similarly, I admire the dedication of a friend to animal rights. She puts her self out there in ways I never could or, at least, never will. She, on the other hand, admires my patience.

    I like/love people. I admire accomplishments/skills/dedication, regardless of how it aligns with what’s acceptable. Maybe this distinction removes some of the discomfort?

    • June 16, 2011 13:30

      Your way seems better than mine, but I still feel like there is something sticky that I haven’t quite put my finger on yet.

      You admire that your friend runs marathons, while you don’t or can’t, but do you feel guilty or inadequate (or something) because he’s doing something you somehow feel you should be doing? or other people expect you should be doing? That’s what I’m trying to get at — why do I admire things or people that I would never do? that I don’t even want to do? that, in a lot of cases, utterly conflict with my values?

      I think I have another post in me about this topic.

      But your feedback was useful (as usual!)

      • Kathy permalink
        June 16, 2011 15:38

        Generally, no – worst case (if it’s something I want to do, which it’s often not) is just a touch of mild envy followed quickly by the realization that I’m just not willing to put in the effort presently (or just not gifted in that manner). I’ve largely come to terms with the idea that to “be” someone in one aspect is to also to be that person in every other aspect… and I generally don’t have any urge whatsoever to do that. Accepting that gaining the admired result means shouldering the burdens and living with the flaws takes a lot of the sense of failure – and the appeal – out of it.

        I’m not sure I have anything helpful on the other thought, though. I often admire results I have absolutely no interest in obtaining. Even if I find something abhorrent, I may still admire (in the sense of “gotta give ’em credit”) its thoroughness, effectiveness, or success.

        I don’t typically look for or perceive any feedback from those I admire, though. That’s certainly true in those cases where I don’t desire the results, and normally true regardless – running a marathon shows that you’re fit and dedicated, but it doesn’t convey the skills, insight, or exhalted status necessary for you (hypothetical, general you – not you-you) to meaningfully evaluate me.

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