Do You Feel Insignificant?
Recently a client said to me that he wanted to do something "great" with his life. He's a young man at the beginning of his career, and he has aspirations to succeed. There's nothing wrong with that. It's a normal desire, but as we continued talking about it, I knew that more was going on. There was a strong sense of urgency, and even a little tinge of desperation.
As we investigated, it turned out that he feels quite insignificant, and the urgent desire to do something great was a desire to feel significant, and in turn feel worthy and loved. It wasn't really about accomplishment at all. It was about feeling worthwhile.
The feeling of significance is universal for all of us. It's intertwined with the feeling of being worthy, and certainly of being loved. They all go together.
We usually internalize these feelings early in life in the course of being loved and cared for by our parents. But because our parents aren't always capable of giving us that, many people move into adulthood without feeling worthy, without feeling significant, and without feeling loved.
A way to recoup those feelings is to do something that will bring attention and affirmation from others, and the greater the affirmation, the better. Doing something "great" falls into that category. If I could just be a Bill Gates or win the Pulitzer Prize or write a best selling book or become a millionaire . . . . then I would feel significant. People would look up to me and want to be like me. I would be something. I would be loved.
The problem is, even if you were to achieve something that brought celebrity attention and affirmation, you might still feel insignificant. You wouldn't necessarily get that "inside" feeling of being loved and valued, and especially not for yourself. The feeling would be fleeting and conditional and based only on your status or achievement.
What makes us feel significant?
Is it accomplishment?
Accomplishment can add to it, but that is not the source of significance. Significance is a birthright. If you are here, you are significant. Every living thing is significant by virtue of being. Significance is not dependent on what you do.
Great. So how do I feel more significant? How can I get rid of that gnawing feeling of unworthiness?
It's in the everyday acts, not the grand gestures or accomplishments.
Significance is developed and felt through our regular interactions with each other. We are relational beings. Grand gestures and accomplishments are fine, but they do not define who we are or take away the feeling of emotional isolation. Who we are is how we relate to and treat others, and how we evolve personally.
Let me give you an example. I have two little dogs. Dachshunds to be exact, and they are 14 and 16 years old. I get a great sense of significance every day when I feed them, love them, and see in their eyes that they feel safe and trust that I will be there for them. I also feel significant when I am kind to my husband when he needs me to help him do something, or I can offer some good advice to my son if he has a problem. I feel significant when I flash a genuine smile to a stranger in the grocery store, or feel someone's sadness with them when they're suffering from something. All of these things make me feel significant.
I would also love to write a best-selling book and that would be wonderful, but if I didn't have the daily experiences of connection with those around me, and if I weren't always working toward being more emotionally present, the rewards from being a best selling author wouldn't mean much.
It is the daily gestures and conduct that help us evolve towards our best humanness, and that provide a real sense of worthiness.
By giving that kind of love on a regular basis, you can't help but feel loved in return because you are loving yourself at the same time.
You likely know people that are very accomplished, but aren't necessarily good human beings. Accomplishment, and particularly celebrity accomplishment doesn't make for an evolved person, and is not the real source of worthiness or significance. How you interact with others and yourself comes first. Then if there are outward accomplishments, great!
What can I do to feel more significant?
Here's some guidelines that will help increase your sense of significance and worthiness:
Perform small acts of kindness daily.
Do this especially with those closest to you. It is sometimes easier to be kind to people we don't know all that well. When you are in a close relationship, you may withhold acts of kindness because of baggage from unresolved problems. Even so, little acts of kindness and caring can strengthen a relationship and create an atmosphere that is more conducive to problem solving.
Abstain from gossip, criticism, and personal attacks.
It's hard to abstain from gossip for most of us. Family members gossip, friends gossip, co-workers gossip, and public figures gossip. But in truth, there is nothing good about gossip. You only have to imagine hearing someone gossiping about you to drive home this point. It feels bad and it hurts. Solve problems directly with people if there is a problem, but don't participate in gossip. You are hurting yourself when you do so.
Same goes with criticism. You can directly tell someone when something is bothering you, and you can do it without being attacking. If you use "I" messages, you can avoid the feeling of personal attack. Constructive criticism is necessary sometimes if you are in a position of authority and it is your job, but even in that situation you can be respectful and understanding of someone's feelings.
Look people in the eyes and acknowledge them. That doesn't mean you should encourage bad behavior, or approach someone who doesn't want to be approached. I remember when my brother was a student at the University of Pennsylvania and lived in a pretty scary neighborhood. He learned that looking people in the eyes was an invitation to be attacked or to fight, so he avoided eye contact until he was at school. You have to discriminate, but in general, the idea is to acknowledge others through connection, warmth and acceptance.
Fine-tune your conscience.
To have a fully developed conscience means to do the right thing when no one else is looking. It means knowing and recognizing that everything you do has an impact on everyone else. It's being honest with yourself. It's not about getting caught. It's being trustworthy in every circumstance. The more finely tuned your conscience is, the more significant you will feel, because you are someone that can be counted on.
Do your best to be responsible for yourself, and for those you have signed on to take care of. Pull your own weight. Do your own work and do it the best you can. Conversely, set boundaries when you need to. Just as you hold yourself accountable, hold others accountable for their behavior as well. Responsibility is a two-way street and should be shared.
Allow yourself to ask for help.
One of my favorite books is The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. She talks about vulnerability as a strength, and recommends asking for help as a necessary part of connecting. Feeling vulnerability is a part of feeling significant because it is real. Sharing it with someone trustworthy is both validating and connective.
Let go of self-doubt.
Be affirmative about your self-worth. It is not dependent on what you accomplish, but on who you are and how you treat others. If you didn't feel valued growing up, then try using the technique of re-parenting yourself. To learn this, read my blog called Be Your Own Best Parent. It may sound a little hokey when you first read it or try it, but it is really quite effective.
Just remember and affirm:
You are significant and you have everything you need to feel worthy and be loved. You just need to peel back the layers of self-doubt and self-criticism that are in the way.