‘Supposedly, the words we enjoy hearing most are, “I love you”. Not true. The words we most want to hear are, “Well done!”’
Peter the Heckler.
Imagine doing something wonderful, like inventing something special, or saving a person’s life, or winning an important contest. How would you feel?
It depends, doesn’t it? If your invention was lauded throughout the world, or if the person whose life you saved wept with gratitude, or if your audience gave you thunderous applause for your contest win, you would probably feel pleased. If they sneered at your invention, if the person whose life you saved walked away without a word of thanks, if everyone at the contest groaned, then you would feel pretty ordinary.
It’s not our achievements which give us pleasure, it’s being valued for them.
It’s the same with acts of kindness. The happiness gurus tell us that being kind can make us happier, yet how you would feel if the recipient of your kind act sneered at you instead of thanked you?
You might well feel lousy. Again, it’s not our acts of kindness which give us pleasure, it’s being valued for them. (Even when the recipient isn’t there to appreciate what we have done, we can imagine the person’s pleasure. That can be enough.)
Employees considerably value their employer’s recognition and praise.
Why do so many of us fear public speaking? After all, crowded footpaths indicate that we don’t fear the public, and we certainly don’t fear speaking.
At Speakers’ Corner I can have trouble getting a grasshopper (a listener) to shut up, but when I invite them to replace me on my platform they seize up and decline. Why is this?
There was a time when being abandoned by the tribe meant death. In some nomadic tribes the elderly members slowing the tribe were left behind to starve to death or be eaten by predators. Or, they were ‘mercifully’ clubbed to death on the spot.
No one wants to die. Those elders might have accepted their fate, having no choice in the matter, but would have dreaded the day as it approached. To prevent that day from coming they would have done their best to not be a burden.
Now imagine, dear reader, that you are a member of a tribe during a famine. You leave the tribe for a day and upon your return find the tribe gone. They have abandoned you. They now have one less mouth to feed. How would you feel? As you stand there shaking you might wonder: did they reject you because you were not pulling your weight? Or because they didn’t like you enough to share scarce food with you? Whatever the case, you would feel awful. Especially knowing that as a result of their rejection you will probably die.
Or, how you would feel if you were a hunter, and after days of unsuccessful hunting you yet again entered the camp with empty arms? Can you picture the tribe turning their eyes to you in hope, and see their look of hope turn to disappointment, and then to despair, when they find you have let them down?
In a tribe, the pressure to pull one’s weight (to contribute) and be appreciated (valued) for that contribution would be enormous. Particularly in hard times. Being valued by the tribe could mean the difference between life and death.
When the tribe turns its eyes to you it means there are expectations of you; expectations you may not be able to meet. Anxiety results: of letting the others down, of being a burden, of being rejected.
As we evolved over countless generations, that anxiety became innate. It’s no wonder many of us fear public speaking: the sight of the tribe’s eyes upon us stirs up primitive fears, primitive responsibilities.
The need to feel valued is strong within us. In some Papua New Guinean tribal societies a devastating punishment is to be ostracised. A person is ignored and made to feel invisible. In just a few hours that person can be reduced to a gibbering mess.
‘You are not my sister.’
Ostracism is also a cruel bullying tactic in Western society. In England there is a term for it. Schoolchildren can bring a child to racking sobs by shunning them, by ‘sending them to Coventry’. Employees refusing to strike are also ‘sent to Coventry’.
If we evolved to fear the tribe’s rejection it is no wonder that much of our behaviour is designed to avoid rejection, and to make ourselves feel valued. And, it’s why most of us fear becoming a burden.
If we didn’t care about what people thought of us we would become selfish and uncooperative. We would soon lose friends and support. Quickly we would be rejected. That would be harsh in today’s society, but millennia ago it might have meant rejection and death.
This all means: we evolved to feel insecure about what other people think of us; we evolved to have a fragile sense of self-worth. That ongoing insecurity stays with us and manifests as, for example:
– our need for status,
– our inclination to avoid confronting people, or earning their displeasure,
– our need to conform. (Or at least, not stand out.)
– our vulnerability to criticism and ostracism.
– our propensity to ignore twenty compliments yet deeply absorb one insult.
Our insecurity prompts us to do what is necessary to be accepted by others so that we can stay in the tribe. And, in our efforts to be accepted, our skills improve, and the tribe benefits.
When we succeed in feeling valued on a sustained level our anxiety diminishes. We feel more connected, and we satisfy our deep need to belong. We add to our core happiness.
But it’s not easy to feel valued on a sustained level. If it were easy we would have less motivation to keep contributing to the tribe. We might become complacent, and cease being of value to the tribe. That’s not good for us and it’s not good for the tribe. Evolution ‘wants’ us to keep feeling insecure. Yet, we have to be able to ameliorate that insecurity and succeed in feeling valued, otherwise there would be no incentive to strive and be rewarded. It’s a balance, and most of us are on that ‘tightrope’ every day.
That’s bad news and good news. It’s bad news because if we don’t succeed in feeling valued in day-to-day life we will revert to the default mode: a low self-worth. And, it’s bad news because even if we succeed in feeling valued with a stop-gap measure, the feeling will be short lived.
But it’s good news too, because it is possible to feel valued on a sustained level. If what we are doing is working for us, and we keep doing it, we can satisfy that need over the long-term. That’s when we satisfy our deep need to belong, and add to our core happiness.
The relationship between our fragile sense of self-worth and our need to feel valued is important. That’s what this section is about.