‘Supposedly, the words we enjoy hearing most are, “I love you”. Not true. The words we most want to hear are, “Well done!”’
Uncle Pete, from Speakers’ Corner
How you would feel if you were kind to someone and the recipient sneered at you, instead of thanking you?
You would probably feel lousy.
It’s not our act of kindness which give us pleasure, it’s being appreciated for it. (Even when the recipient isn’t there to appreciate what we have done, we can imagine the person’s pleasure. That can be enough.)
Imagine 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. How would you feel?
Or, after days of unsuccessful hunting, how would you feel if 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 hard times, the pressure to pull one’s weight (to contribute) and be appreciated (valued) for that contribution would be enormous. 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 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 can manifest as:
– 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.
– being a workaholic
– succumbing to peer pressure
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, and our workload, improve. The tribe benefits.
When we succeed in feeling valued on a sustained level, our anxiety diminishes. We feel more connected, and 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 largely about.