I wrote a piece yesterday about how I have a hard time accepting kindness and compliments and I don’t usually feel proud of myself. Part of this comes from feeling from a very early age that I had to ‘earn’ attention and love, and because it seemed like whatever I did, I didn’t get what I needed or wanted. I learned pretty effectively that I constantly had to do more. Move on to the next thing so I can earn more (or any) love and attention. Awards for behavior and academics only provided very fleeting satisfaction, because no one else seemed to care that I got them. So beyond the moment of seeing the award, it didn’t give me any kind of joy. I learned to not dwell on, appreciate, or enjoy anything I accomplished long term.
I’ve heard and read a lot of discourse on Participation Culture, where old timers like me (or older than me, normally) like to moan and complain about kids getting participation ribbons and trophies and certificates. That kids now (and they usually classify anyone under 35 as a kid) don’t value real effort and don’t know what excellence really is because they’ve been rewarded for ‘just showing up’ their entire lives. There might be a little truth to the second part of it, because giving every kid a trophy kind of does make it seem like you get the same thing no matter what you do, so how does one (and why would one) distinguish oneself? But I don’t like any of this discourse for varied personal reasons that I guess I’m going to write about today.
First, as a person with fairly pronounced social anxiety that’s been a lifelong struggle for me, ‘just showing up’ can be a really big deal. Seriously. I don’t want a trophy or anything for going to my family’s holiday celebrations, or ‘non-mandatory’ work events, or routine social engagements like parties, but if I got a little more positive reinforcement that let me know people actually gave a damn that I showed up…that there was a purpose to me being there other than empty obligation…maybe I’d be more motivated to attend them and maybe I’d enjoy them more. You know, like…’Jen! You’re here! Good to see you!’ It’s nice to be ‘rewarded’ that way for ‘just showing up.’ Just saying.
But also? As a kid who grew up apparently on the tail end of, ‘You don’t get recognized at all unless you ACHIEVE something,’ I DID achieve things. I got those awards. And no one cared. Earning that recognition didn’t make me feel special or proud of myself or good in any way really. So the trophy and ephemera I DID EARN being second in my graduating class academically…the plaques and certificates I DID EARN for excellence on the job when I worked outside the home…are totally meaningless to me now. They hold no significance to me whatsoever. In fact, I’ve repurposed a couple plaques as picture frames that now hold photos of my kid and my dog. The salutatorian trophy is in a box in a closet and except for writing this post today about how my accomplishments never seem to give me lasting happiness, I don’t even think about it. I did a big spring cleaning purge of our house this two springs ago (pre-Covid)…all the closets and cabinets and drawers…and I *seriously* considered throwing all of that shit out. Only the guilt that someone went to the trouble of ordering all that personalized junk with my name engraved on it keeps that box in my closet.
And I’m still like this, even though J and my son and a few good friends now seem to think the things I do are impressive and a big deal (which I like and appreciate! Even though they make me feel weird and I don’t handle the kindness and enthusiasm as gracefully as I’d like to, I DO appreciate it very much). I still feel like I need to move on to the next thing. Right away. And the next thing had better be at least as good as the previous things were, preferably better.
Here’s a paraphrased version of me talking to my exactly 4 regular social contacts who aren’t J or our kid about the house purge…
Friend: What have you been up to today/this week?
Me: I cleaned out all of our closets, cabinets and drawers. I threw away a bunch of trash and gave a whole ton of stuff to charity.
Friend: I bet that feels great!/ You’ve been working so hard!/ That is awesome! /I’ll have to look that process up and try it at our house! /I’m jealous you got so much done!
Me: <internally> Eh. <shrug>
It felt great to get it done in the moment. I did the bedrooms one day. That felt good…that day. I did the bathrooms the next day. That felt good…that day. I did the kitchen the next day. That felt good…that day. I took out trash as I went, but the last day, I took all the charitable donations to the drop off point and that felt great…for the 15 minutes it took to drop it off. And then I kind of felt like…what’s next? I felt almost immediately like I needed to do more. Like that entire week long project of intensive work and tiring physical labor didn’t really even count. Almost like it didn’t happen because those moments of accomplishment were over.
And with this last book? I felt like 1. I was taking way too long to get it out to publishing, because I’d put the first eleven novels out more quickly and routinely and 2. it was so different from the other books I’ve put out that maybe it wouldn’t be well received and therefore it was ‘less than’ my other work and 3. once it WAS out? I started thinking about what to work on next. That I NEEDED to immediately get right to work on something else. Because that’s done now.
I’m thinking that right now actually. The book’s been out for a week, and I’m already thinking I have to get out more, or people will forget about me…lose interest in me…won’t like me anymore.
I got my paperback copy of the last book I put out delivered, and I put it on the bookshelf. Opening the package, holding it in my hands, and putting it on the shelf felt great. My son said this great ‘Harry Potter’ thing to me after looking at all my books lined up…’Wow, Mom. You’ve written more books than are in the Harry Potter series.’ That felt great. But then it was over and now I’m…itching to start on something else. Because I have to. Because I have to do more and make more and ‘earn’…more. Actually I have to do more and make more to feel like I deserve what I already have: the readers who for some reason seem to want the things I write…my house…my son…J…attention and love…my existence.
I know this is illogical and weird and probably not healthy. I don’t believe these things for other people. My friends and my son and J don’t have to do more…make more…constantly work and achieve and accomplish great things for me to love them and want them in my life and think they are amazing. My fundamental philosophy about human worth and love and social justice isn’t based on ‘earning’ attention and love and dignity. I believe people should just have those things and inherently deserve those things. But I do hold myself to that ‘gotta earn it’ standard. And I totally want to celebrate my friends and my son and J when they accomplish things. I think they should savor and enjoy it…there’s little in life I get more joy from than savoring and enjoying someone else’s happiness and success in their accomplishments. I’m always so proud of THEM. But not of me for some reason. That’s always been how I operate. It’s how I’m wired. I can’t just be proud of myself. No matter what the accomplishment is. I’m not sure how to relax into appreciating anything I’ve done, but I need to work on doing that instead of brushing off what I’ve done and only thinking about moving on to what I can do next. I need to be pleased with and proud of myself. I’m just not sure how I go about that.