How is it that a single sentence in a book about a group of dogs granted human consciousness and language by a couple of gods can bring a grown woman to tears? More precisely, how can something so far-fetched lead me into an existential moment? One moment I was unsuspectingly relaxing in my bubble bath, glass of wine at hand with a “spa” scented candle dancing its light across the final pages of my book. The next instant, I was frisbeeing the finished book across the bathroom, pushing my palms tightly against my eyes in a lame attempt to stem the sudden leaking. I slid under the bubbles, imploring the warm, sea-salted water to take on my tears.
I love the soothing wombness of lying in the tub with only my nose and mouth above the water. Eyes closed; I’m floating in space. Ears immersed; all external sound is obliterated. I hear nothing more than my amplified heartbeat and the tide of air in and out of my lungs. So peaceful and grounding. And, once again this place held the space for me to find my way from an emotionally charged disturbance to tranquility through a new understanding.
My disturbance had to do with what I’ve called in another blog, phantom emotion syndrome. In this case, I experienced intense, sudden sadness in my empathy with a dog character who realized that his special gift was never going to be appreciated by anyone. Intellectually, I knew my pang of sadness was residue from my old belief that I have nothing to offer anyone that will ever be appreciated. Even though my self-help work over several years has slowly but surely disabused me of this self-sabotaging belief, the emotional pain associated with my old way of thinking—the phantom pain—has still been haunting me on occasion. Like on this occasion. But for this specific haunting I’m truly grateful; it led me to a new understanding that will make it impossible for this particular phantom (I have others) to ever spook me again.
Somehow, dots connected in that moment of underwater meditation and my mind unlocked with a liberating “aha!” The backstory of the dots begins decades ago.
For a long, long time, I firmly held the belief—or more correctly, my belief firmly held me—that for me to be noticed in this world I had to have something worthwhile to put out there. (This was ages before the internet, so I’m not talking about posting a video with the hopes of it going viral, although it’s the same idea.) Without that worthwhileness, I’d forever be nothing. I’d go through life unnoticed and unappreciated. To reinforce my belief, which is what we humans tend to unknowingly do often to our detriment, I interpreted every life circumstance as evidence of the validity of thinking of myself as not being enough. In my early years, my perception of my three older sisters provided all the confirmation of my nothingness that I needed. My self-sabotaging, laser focus illuminated Louise as very well read, able to knowledgeably converse on a wide range of topics, Maureen as gorgeous with a great sense of style, and Denise as incredibly musically and artistically talented. I fell short in all these areas. (Interestingly, I never compared myself to my younger siblings to augment the self-flagellation.)
This early-on, self-measuring-up in comparison to others sparked my desperate need to achieve, to be able to demonstrate I, too, had something to offer, and I continued to stoke those flames of denigrating comparison well into adulthood. Throughout my university years, unlikeable-me lacked the friendliness and natural charm of Jan, my good friend and roommate loved by everyone she met; thereafter I was the unsophisticated country mouse to my husband’s group of urbane friends; financially I struggled the most of all relative to my peers and siblings. There was never a shortage of “evidence” to fuel the fire of my lacking. My attempts at alleviating the ache of un-appreciation, of not exceling at anything, raised my self-sabotage to a new level. Belief shapes our thinking. Our thinking shapes our actions. My then-belief that I’m not enough, shaped my thinking that I need to compensate for this, which led me to acting like the really needy person I was.
Neediness is not a pretty trait.
My need to achieve—to prove my worthwhileness—manifested in me competing, not too subtly, for top grades throughout academia, not as a reflection of my love of learning so much as to show up as better than the rest, to be recognized as a top achiever. It pulled me into public speaking (what better way to get attention) and some local competition wins, but for a long time my speaking motivation wasn’t primarily to share knowledge or insight so much as to be seen and complimented on my presentation skills. My neediness resulted in me one-upping or inconsiderately over-talking friends, family and coworkers in conversations, convincing others unrelentingly of my correctness.
See me! Hear me! Appreciate me! Convince me I’m worth your while. But, as Abraham Hicks said: “In your neediness you repel, in your completeness you attract.” My misguided attempts to prop up a limp ego, to be recognized and appreciated, served only to repel and in so doing reinforced my sense of self as unlikeable and unworthy of appreciation. Eventually, finally, at last, I got sick and tired enough of feeling inadequate, of craving validation, that around my mid-thirties I set out to start replacing neediness with completeness.
Completeness is just another word for unconditional self-love. It’s a challenging replacement, I came to learn, like the process of recovery from addiction, with a lot of relapses, successes and failures, and the journey never ends. Along the way towards completeness, a journeyer experiences new ahas, unearths ever more deeply buried self-awareness nuggets, and gets increasingly more adept at letting go of obstacles to self-love. I call the process of falling in love with yourself the journey of becoming unfcukwithable (typo intended) of which I speak at length elsewhere.
The dots I mentioned earlier? They’re the aha experiences, the awareness nuggets, the letting go. When they connect, growth happens. The particular experience I began this blog with, the newly connected dot, was first an aha, then a new awareness of my self-sabotaging way of thinking, which then invited a letting go.
So, what was my aha? My new awareness? What have I let go of? My new understanding prompted by my reading of Fifteen Dogs was that a person (and, apparently, a divinely enlightened dog as well) does not need to have anyone accept or appreciate the gift they have to offer in order to experience the fullness of life and completeness. To explain this better, I refer to a quote frequently attributed to Pablo Picasso: “The meaning of life is to find your gift; the purpose of life is to give it away.”
All along, until Fifteen Dogs, I thought I needed to have a gift that would be accepted and appreciated by others in order for me to feel rewarded and find happiness. My new aha is that to be complete, for my life to have meaning and purpose, I need only to find my unique gift—incomparable to the gifts offered by Louise, Maureen, Denise and Jan—and offer it to others. If I’ve gifted of myself to the best of my ability, whether it’s accepted and appreciated by others—by many, a few, or none—is largely beyond my control and doesn’t matter. If my gift—my talent, my skill, my knowledge, my caring, my personality trait, my life experiences, whatever it may be—is genuinely an expression of the real me, coming from a place of authenticity, and it doesn’t carelessly or deliberately do harm to others, that, I now believe, is all that’s needed for me to live fully as the person I was born to be. Letting go of the need for my gift to be accepted and appreciated liberates me to give of myself, in my own unique way, for the pure joy of offering what I’ve got, however humble or extraordinary. It frees me from comparing my offerings to those of others because authenticity and uniqueness are incomparable.
I’d be remiss here, if I didn’t wrap up by saying that acceptance and appreciation cannot be sweepingly dismissed as they do play a very important role; they foster personal growth and healthy relationships with the self as well as others. Self-love necessarily involves self-acceptance and self-appreciation. Interpersonal love/caring-based relationships are strengthened when one party knows they are accepted and appreciated by the other. Workplace relationships are more rewarding and productive when appreciation is shown. But there is needy appreciation and there is healthful appreciation. An example of the distinction is this:
Needy appreciation was when I used to do public speaking with the primary goal of obtaining compliments on my presentation style to feed my hungry ego. When I was looking for others to complete me.
Healthy appreciation is when I now aim to do public speaking with the primary goal of sharing insights that I believe may be beneficial to others and someone tells me my words strongly resonate with them. Healthy appreciation is an unsolicited gift, a gratuity, a bonus over and above the joy of giving something of yourself to others while seeking nothing in return.
This letting go of needy appreciation takes me back to something I heard from a motivational speaker in the 1980s. The context was different, but the message is nonetheless applicable here and now. The speaker said: ironically when you work for the enjoyment of what you’re doing instead of working for the paycheque, your financial reward is more likely to increase. You perform well out of love for your work and you’re compensated accordingly. Adding to that, I say, when you offer your gift for the sheer love of giving, with no need for, or expectation of, appreciation or recognition, you’re rewarded immensely with the healthiest type of appreciation—your appreciation of your life lived with meaning and purpose.