I have a confession to make: I have an incessant need for others to tell me that my life’s work has been worth something.
If you follow me on social media, you’ll see positive tweets and updates. I work in Higher Education because I want to motivate and inspire college students to live awesome lives. I randomly send motivational and inspiring postcards to friends, family, and acquaintances to brighten their day. So what’s the problem? What could I possibly have to gripe about if my intentions are good? For one, it’s been increasingly difficult for a realistic optimist like me in a world that appears to thrive on bad news, gossip, and scandal. I struggle to find my place. Some of this struggle is self-induced.
The Real Issue
I’ve been focused on the responses, likes, and favorites I don’t receive when I put something positive out into the universe. It sounds ridiculous when I write it down, but at the end of the day I want to know my work has added value to other’s lives. On bad days, I equate the number of people I’ve helped to my level of self-worth. I can put in a ton of effort and still feel defeated when:
a) A person denies my help
b) I receive negative criticism or cynicism about something positive I’ve said, written or done
c) Someone accepts the help, but continues to exhibit destructive habits and behaviors
Consequently, I tell myself that I should just stop helping people. Surely, I could be doing something else with my life where I could see instant results, make more money, gain worldwide notoriety, and feel like what I do means something. But now, I’m done being concerned with the what else. I don’t know what that other thing would be, and on my best days I know that chasing happiness and fame is a fruitless venture. I wouldn’t enjoy the acclaim because I’d never feel fulfilled. I won’t ever feel like what I do means something, unless I believe it in myself. It starts with me.
I love working with others and seeing them actualize their goals. I silently celebrate when I see my students grow and become more self-aware. I’m just a small step on their long journey, but it means something even if they don’t tell me it does. It means something even when I don’t witness their development, and when I find out how I’ve touched their lives. Moving forward, I don’t need the satisfaction of knowing my work has done something monumental. I need to know where I can be helpful and who I can help.
We shouldn’t stop helping people. What we can do is rethink our approach. We can make sure we’re not letting doubt and irrational needs get in our way of doing good. If you’re out there doing good and with good intentions, stop explaining yourself. I’m tired of explaining why I help others, smile at people, or greet strangers when I walk in a room. Deep down, I know that I feel loved and welcomed when others do this for me. I don’t need to explain how any given action might go a long way. What I want to start saying is: “I don’t always know why I do it, but I know that I care. Try it for yourself. Help someone and don’t expect anything. Let your curiosity run wild and see where it gets you.” The other challenging task is telling myself that I don’t always need to justify my actions.
Don’t think yourself out of doing good. For every hour I sit doubting that I’m making an impact, I could be spending time pouring into the lives of others. Doubt stalls us. The only feedback I want is if I’m doing more harm than good. Tell me if I’m accidentally teaching people to be dependent. Gently help me notice if I’m talking more than I’m listening. Other than that, no response is needed if someone’s life is improving. I appreciate a thank you or a kind follow up, but I’m working towards not craving the feedback. Validation and affirmation aren’t life support, they’re the icing on the cake.
I’m getting closer to fully accepting and being who I am: a person who enjoys being at your service. I’m betting you’re getting closer too.