Tired of Not Mattering

For twenty years, I lived in Southern California, 1981 to 2001. High school, undergrad, a couple of years of work and trying to figure out what I wanted to be, and then graduate school. Traffic was a major theme for anyone who needed to go anywhere if you lived in LA, and over time, I watched it worsen, if you can imagine that. When I started graduate school, I moved from Santa Monica to Culver City to prepare for the financial strain of an advanced degree. At the time, Culver City was not yet posh or hip, it was a very mixed community with collars of many colors and little stucco houses that were “affordable.” If you drew a line from the airport to the beach, Culver City was half way. I lived there for nearly a decade and so bore witness to changes from a somewhat stable point of view. I watched as Overland Avenue went from the local road connecting local travelers to their local community to a bumper-to-bumper nightmare of red break lights and honking horns seeking an evening commute alternative to the freeways—which were anything but free. As the traffic and congestion in my previously little town created a monster, it began to occur to me that there were just too many people there. Sounds obvious, I know, but what wasn’t so obvious was our human reaction to the over-crowding. It felt like we were tiny fish in a big, swirling ocean, carrying us at its will, leaving us powerless and without a say. I started to notice the frustration in people’s eyes. I could see the fight with hands tied but fighting anyway. I felt lost and unimportant in the sheer volume of other bodies, wondering if everyone else felt the same. If you can’t see me, hear me, and I don’t count, do I really matter?

Value is a big deal to a human being. Again, obvious, but think about it for a minute. What does being valued mean to you? What does not being valued (invalidated) feel like? This is a conversation for the ages and will remain salient for those to come. Like success, most of us don’t think about what being truly valued feels like, but we do know what NOT being valued feels like and react instantly, if not unconsciously, to it. Many people have gotten into the trap of equating value with money or financial worth but there is little truth in that definition. We need to feel like we add value, like others value us…like we matter.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a five-tier motivational theory in psychology describing the ascending levels of human needs. First published in 1943, it remains one of the most relevant ideologies of human psychology. We have needs, duh, and they have an order of importance, starting with the physiological: food, water, warmth, rest. Yep, survival comes first and it all hinges on physical elements. If you are reading this, most likely, you do not have these concerns and do not spend any portion of your day worrying about food, shelter, or water. And no, not knowing what to eat for dinner does not count. The second level is safety needs: protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear. This level straddles the physical and the psychological, making it hard to tell where your concern for safety lives. There are far too many people today who live in fear—both physically and psychologically. The third level is love and belongingness needs: interpersonal relationships, trust, friendship, family, intimacy, giving and receiving affection and love. A deep sigh takes over my body as I type this and connect to the overwhelming feeling meeting these needs produces. So important yet so not important these days. Don’t be so damn soft threatens me and then saddens me. Esteem needs are the fourth tier, both in terms of esteem for the self and the need for esteem from others. Yes, we need esteem (validation) from others as part of our core psychological construction. All that ego stuff actually has an origin in a basic human need: the need for esteem. Now, how to get it…

The top tier (and I say it this way intentionally) is the need for self-actualization. Maslow described it as “A desire to become everything one is capable of becoming.” The four tiers holding this one up have survival as the motivation. This means that as you meet your needs for survival, the motivation in these areas decreases. Regular access to food decreases (or even eliminates) your fear of starving and stops being a focus or energy drain. The more connection you have with others, the less you feel you need it. But lose access to any of these needs and the motivation to secure them reappears instantly. The need for self-actualization has the opposite effect on our psychology though, the more you work to self-actualize, the more you feel the need to self-actualize. Our design is both brilliant and ridiculous at the same time.

The psychology lesson from Maslow echo’s what we all know and feel intuitively: I need to matter. I need to be safe and secure first, and if that is not handled, I cannot think beyond that. Poverty disables the brain and the psyche because it cannot think past each day and how the physical survival of the impoverished takes 100% of available energy, each and every day. Expecting someone living that way to have ANY chance at self-reflection is incomprehensible and downright unfair. Forget about even mattering, because they can’t even get there. Fear eliminates choice: if I am struggling just to survive physically, I take what I can get or steal, forget about sound decision-making. So, for those of us with our physical needs met, our safety shored up with locks on our doors and alarms in our cars and pepper spray in our purses, what does this mean?

Social media was launched with Facebook in 2004 and the age of the opinion was born. It created an immediate platform for everyone, regardless of education, experience, or knowledge base. All of a sudden, everything everyone said mattered…or did it? Whether with intension or not, Zuckerberg tapped right into the basic and even banal needs of our psyche and the third and fourth needs of belongingness and esteem. Jackpot, literally! I can post my opinion with certainty and even lots of validation from a hundred (or now even a million if you are a person famous for being famous) people I don’t know so I must matter! The dopamine machine was born, and we all became instant addicts. All of our emotions so neatly wrapped up into a scrolling habit, looking for validation and confirmation, and from strangers no less, which I can’t really tell if that is more powerful or not. It no longer mattered (ha) if you were an “expert” or had an education, all that mattered was that you had your opinion and the platform to post it on. This was super distressing for someone like me, who is supposedly an expert on certain things (you know, Ph.D. and all), because all of a sudden, everyone was an expert and just like that, I didn’t matter… It made me think of the line in The Incredibles when Syndrome, in a fit of invalidation, says, “When everyone is super, then no one will be.” And yes, I just quoted an animated film!

I resisted joining the social media wave for a long time. Hearing about posting pictures of last night’s dinner just seemed weird to me. Why do I care where you ate or vacationed? This was before it was turned into a political machine, mind you. But the horse world was hooked and so I succumbed. At first, it was all about how many “friends” you had. Validation. Then it was about “likes” on posts, yep, you guessed it, validation. And now it seems to have morphed into how right I am and how wrong you are, and yes, another form of validation. And none of us are immune. Every single post I make, I am driven by the fantasy for it to go viral or garner more likes and shares that the last one, validating my words of supposed wisdom. I find myself checking my page on days of posts mindlessly, obsessively, and upsettingly (is that even a word?). The whole thing gives me a stomach ache but like a bad accident, I can’t look away.

With all of this external interruption and disruption, how do we figure out our worth, our value, and if we matter? I wish I had a great answer to this, not only for you, but also for me. It feels like a constant struggle, a never-ending tug-of-war between what I want to feel about myself and what my smart phone is telling me I should not feel about myself. So much input from so many sources, it becomes impossibly exhausting to sort through them all and so we give up trying. My personal solution has a few layers to it. One is to restrict my time on social media. I find myself upset when I put my phone down ten times more often than I find myself uplifted. Screen time among children and adolescents is correlated with lower psychological well-being and if we think as adults, we don’t succumb to the same ills, we are silly. Another is to have real conversations with people. It is easy to go to dinner or chat on the phone and talk about crap or gossip, and there is a time and place for that, but sprinkle in some real stuff and watch the impact. Reveal something about yourself and people cannot help but feel more connected to you. We are all dying to be connected because at the end of the day, that is where the value lives.

It seems both important and impossible to determine your own value; a real conundrum. In the perfectly positioned fourth tier of esteem, Maslow brilliantly revealed the duality between the need to value the self and be valued by others. This precedes our ability to self-actualize which might explain why so many of us are scrambling to feel valued so much of the time. Living in LA, I felt surrounded by thousands of people who resembled a tantrum-throwing toddler, screaming for attention. Sure, LA is the attention capital of the world, but perhaps that made it easier for me to see it and thus, initiate my wrestling match with my own sense of esteem. Like everything else, it is not a steady-state. I can feel on top of the world and like my value is shining like a beacon and the next day feel worthless. What I have learned is that the up follows the down follows the up follows the down… And so, we keep on reflecting, we keep on reacting, we keep on working to increase our value and our connection to it. Keep working on your connection to your value and helping others find theirs, it is a fantastic use of time. I often sit back, dream, and wonder what it would be like if everyone felt like they mattered? Call me crazy but I think it would be a little different.

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