I’ve spent my whole life begging to be noticed — but it took me a long time to realize this.
It was the summer of 2005 when I finally got the finished DVDs of my short film. I was bursting with pride about having made something I was proud of. I wanted my father to be proud of me. I gave him a copy fo the DVD and waited for him to say something, but he didn’t say a word.
Several times over the next couple of weeks, I asked him if he had watched it yet, but each time, he said he hadn’t had time. The film was only 10 minutes, so that stung a little. The next time I was at his house — and nobody else was there — I told him we were going to watch it right then.
I played it for him, but he didn’t seem interested. It was an uncomfortable 10 minutes. Afterward, he had very little to say. I felt deflated and hurt.
I’ve come to realize that this has been a painful template for much of my life. I don’t like admitting this. I feel as though I’m in therapy again to talk about it. But I’ve spent my whole life begging to be noticed. It’s been a very unhealthy part of my life.
I realized a long time ago that I’m happier after I’ve done something than I am while I’m doing it. With pretty much everything I do — and have done — the payoff for me comes from the approval of people who like what I’ve done — not from the act of creating whatever it is.
It was a surprise to me to discover that most people who loved what they did actually enjoyed the process of the work, not just having done the work and having something to show. That was my first clue that something was amiss in how I looked at my work.
After spending a lot of time looking into my past, I came to see that everything I had ever created or accomplished was designed to get others’ approval, not because I enjoyed doing those things.
When I was in school in my earlier years, I did well because teachers and my father praised me. I was starving for their approval, so I performed exactly the way they wanted me to perform — because that got me their praise and approval.
As I got older, I started taking on projects in school that were conceived as things that were better than what other people had done, not because I wanted to learn anything — but because I wanted to be praised.
As I pursued projects at church while I was in high school, I did things that might make other people think I was special. I wanted their approval. I wanted their praise.
Until I was offered a job at a newspaper, it had never crossed my mind to work in journalism. But after I realized that I could do things that put my name in front of the public — and got me praise from my editors and publishers and the readers — I thrived on it.
(One of my fondest memories of my first months at my first newspaper job was coming to the office one day and finding a note from the publisher telling me I had done a “great job” on a story that mattered to him.)
I have theories about why this developed — and nobody would be surprised at those ideas — but it’s still hard for me to differentiate between what I’m doing because I love it and what I’m doing because it will get me praise.
What would you do if you had all the money you needed to live, but nobody could know what you produce or how you spent your time?
Some people would create gardens or do woodworking or paint or do a million other things. Some people would teach or do volunteer work even if nobody knew they did the work. A lot of people know what gives them joy — from actually doing a thing.
I still don’t know that for myself. I know I want to re-create the world around me, but I’m confused about how much of that is for the sheer joy of creating what I want the world to be and how much is because I want people to praise me for doing something “great.”
When I was a teen-ager, I wanted to be president of the United States. I understand now that it wasn’t because I wanted that job. I wanted the praise and approval that come from masses of people loving me and wanting to give me power. (This is a strong motivating factor for politicians, even though they wouldn’t admit it — and many of them aren’t self-aware enough to understand it themselves.)
I’ve tried to reshape my life in ways that make it more about the pursuit of things I can enjoy doing and less about the emotional excitement of being noticed and praised. But I doubt this will ever completely change.
So I have to admit to myself — and to you — that I want you to notice me. I want your approval. I want your admiration. I wish I didn’t need these things, but I do.
I want these things from the public. I want these things from friends and co-workers. More than anything, though, I want attention and approval and love and understanding from someone who loves me.
I’ve been chasing the satisfaction of that need all my life. I understand it more than I used to. I’ve made progress in getting my self-image from myself instead of from others. I’ll continue to work on all of these things, because I want to be the most emotionally healthy person I can be.
But in the end, one simple fact remains. I need you to notice me. I need you to approve of me and understand me. And I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.