“The way you treat yourself sets the standard for others.”~ Sonya Friedman
Five years ago I was driven, determined, and thriving. I was in the middle of a career in financial services that had started in sales, led to management, and, at that point, had me pushing myself and competing as a director in the retail banking business.
I was proud of what I had achieved and what I intended to achieve. I had the trappings of success as I saw them—the house, the car, the salary, and job title that reflected my level of achievement—and I had a huge and very sensitive ego to accompany all of this.
When I refer to my ego, I really mean that my self-esteem was dependent upon my accomplishments. I perceived that the external and visual signs of success were directly linked to the person I was inside.
Then, one day, I heard voice saying, “You must leave, you have to get out of this place…”
Before you imagine that I was hearing things, I’ll add that this was my boss. He was telling me that the company was in a “change process” and I was one of the casualties. At that moment I saw my career leave the room, out the window, with my self-esteem jumping after it.
Over the weeks that followed, my family and friends, seeing my distress, sought to comfort me with words similar to “Don’t worry, we still love you whether you are refuse collector or a chief executive.”
While I smiled at these words, my internal dialogue was something different. It went something like: “It doesn’t matter what you think of me. I won’t love myself unless I show how successful I can be.”
At that time I did not know how true that statement was. I also did not realize that this was both my greatest motivator and, at the same time, the greatest barrier to long-term happiness.
Over the years I had been interested in my personal development and had read quite widely. I often came across the concept of loving myself and dismissed it as fluffy, ephemeral, and completely non-masculine.
Then I started to read about my emotional needs, the needs that I expect the rest of the world to meet in order for me to be happy, such as my need to be loved, respected, validated, and listened to.
As I reflected, I realized that I used a lot of “needy” behavior in order to manipulate the environment to meet my needs. I would act the victim and the martyr on social media in order to get sympathy and attention. I would over assert myself (aggressively) in order to be respected.
I would outperform other directors in order to get the validation and appreciation from my boss and peers that I desperately needed. I would tell my wife I love her in order to get the response “I love you, too.”
I had been relying on everyone else and making it their responsibility to make me happy. If they responded to my hints and nudges, then I was happy and they topped up my self-esteem.
“What’s the problem?” I hear you ask. “People meet your needs, you feel good, problem solved.”
Here’s the issue: unhealthy self-esteem is like a monster that grows the more you feed it.
A four-bedroom detached house with a double garage, once achieved, becomes too small, and you need a five-bed with a pool. Job title inflation becomes the norm, and you must upgrade the ultimate status symbol, the car, as often as possible.
Soon, I get to the point where telling me you love me is not enough. You have to prove it, and guess what? The more you prove it, the more you have to. Every effort, thought, and gift has to be better than the last one; otherwise, you obviously don’t care.
Those of you imagining this is a caricature, please examine your own behavior. What little tactics and strategies do you use to get the attention you crave? How do you manipulate your environment to get your needs met?
So what changed for me?
I slowly started to take responsibility for my happiness and meeting my own needs. I started to like myself and moved on to respecting myself, and I eventually lost my reliance upon others for validation.
As I started this slow transformation, a funny conundrum revealed itself to me. When I used to demand respect, validation, and love, I never got enough of them. As I started to respect myself, I found others respected me more, and now I have an abundance of respect, love, and validation.
Does that sound smug?
I hope not. By taking responsibility for my needs, I am now able to have healthy, giving relationships that are not based upon giving in order to receive. By having a healthy relationship with myself, I have healthy relationships with others.
Start with You
It started for me with a seismic shock wave that rocked my world. It does not have to happen like that.
Start by raising your awareness.
Observe the needy, manipulative behaviors in others; it’s easier that way. Then start to notice them in yourself and identify what need you’re trying to get others to meet for you.
From there, ask yourself: What does it really mean to like and respect myself?
For me, this means that I make myself a priority, give myself the time I need for my interests, and set clear boundaries around my work and life.
Next, close your eyes and ask yourself: How would that look? How would that feel? What would I see myself doing and hear myself saying?
I can see myself setting clear space in my diary and feeling in control, and taking clear steps to make space for family time. I can hear myself saying, “Thanks for the offer, but I have other commitments that day. I can offer you two other alternatives.”
Finally, ask yourself: What small steps could I take now to start this process?
My first small step was to set time aside to make sure I was not overcommitted and my time was protected.
I started this post by sharing that I was successful. This may imply that I no longer am.
My measurements of success may have changed a little, but I am comfortable with that.
I am not worried about job titles, and I prefer to measure success by the impact my work has. I drive a twelve-year-old car because I like it. When I tell my wife I love her, it’s because I do and she deserves to hear that.
In case you are reading this and wondering if meeting my own needs makes me less ambitious, absolutely not. I have great ambitions and plans. Whether those ambitions and plans are successful or not will not be a factor in my happiness.
To put it another way, I am happy and will be so whether or not I realize my plans and aspirations.