Significance is the quality of being worthy and special. Everyone is different so everyone wants to feel special in some way. Significance is not a desire but a need that people cannot live without. We all have this need to feel unique and different.
If you have ever watched parents or siblings when a baby has just come home from the hospital, you can see that the baby gets lots of attention. It can be asleep in a crib, opening its eyes, or doing nothing all and everyone is still fascinated. To all mothers and fathers, their baby is the most beautiful thing in the world. Why? Because their baby is special to them.
The desire to be special starts at birth and is essential to physical and emotional development in babies. This was investigated in a study conducted on babies in an orphanage. It was found that those who were given care but not attention did not developed physically and emotionally due to lack of touch and attention. Babies who had a replacement mother figure, (regardless of gender) who gave them attention developed properly.
The search for attention is part of everyone’s life. It starts with mum’s attention at birth, moves on to fighting over it with dad or siblings, and continues on to every social interaction, at school or at work.
The problem with seeking significance is that it can reach a point where we depend on it. We have to get it from other people but being so special and unique makes it very hard to connect to other (I will explain further in the next chapter on love and connection).
People will do anything to be unique; they will do good things and even bad things to get attention. School is a great place to see how this works. Kids in school seek attention in a good and bad ways. Some children excel in sports or subjects, while others are trouble makers or bullies.
When I think about my life and those of my clients, I realize that we all have our unique way of being special. It is not really a conscious decision but an unconscious choice to be special in “this” way. Growing up in a family of 5 kids, each of us had to find his/her own uniqueness within the family. My eldest sister was the smartest. My brother was the only boy. I was always sick or was considered the trouble maker. My younger sister was the beautiful one and the youngest was special mostly because she was the youngest and the most loved. The second we left home, the uniqueness that had helped us survive at home did not serve us in the outside world. Each of us had to find another unique ability.
It is important to recognize that there are different ways to find uniqueness. Each of them will help us get a sense of significance and identify ourselves as either a child or a grown up. My book, Be Special Be Yourself is filled with stories dedicated to this topic – the desire to be special. The idea for the book came when I reflected on my work with teenagers and realized that this need must be met, at all costs.
How do you fulfill you need for significance? Here is an exercise to help you find out:
- Think back to your childhood and ask yourself what you did to get attention.
- What do you think you excelled in?
- What did others think you were good at?
- Think about your siblings and friends. How did they satisfy their need of significance?
Further Examples of Significance
Learning is a great way to seek significance. When you focus on specializing in something it can give you a great sense of worth and uniqueness. It becomes complicated when you start comparing yourself to others. If you want to be the only one or the best at something, things get a little tricky because the chance of that is quite slim. You risk your desire to be the special.
Being good/the best can work in two ways. If you focus on being good or specializing, that is great. For example, if you have a hobby, this can make you special because not everyone can do what you do. However, if you focus on being the best, that can be a challenge. For example, being a good student can make you special but the desire to be the best can be problematic. Your specialness then depends on everyone else in the class, and not on your own abilities.
Gossip is an unhealthy way to get significance. Usually, it is a way to be special by withholding information (to be used later), so that you can feel like you knew first, or someone trusted you more, or to put yourself in a better position by revealing this information behind someone else’s back.
Getting degrees and qualifications as a way to gain significance can be good and not so good. When people feel good about getting a status that is highly accepted by society, this is positive. It is good as long as we are not depended on it. Sometimes, the effort of reaching such a high status is not worth the effort. When I was studying, I stressed so much about my marks. But no one in my life has ever known or needed to know that I finished with excellence. Today, I am not sure it was worth the stress. If I got 90% instead of 95% on my exams, it would have been just as good.
Helping/volunteering/showing kindness is a very good way to develop self-worth. When you are kind or help others, you are special to them and you get their attention from being kind. Others will thank you and appreciate you. The greatest thing about it is that you get a sense of significance that can last a long time. You are not entirely dependent on others that much and you can offer your time, talent, skills and connections whenever you like, even if they do not ask. Warning: helping and being kind to others cannot be forced. If you depend on others’ gratitude, tell them they need to be grateful, remind others of the things you did for them, or compare yourself to others, than you force them to consider you worthy and by that, you minimize your own self worth.
Teaching is one of the most wonderful ways to feel special. It is a form of kindness and a feeling of self-worth which combine to give a feeling of being special. Much like many other strategies for significance, there is the risk of forcing your teaching, which only increases your lack of self-worth. If you want to teach more than the other person wants you to learn, let go. Forcing your skills on others will not give you the sense of uniqueness, but bring rejection for your pushiness.
Dress up differently – in the opposite way to wanting to be in fashion to be accepted, wanting to wear something different is a desire to be perceived as special. This is why students rebel so much about school uniforms. To them it represent wanting them to be the same, like soldiers. It takes away their sense of uniqueness. When their needs is not met, they will even do dangerous things to be unique, like tattoos that the principal can do nothing about or piercings in places that cannot be seen. As a parent, it is very important for you to allow your child to develop uniqueness. Whenever you can, make them feel special during the school holidays by allowing them to do things they cannot do during the year. My daughter Noff went to day-care with make-up on and it did not bother me at all. These days, during the school holiday she is allowed to paint her nails (she is 11 years old now). My son started has worn his hair long since he was 5 years old. At the age of 12 he started wearing a hat. As long as they are clean and take care of themselves, we support their way of being unique. We think that is the reason they do not ask or want to have any piercings or tattoos.
Being sick is a very unhealthy way to be unique. I know, because when I was young I was sick a lot. It helped get attention but it works in a bad way. You develop an identity of a “sick” person. People who are always sick love telling you that they are ‘fine’ except for “My knees … my flu … my eyesight… my gout…”. They feel significant when people ask them how they are. Some people even have accidents so they get the sympathy they crave, as a means to feel significant.
I have some people in my family who were sick for so long that now they are convinced they are always sick. The feeling of helplessness is now their real problem and not the sickness itself. To make sure my kids do not develop this as attention seeking method, I came up with a plan to reward them for being healthy. Every term that they are fully healthy, they are allowed to pick one day off and not go to school. Being healthy = mum’s reward. Try, it works like magic!
Being proud or showing off – Being a show off is not a healthy way to get significance. It is similar to having a sign on your forehead that says, “I am not special but I need you to tell me I am special anyways”. Do not mix showing off with being proud. There is a fine line between the two. Being proud means sharing with others that you are proud of yourself for something. It is a good way to gain significance. Showing off requires that others pass judgment on your worth. Pride comes from self -worth, while showing off comes from a lack of it.
Tattletaling – Being a “dibber dobber” (the Australian version of a tattletale) or teachers’ pet is a bad way of feeling special. This is another way of feeling good about yourself by showing someone else in a bad light. Dobbers think they are only reflected positively when others are not. They search for opportunities to get attention from someone who is in a position of authority by choosing sides.
Being in love is a wonderful way of feeling special. When you love or are in love with someone, each of you is special to the other. You constantly think of the other person and know he/she thinks about you.
Judgment and criticism are both very unhealthy ways to get attention. In both ways the person who judges or criticizes gets attention by putting others down. They set their own standards for living and force others live by those standards. It increase their sense of significance, because their way is the “right” way. Sadly, this type of behavior usually has the opposite effect. Others consider these people to be special in a bad way.
Shame and humiliation are bad versions of being judgmental and critical. This is when people find pleasure in making others feel bad. It is a form of bullying. As always, bullies think they gain power when they make someone else feel less and low. In fact, they are the ones walking around with a sign that say, “I am weak”. When you shame and humiliate others, you are special in a big way. The kind of special no one wants to be around.
Accumulating material possessions is a very expensive way to be special. Having the most new and fancy gadget/car that no one else has takes a lot of energy. People who try to gain significance in this way work long hours and give up lots of other things in order to buy those new and fancy gadgets and gizmos. I knew women who combined material possessions with showing off. She used to buy very expensive things and show off by telling everyone she was the only person who had them. It just made us feel sorry for her.
Parenting is a great way to feel special and be special to someone else. It combines many forms of being. Your self-worth can come from parenting and if you appreciate yourself, do not judge yourself too harshly, have love for your child and a desire to make a difference in your child’s life, you can enjoy the rewards of your significance.
Shit stirrer or whistleblower are both ways of being special in a very risky way. Much like the bully and the tattletale, they get something from stirring things up and making a mess out of others’ relationships or situations. This always makes them a risk to others so they are considered special, but in a bad way.
Creating a negative reputation is a very common way to get attention. Kids learn as early as age 3 or 4 that when they draw on the walls, cut the mattress, or cut their hair, mom and dad will come running. Later on when they get to school, they get attention by being trouble makers or being those kids that teachers hate. Kids or grownups who use this as a way of getting attention often follow the adage that bad attention is better than no attention. This method is very popular amongst celebrities – any publicity is good publicity. There is a joke that says that there is a troublemaker in every family.
Attempted suicide is another way of getting attention and is extremely risky. If it is successful, there is no way back! Most of the time, the attempt is a cry for help when other ways of getting attention do not work. Years ago, I participated in a project that searched for young poetry writers who show signs of depression. Through their writing in a special competition, at risk boys could be saved from killing themselves. The competition was initiated by the parents of young guy who wrote poetry about his depression for years, before killing himself. Only after his death did his family discover that he had written poems as a cry for help. They created the organization as a way to identify young composer at risk.
Money is another way of feeling special. This is a great strategy as long as you have enough money. As soon as you do not have as much as you want/think you are worth, it effects your self-worth. We live in a society that measures many things by how much money you have. Even though there are great ways of using money to feel special, like being kind, it is important to be careful not to value ourselves by how much you have.
Spirituality is a great way to feel special. It gives people a sense of being unique and special. They have a personal connection to their creator or the force they consider as their source of power.
Addiction to crises – Some people love to tell you that they are miserable and suffering all the time (e.g. “This happened, then that happened … and can you believe that that happened to me as well – Oh don’t you feel sorry for me?”). This is their way of feeling special. They think, “I am not like you. I am different. If the majority is doing something and it works for them then it does not work for me because I am special.” This is a very unhealthy way to feel special because it takes them from one crisis to another.
Using violence is a version of seeking control. It is a bad way of getting attention, self-worth or a sense of uniqueness. This is always a sign that you are not in control, you feel like you do not get enough attention and that you lack a strong sense of self- worth. But it sure feels powerful to make someone else fear you!
Remember, people will violate their values to get their needs!
The good news is that our significance need can be fulfilled using many different strategies. You can fill it up in any good way we find. All we have to do is be able to measure what gives us the feeling of being special, and how much “specialness” we need, and what we can do with the least effort and pain.
And what happens when you are totally significant, when you truly are differentiated from the pack, when you are so unique that you no longer fit in? You feel LONELY, SEPARATED and distanced from others. That is, you feel a need for Love and Connection.
Join me next time when I write about the swing between the love and connection and significance and how we can find the way to balance them.
Until next time, be happy!
This post is part of the series Six Human Needs: