The trap of wanting to be special
a return to ordinary
Wild Letters is a weekly newsletter about self-exploration and building a right-fit life. Thank you for being here with me!
In my early 20s I spent multiple years in a relationship with a guy that, even now, I am not convinced I actually liked.
The question of my liking him was not one that I remember asking myself, not when I was too busy being wholly consumed with whether or not he liked me.
That question — of my own desirability in the eyes of others — had defined my entire dating life up to that point. What (who) I wanted never seemed to matter as much to me as being chosen, particularly by the “right” kind of guy. The mere fact of someone expressing interest, someone wanting me, picking me, anointing me as special enough to be their girlfriend, that was enough to immediately make me certain that I wanted them, too.
And sometimes I did want them, but just as often I did not. What I wanted more than anything was the invisible label of worthiness that I felt came along with the public label of girlfriend. I must be wonderfully special if I had been chosen, right?
It took me a very long time to learn that I could choose myself.
For the entire month of April I carried with me a constant feeling of anxiety about leaving my puppy when I went out to the PCT for my three-week hike.
What if she doesn’t love me when I come home? I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I asked Gent this question every single day, multiple times a day, for weeks and weeks before my hike.
(The ceaseless patience he had with me, my god. Babe, she is still going to love you. She’s going to be so excited when you get back, I promise. She will still love you so much. Everything is going to be okay. He said this to me again and again and again and again and again.)
By the time I actually left for California we had had Mona in our home for exactly six months, and I couldn’t believe how much she felt like our dog, both in terms of our equally shared caretaking responsibilities and her own evenly split affection for the two of us. She truly did not seem to prefer one of us over the other, and this particular balance of love was what I felt most afraid to lose. Wouldn’t my being gone for three straight weeks cause her to shift her allegiance? To feel like I abandoned her, and to then bond more deeply with Gent instead? It is both completely embarrassing and impossible to overstate how much I obsessed over these questions.
And you know, thinking back on it now I realize that they weren’t even the real questions; our real questions are almost always buried two or three layers down. In this case, the real questions for me were:
What do I think it will mean about me (my goodness, my lovability) if my dog is more bonded to my partner than to me?
Why am I so distraught at the possibility of not being picked as someone’s favorite?
Is the love I am prepared to give always conditional upon being rewarded in some way?
That last question in particular makes me itch with its poignancy and relevance. What do I think my dog owes me in exchange for my love and care? My job is not to love her as a means of controlling how she feels about me and behaves toward me. My job is just to love her, period.
My job is just to love her.
Each Monday I write to you about what I am currently exploring within myself, and this week I am exploring how I might practice surrendering the need to be seen as special.
This kind of real-time self-exploration, for me, almost always involves list-making. And so, a list:
Things I might gain if I stopped obsessing about whether or not I am special
Brain space for more fun things (because literally anything else would likely be more fun than this??)
Freedom from that gross feeling of constant comparison with others
Permission to be “boring” (to like what I actually like instead of pursuing only that which would give me the most approval/social capital)
The ability to be a beginner at something, or to be bad at something
Connection to others (being truly unique and super ‘special’ sounds lonely)
More acceptance of my own mistakes
Less of a tendency to put certain aspects of myself on a pedestal (the higher the pedestal the longer the fall)
Love without score-keeping
Dismantling of my internalized hierarchies (ie: X people are better than Y people)
Who am I if I am not special? A threatening question at first, and then a freeing one, for without attachment to my own specialness I can simply relax into being a human amongst humans.
It is as Dean Spade1 reminds us: “When we get our sense of self from fame, status, or approval from a bunch of strangers, we’re in trouble. It is hard to stick to our principles and treat others well when we are seeking praise and attention.”
If all of my energy is focused on earning my worth through my own impressive achievement or through my performance of desirability, I lose my connection to being a human amongst humans. When I am focused on earning or maintaining my own specialness, my gaze rests too heavily inward. The harm in this is that when I believe I need to be special in order to be worthy then I will also believe the same about others. Who becomes disposable when we operate from this place? Whose needs do we ignore when we spend our days praying at the altar of I Must Be The Most Important Person in The Room?
“We have to become people who care about ourselves as part of the greater whole,” Spade says. “It means cultivating a desire to be beautifully, exquisitely ordinary just like everyone else. It means practicing to be nobody special. Rather than a fantasy of being rich and famous, which capitalism tells us is the goal of our lives, we cultivate a fantasy of everyone having what they need and being able to creatively express the beauty of their lives.”
The practice of being nobody special. Creatively expressing the beauty of my life without needing that life to be the most beautiful, the most anything.
Nobody special, and still lovable.
Nobody special, and still worthy.
Nobody special; just a human amongst humans; what a gift.