What’s So Special About You?

A friend of mine is going through some career-related angst. He sells software for a respected computer company, he makes good money and he likes what he does. The problem, he says, is that his job, and the other aspects of his life, just don’t make him special enough. “Salesmen are a dime a dozen,” he told me. “Being a salesman doesn’t set me apart from anyone.”

“Why do you want to be different from everyone else?” I asked.

“I don’t want to be just another average guy,” he replied.

“What if you were just an average guy? What would happen to you?”

“I just feel like people won’t respect me if I’m not unique.”

In other words, my friend’s real fear wasn’t of being average. He was actually afraid of others seeing him as average. And, as I learned by talking with him further, his fear of being perceived as average stemmed from experiences in his childhood.

My friend had six siblings, and his father was a busy professional who left for work before sunrise and returned late in the evening. When his father got home, he wouldn’t have enough time to spend with all his children before they went to bed. Thus, he would ask the children which ones had “updates” on their accomplishments in school, athletics and other pursuits. He would talk, and play, only with those kids who had “updates” for him, and then he would go to sleep.

I could certainly understand why my friend was so concerned that people would think he was average. As a child, his father wouldn’t even acknowledge him if he didn’t stand out from his siblings through his achievements. I imagine he felt very vulnerable and alone on those nights when he didn’t have an accomplishment to describe to his father. This fear that his father would abandon him if he didn’t prove himself to be “above average” became so deeply ingrained that it remains with him today.

You may identify with my friend’s fears regarding one or more areas of your life. Maybe you worry that people will think your job isn’t glamorous or high-paying enough; that your significant other isn’t attractive enough; that your living space isn’t large enough; or that you’ve failed to stand out or be “special” in some other way. Or perhaps your concern is that people won’t think about you at all–because you’re not unique enough, they won’t even acknowledge your existence.

If you have this sort of anxiety, take a moment to consider what you’re really afraid of. What do you think would happen if you were, in fact, nothing particularly special? Would others abandon you? Would they ridicule you? Would you be hurt or killed? Probably, like my friend, you decided as a child that being special was critical to receiving your parents’ love or protection. Since then, you’ve been unconsciously thinking and acting as if you still need your parents’ support to survive, and you have to prove your uniqueness to get that support.

Likely, simply understanding your fears will cause you to start taking them less seriously. The consequences of being average that you’ve been imagining are probably unlikely to occur. As an adult, you can protect and take care of yourself, and you don’t need to convince your parents that you’re special to get what you need to survive. It’s also possible that your childhood belief that your parents would love you only if you were unique is false or exaggerated.

Recognize also that, at the deepest level, you–and everyone else–will always be “average.” You share your most basic characteristics with every person on the planet. You breathe, eat, and sleep, and feel anger, joy and sadness, just like everyone else. Nothing you do, or fail to do, can change how ordinary you are in this sense. Ultimately, living your life in an effort to be unique or special is futile, as it neglects the fact that, as human beings, we share the same essence. You may not have understood this point as a child, and your parents might not have either, but you have the wisdom to grasp it today.

I don’t mean to discourage you from trying to do something special or unique with your life. By all means, go and accomplish great things. But I think you’ll be more successful at what you do–and find it more fulfilling–if you pursue a goal you genuinely desire, rather than something you think will make others view you as exceptional. No matter what happens, you’ll never be anything more or less than a human being–just like everyone else–and accepting that is key to liberating yourself from the compulsive need to stand out.