“Wow! This looks beautiful! You really brightened things up!”
I was talking to someone who was cleaning up a small garden after the winter. He had removed leaves and other debris, planted a few additional plugs of ground cover, hosed pavers off and watered the new plugs. Everything had bright, new green growth and the leaves glowed against the darker, now damp, soil.
“Yeah,” he said, giving me a half smile. “It’s amazing what a little water will do.”
It feels like a dull thud to me these days when I acknowledge someone and they refuse to accept the acknowledgement. The way I see it, I acknowledged what he just did and he deflected the acknowledgement. Maybe he didn’t want acknowledgement from me—that is certainly possible as I was merely a passing acquaintance—but his deflection felt more like the kind of enforced humility so many of us have learned from our families. You know, the way we learned—or at least I learned—that excellence and selflessness was expected, acknowledgement isn’t necessary, it goes to your head (or mine), and shouldn’t really matter, anyway.
We’re all just doing what we’re supposed to do.
Bullshit. I call bullshit on that line of thinking.
Last night I was coaching someone in a dream. (Yeah, it happens.) His name was Steve, no relation to any actual person, and he had a problem with self-confidence because, he told me, throughout his childhood, his mother got a bit too after him about his clothes and general appearance and his father enforced the notion that Steve had to be humble with a bit too much enthusiasm. So he picked at himself about his appearance, never felt quite right about the way he looked, and maintained a humble demeanor—at all costs.
And the costs were great: he had social anxiety and, at work, he couldn’t put himself and his ideas and his work product forward. He could champion others, no problem. But himself, that was another story.
I don’t know how we approached that because I woke up. I hope Steve, whoever he is, somehow gets along better in life going forward. Me, I’m going to keep acknowledging people who seem like they can accept it and, when I acknowledge myself, or someone acknowledges me, I’m going to work to take it in.
From my experience coaching and being coached, and working with spiritual teachers, acknowledgement is one of the most powerful tools we have. I’m using acknowledgement here mainly as a tool to recognize and accept the positive in us and in our efforts, letting us actually own our own ability to make a difference. Without that, we can too easily fall prey to a narrative that we are helpless, that we and our efforts aren’t seen, that what we do doesn’t actually matter. For many of us, that narrative has a basis in reality. To change the narrative, we must find those data points that demonstrate that we, and what we do, matters.
But we also need to acknowledge our pain and disappointment. By doing so we can feel those feelings, allow them to arise as physical phenomena, and let our body metabolize them. Like a big dinner we might enjoy, we may feel sluggish until our body metabolizes what we put in it. The same with some pill we might take that doesn’t agree with us. We are physical beings and we need to physically metabolize our emotional experience so that we can let it go—because at that point, once it completes, it is actually gone! We never have to deal with those particular feelings again.
What has happened as I practice acknowledgement is this: the population seems to divide itself between those who practice giving and receiving acknowledgement—and those who don’t.
Acknowledgement and accountability
I’ve begun to think that practicing acknowledgement goes along with accountability. When I practice accountability I know what part I can take credit for—and I know what part belongs to the flow of grace and the beneficence of Source. I also know where I might have fallen down on the job with whatever was expected of me. I no longer really understand or see the point of the kind of humility dream-Steve and I grew up with. Life has humbled me. My own mistakes and regrets have humbled me. I am humbled by the wonderful way things work out when I do my part to whatever extent I’m able, accept the limits of my own power and instead, acknowledge the power of the Divine.
I remain puzzled and disappointed when things don’t work out. In other words, I get it that it’s not all about me. There’s a bigger picture.
Arrogance, now, that’s a problem. I’ve had to see my own arrogance and the arrogance that has run through some of my actions in life. But I don’t know that enforced humility did or even could have fixed that. On the other hand, acknowledgement has helped to fix that. As I have acknowledged my gifts and my efforts, and have developed the habit of acknowledging others, I feel that I have a more realistic view of myself, I am more grateful of the Divine, and I am more and more a place where grace can flow.
I see family dynamics repeated throughout all sorts of relationships where some people seem to be trying to get acknowledgement and other members seem bent on withholding it—or, if a speaker acknowledges themselves or someone else, another speaker deflects it for them! In some cases, the acknowledgement never even happens because some people seem to deflect ahead of any possible acknowledgement that might come anyone’s way.
The late Nora Ephron, in her essay, “A Few Words About Breasts,” wrote the quintessential example of this kind of pre-emptive deflection:
I am at a party in East Hampton and I am introduced to a woman from Washington. She is a minor celebrity, very pretty and Southern and blond and outspoken, and I am flattered because she has read something I have written. We are talking animatedly, we have been talking no more than five minutes, when a man comes up to join us. "Look at the two of us," the woman says to the man, indicating me and her. "The two of us together couldn't fill an A cup."
The woman from Washington brought breasts into the conversation when they weren’t a stated aspect of the interaction. By doing so, she aggressively undermined Nora Ephron, as if deflecting any possible other acknowledgement of Nora Ephron, presumably as a writer.
So what do we do? My suggestion is that the next time someone acknowledges you or something you’ve done, stop. Feel it. Acknowledge the acknowledgement. Conversely,the next time someone deflects acknowledgement—or even preemptively or otherwise denies acknowledgment—feel that. Feel the aggression in it, feel the devotion to that old style of enforced humility. Decide if that’s going to be you going forward—or not.
And the next time someone shares an aspect of themselves or an effort they have made or an accomplishment, try acknowledging it.
In either case, whether you are giving or receiving acknowledgement, notice what happens. Notice if you begin to empower yourself and, among those who seem to be able to receive acknowledgement, notice if they seem just a little more empowered.
And thank you for reading this. I acknowledge you and I appreciate your presence as you receive these words. You mean the world to me.
How do you know whether your relationship is working? We’re not even compelled to ask that question until we are well into a relationship and, for good or for ill, aspects of our lives are entwined with the aspects of another’s life. Those aspects are like moving parts, one dependent on the next, and living life can get complex enough—and require so much of us—that we are unable to look past the management of all those moving parts to see the state of the relationship that’s holding it all together.
This is especially true if we live together, have children together, share pets or have stressful jobs. The activities of life can overshadow the interactions of the relationship.
But there are clear signs when the relationship isn’t working. It’s just that these signs may have existed in our parents’ relationship—and in relationships we saw all around us. So we may have taken these symptoms of a dysfunctional relationship as just the way a normal relationship acts.
These symptoms aren’t normal and we shouldn’t take them as normal.
So here are the signs:
1. Relationships let you relax. If your relationship isn’t letting you relax, the relationship isn’t working. Relationships exist because they let us relax. A lone Neanderthal is going to be just a bit more nervous than one in a trusting relationship. In other words, if the presence of your partner doesn’t soothe you, doesn’t provide some comfort, it isn’t serving the purpose of a relationship. It may be serving a different purpose and that may be something you need to look at.
2. As one of my teachers once said, “Once you are walking on eggshells, the relationship is over.” If you can’t comfortably communicate with your partner, about most things, and you can’t find some way to talk about some things, you aren’t in a relationship. Again, you might be in an economic arrangement or a living arrangement or a co-parenting arrangement but you are not in a relationship.
3.One or both of you does not keep agreements.
An agreement can be as simple as what time you are both going to leave the house to as complicated as a financial agreement or an agreement to be sexually exclusive. The first task is to actually create an agreement. This requires that someone put forth a verbal agreement and the other person agrees, verbally, to that agreement. Alternatively, the next step may be to put the agreement in writing. Whether the agreement gets committed to writing or not, the agreement must be articulated and then agreed upon and then, of course, kept by both parties. If one person does not keep the agreement, and either the agreement is important to one or both parties or a less important agreement is repeatedly disregarded, the relationship will be jeopardized.
4.One of you (both of you?) uses the silent treatment.
The silent treatment is when one person in a relationship refuses to recognize, acknowledge or speak to the other. Of course, sometimes we can be so hurt or so angry that we can barely look at the person who hurt or angered us. But, in order to show up as a mature person with functional relationships skills, we need to use the tool of the Time Out rather than the silent treatment.
Time Out is when we ask for time out from interacting in the relationship. Time Out is structured. It involves one person declaring a Time Out either by saying they want a Time Out or by crossing one index finger over the other to form the letter “t.” All involvement must stop at that point. No one speaks or gestures or in any way attempts to communication.
The difference between a Time Out and the silent treatment in an intimate relationship is that you both agree—ahead of time—to allow the Time Out to not go more than 24 hours. You agree to meet after 24 hours to talk. If you really can’t resume a dialogue at 24 hours, you at least must meet to say that. And then agree upon a time to meet again within 24 hours. It is important that the Time Out NOT be open-ended but, instead, last for an agreed upon length of time.
5.One or both of you is unable to soothe themselves.
The Time Out requires that you both—but especially the person who must wait out the Time Out at the behest of the other—be able to soothe themselves. Another way to say this is that when we are in a relationship, we need to meet our own needs when our partner is, for any reason, unable to meet our needs, and by meeting our needs, calm ourselves to at least some extent.
6.One of you or both of you is unable to accept “No” for an answer.
7.One of you or both of you is "showing up needless and wantless."
Another way to say this is that at least one of you is not showing up representing some or all of a normal range of wants and needs.
Pia Mellody has defined codependency as "showing up needless and wantless." One way this might look is that someone may not be honestly representing their needs. For instance, they might turn down dessert and then be sneaking food, eating powdered sugar doughnuts at 3 A.M. when no one is around. Another example might be one or both people are no longer showing up representing their sexual needs and then surreptitiously fulfilling their needs on their own or with someone outside the relationship.
8.You treat your partner—or your partner treats you—in ways that are impolite, disrespectful or downright abusive.
Do you recognize any of these signs? You have probably seen a few of them in the relationships of your parents or people in your sphere. Do you recognize any of them in your relationship? Do you recognize more than a few of them in your relationship? If you do, you need to consider rethinking—even reclassifying—your relationship. It may simply be an arrangement. You might want to think about just what the arrangement is, what needs it is fulfilling and what needs it is not fulfilling, and whether or not you want to continue with it.
The “biological imperative”
Relationship has been called a “biological imperative.” What that means is that we are biologically compelled to meet, mate and reproduce. But it may also mean that we are tribal and we are compelled to pair up, form partnerships and, eventually, tribes. These partnerships are meant to satisfy needs, the most important among those needs being the first one, the need to relax.
So, ask yourself, when you are with your partner, or when you think of your partner’s presence in your life, how relaxed are you able to be?