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.