When Recognition Needs a Make Over
By Jennifer Keluskar Ph.D.
What is Mood Smoothie?
I have titled this web site Mood Smoothie to describe its basic purpose: It’s a place where people can go for ideas about how to smooth out the emotional highs and lows of everyday existence.
The “smoothie” part of my project’s title speaks to the idea of approaching life with a spirit of creativity and calmness, or smoothness, in mood. It came to me one morning when I made a breakfast smoothie for my kids because my fridge was sparsely stocked. I do not usually make them smoothies, but I realized that blending the ingredients that were available might create something new that they would like, and they did. This drove home the idea that being open to doing the best I can with what I’ve got can unlock greater potential for problem solving.
So, Mood Smoothie is a means for me to share insights I have acquired as a clinical psychologist. Working as a mental health professional has come with the privilege of earning individuals’ trust and listening to their stories and struggles. This has both enriched my understanding of humanity as well as given me a sense of purpose in helping others. While I can have this kind of relationship with only a tiny segment of the population, I believe that everyone should have access to information for enhancing emotional well-being without long wait lists and financial constraints that might limit access to treatment.
I am also a believer in prevention. For instance, in working with families over the years, I have seen the power that parents have in preventing the typical challenges of childhood from becoming insurmountable problems. Also, I believe that while many people will need more formal treatment than can be provided by self-help, therapy does not need to last a lifetime. Therefore, prevention can also take the form of maintaining coping skills after treatment has been completed.
Who this post is for and what is it about
“The Hamster Wheel of Recognition” is related to the human desire to be acknowledged or given credit for one’s own efforts. While one person might hope their family gives them recognition for how well they cooked dinner, another might pursue a promotion at work for a status upgrade, and another might share their creative work in hopes that it will stand out. These scenarios all depict a want for recognition.
Recognition can also be either positive or negative (think notoriety). As the New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks (July 8, 2022) described in his article about mass shooters: “They decide to commit suicide in a way that will selfishly give them what they crave most: To be known, to be recognized, to be famous.”
However, this post is not about solutions to mass shootings, or any of the extreme cases of recognition-seeking. It’s just for regular people who feel distraught and dissatisfied about the lack of recognition they receive.
This post is also not about how to gain recognition. You can find many resources on this elsewhere. For example, professional writer Herbert Lui (May 13, 2022) makes recommendations in his article, “You’ve Done the Hard Work. Here’s How to Get the Recognition You Deserve,” such as presenting your work live or via video and leaving notes for people who read your work. Articles like these can give you real-world suggestions for getting recognition, but at the end of the day, there is no guarantee that you will receive it. Your boss might not be ready for your ideas, and the public might not be interested in the work you are providing. Artists who gained fame posthumously, such as Vincent Van Gogh or Henri Toulouse Lautrec, serve as reminders that not all greatness is acknowledged, at least not immediately. Also, while your ideas might be stellar, there is a different set of skills for convincing others that you are offering something worthy of their attention. For more on this, I recommend the episode of Adam Grant's Worklife podcast entitled, "How to Pitch your Best Ideas" (April 26, 2022).
Given the many obstacles to receiving recognition, the main question here will be, if I don’t get the recognition I deserve, how can I handle it in such a way that it doesn’t ruin my mental health?
Before we dive into this question, we need to understand recognition seeking as a behavioral phenomenon. We can most compassionately do this through understanding the possible underlying psychological needs that contribute to it.
Everyone Wants Recognition
An understanding of child development reveals that we start seeking recognition early in life. As toddlers, we learn that what we do impacts others’ behavior, and we influence others behavior through our own actions. Think of the baby in a highchair who repeatedly throws their spoon on the ground knowing their parent will see it and pick it up for them. We also know that babies react negatively to not getting positive attention from their caregivers. As an example, Dr. Edward Tronick's Still Face Experiment (e.g. Goldman, 2010) has shown that infants become distressed when their bids for attention are met with a non-responsive facial expression from a caregiver. The reason for their upset is theorized to be that from the beginning of life, how others respond to you emotionally has great bearing on how you manage your own emotions.
It is also evident from an early age that there is variation in the extent to which people desire recognition. For instance, while basic behavioral principles reveal that a child is likely to stop raising their hand if they are never called on by their teacher, some children will persist longer than others, and some will become more upset than others about not getting called on. Also, while some people seek popularity and celebrity status, others are content with smaller-scale levels of acknowledgment, such as from their family and friends.
The Deep Psychological Need
Although not everyone wants to be famous or even popular, recognition-seeking in some form appears to be so commonplace that I suspect it reflects deeper psychological needs. According to the American Psychological Association, a psychological need is “any need that is essential to mental health or that is otherwise not a biological necessity. It may be generated entirely internally, as in the need for pleasure, or it may be generated by interactions between the individual and the environment, as in the need for social approval, justice, or job satisfaction….” (https://dictionary.apa.org/psychological-need).
When it comes to psychological needs, I am drawn to models such as Marshall Rosenberg's Needs Inventory from the Center for Nonviolent Communication (https://www.cnvc.org/training/resource/needs-inventory). The practice of nonviolent communication emphasizes building healthier habits and interpersonal interactions through an understanding of the human needs that are driving behavior (cnvc.org). Understanding these basic needs is thought to enhance compassion for yourself and others.
Rosenberg divides needs into seven basic categories:
Each of these is divided into several subcategories, all of which are interesting to consider. For me, the two that best explain the psychological desire for recognition are Connection and Meaning.
Connection refers to a sense of belonging to a group. It is possible to feel connected to others even when they are not physically present. It is also possible to feel a lack of connection despite being surrounded by other people or having thousands of “friends” on social media. Connection, therefore, relates to the belief that what you say or do matters to a given group of people. Without connection, people are prone to feeling isolated, ignored, and invisible (all of which feel pretty miserable).
The need for Meaning relates to having a sense of purpose and believing that you are making the world a better place. It is similar to the need for connection for a couple of reasons. For one, people are limited in how much impact they can have alone. Consequently, they make a difference through their affiliation with groups, whether it be through a career or volunteering for an organization that supports a cause they stand for. In this context, connection is a prerequisite for meaning. Another reason meaning and connection are close cousins is that people derive meaning through their impact on other humans. For example, many people who choose to raise children do so because they know they play an essential role in how the child develops. Consequently, seeing yourself as the primary agent of change motivates you to persevere through the hardships of parenting.
Connection and meaning both require being recognized to some extent. Adults who work with your children (e.g. teachers, coaches, therapists, etc.) need to recognize you as their parent if the community is to successfully collaborate in supporting your children's development. You might have a difficult time getting involved in a charity event if your name gets missed from the sign-up sheet (or you never received the Zoom link).
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
In order to gain a deeper understanding of how recognition relates to needs for connection and meaning, it is important to consider both the benefits and downsides of recognition seeking.
Pros of recognition seeking
One of the pros of the desire for recognition is that it motivates people to do more and better. For instance, the reason I choose to publish an article rather than write it in a diary is because I want others to read it. Therefore, I spend more hours improving the quality of my writing when I know I will have to compete for others' attention. Recognition seeking has also contributed to social justice movements. We continue to fight for the recognition of marginalized groups, such as addressing obstacles to career advancement and financial stability imposed on such groups by society. Beyond emotional benefits, then, recognition can be tied to physical needs. If it leads to greater pay and ability to provide for loved ones, then it can be argued that recognition is not only a privilege, but also a human right.
When it’s a problem:
At the same time, needing recognition can be seen as a root of psychological problems, as evidenced by the anxiety and depression experienced by some celebrities and social media influencers due to the constant pressure to provide fresh and popular content. (Jennings 2021). We see similar negative outcomes in the general public as well, whether in employees getting burnt out from putting in overtime without sufficient acknowledgement for their efforts, or the stay-at-home parent who is unpaid for the labor of carrying out child rearing and housework.
Furthermore, in a society that values productivity, earnings, and achievements over emotional well-being and goodness of heart, it is easy to label hard work unrecognized as a "waste" of time and resources. In this way, recognition-seeking might lead not only to feelings of rejection, but also worthlessness. It might also lead people to spend too much time chasing more projects than they can handle. This tendency to bite off more than you can chew can have negative impacts on your relationships with others, as you sacrifice time and attention towards the people you care the most about.
Recognition seeking might also inadvertently hurt relationships, which is ironic if it is meant to fulfill a need for connection with others. As an example of this, I have often felt misunderstood for my recognition seeking, such as when I was teased for being a "teacher's pet" and a "know it all.”
For years, I dismissed these claims, all of which appeared to contradict my values of generosity, hard work, and egalitarianism. I also repeatedly found myself stuck on the productivity hamster wheel, with the belief that recognition is a limited subscription I must strive to renew again and again. Being seen as having lost my touch among colleagues was one of my greatest fears. With parenting, every interaction with my children left me feeling like I was on stage and being judged not only for what I said, but also the tone with which it was uttered.
While positive acknowledgments in my life have filled me with pride, delight, and hope, I realized that needing recognition also made me miserable, most likely because I tried to fulfill it by relentlessly trying to please others. In doing so, I unintentionally drifted away from who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live. My values of hard work and achievement, nurturing my children, and doing good for others, have not explained why I needed my teachers to know I knew the answers, and why I needed my children, their teachers, and other parents to know I’m a good mother. On top of the pressure to constantly prove myself to others, these "needs to please" fueled self-sabotaging behavior, such as when a parenting strategy did not work in getting my kids to behave better, and I yelled at them out of frustration, thus compromising my values as a parent.
The reality is we cannot get rid of recognition seeking entirely
So what can be done to prevent or mitigate the negative consequences of recognition seeking when there are clearly positive, or at least irresistible, aspects to it as well?
One thought is to hone the art of self-recognition for our work and efforts. This might be helpful given the realities that there are a lot of people to compete with, that not every fruit of hard labor is guaranteed a medal, and that sometimes superficial qualities such as popularity, attractiveness, and social connections, are more impactful than skill and effort.
When I think of self-recognition, the first image that pops into my mind is a baby throwing a ball, and then gleefully squealing and clapping in response to their victory. Self-recognition appears to be innate, and at the same time, as mentioned above, people's sensitivity to others' acknowledgement of their behavior develops quite early as well. For instance, I also imagine the infant smiling at a caregiver in an effort to share the joy of their victory. Therefore, while self-recognition will help to an extent, completely replacing recognition seeking with self-recognition would be quite a challenging feat, as it would go against how people are wired.
Luckily, there are other things you have more control over when it comes to managing the darker side of recognition seeking. I would be lying if I said I have mastered these perfectly given that, from time to time, the "people-pleasing" and "relentless striving" bugs still creep up. However, I would argue that calling yourself out on these behaviors is the first step. Doing so relieves you of unnecessary shame, and you will be able to reflect on how to use it to do good for yourself and others. After you recognize it, the following strategies might be helpful as well:
How to Cope with Not Receiving Recognition:
1. Be in Competition Only with Yourself: While it is impossible to live in a vacuum where you never compare yourself to others, you can make a conscious effort to focus on thinking about how you have improved over time. For instance, if you are feeling down because your friend runs a food pantry and you have volunteered there on only one occasion, focusing on the fact that you are volunteering more than you did in the past will give you a greater sense of meaning in your accomplishment.
2. Choose Who You Seek Recognition From: There is no shame in being intentional about whose feedback you give more importance to. In fact, this is what makes sense given the futility of pleasing everyone. One exercise I do with my clients is to ask them to imagine a favorite celebrity. I then ask them to imagine asking all of their peers (classmates, coworkers, etc.) what they think of that same celebrity. Would every person like them as much as you do? Inevitably, even the most famous people will have their critics. A major reason for this is the diversity of humankind. Picasso is not everyone's cup of chai because not everyone appreciates abstract art, not because Picasso wasn't a great artist.
3. Remember the Power of One: Here's another exercise to try. Reflect on one person who had an appreciable impact on your life in a positive way. This could be a parent, teacher, partner, friend, writer, podcast host, celebrity or historical figure. Then, imagine having a positive impact on just one person, and that person regarding you in a way that is similar to how you think and feel about the person who impacted you. Use this to remember that there is great meaning and value in positively impacting just one person's life. Once again, you don't have to win 'em all.
4. Give Others Recognition: When I find articles that effectively communicate one of my beliefs, I share them in posts on social media, with a brief comment on my response to them. Recognizing others does not only help the people who are being recognized, but it also might help you feel good about performing an act of kindness. Recognizing others’ work is also giving to the public, who can benefit from the work.
5. Live in Accordance with Your Values - By examining the personal values you prioritize (such as by using Hayes' Valued Living Questionnaire, https://stevenchayes.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/The-Valued-Living-Questionnaire.pdf), you can better understand the extent to which you are living in a way that aligns with the kind of person you want to be. For instance, if you highly value social connection, but you are not making time to hang out with friends, you are likely to feel pretty unhappy.
Similarly, with recognition seeking, make sure to periodically ask yourself what the "why" is behind your efforts. Then, ask yourself if this reason is moving you closer or farther away from the kind of person you want to be. For example, if you sense that your motive for volunteering is shifting further away from helping others and more towards earning a volunteer award, don't linger on guilt, but rather, use this as a cue to redirect your mindset so you are steering again in the direction of your values. Think of it like realizing, upon glancing at your speedometer, that you are driving too fast. Lingering on this observation might cause you to get distracted and get into an accident or get a ticket. Rather, it is more effective to get your speed in check by slowing down.
Life can feel like a race to get to the finishing line of your goals. When those goals are solely based on seeking recognition from others, you risk self-sabotage and emotional distress. By periodically slowing down and checking in with yourself, your needs, and your values, you will gain an effective roadmap for finding meaning and purpose, as well as ensure that you don't miss the more scenic routes along the way.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Psychological Need. In APA Dictionary of
Psychology. Retrieved July 29, 2022, from https://dictionary.apa.org/psychological-need
Brooks, D. (2022, July 7). Why mass shooters do the evil they do. The New York
The Center for Nonviolent Communication. Needs inventory.
Grant, A. (Host). (2022, April 26). How to pitch your best ideas [Audio podcast episode].
Goldman, J.G (2010). Ed Tronick and he still face experiment. The Thoughtful Animal,
Hayes, S. (2019) The Valued Living Questionnaire. https://stevenchayes.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/The-Valued-Living-Questionnaire.pdf
Jennings, R. (2021, May 25). The influences are burned out, too. Vox.
Lui, H. (2022, May 13). You’ve done the hard work. Here’s how to get the recognition you