Grasping for Specialness: Attachment to Recognition

[Photo by rthanuthattaphong via Envato Elements]

It’s natural to want to be recognized but how you compare to others does not reflect your true value.

Today’s world is a topsy-turvy and sometimes dangerous place. I suppose our collective question is: What should we do?

This is an especially complex question for those who follow the philosophies of Tao, since this is a path that emphasizes non-attachment and acceptance. Last month, I made a blog post that discussed the pitfalls of attachment and the three kinds of attachment that give people trouble. I would like to go deeper into each of those kinds of attachment, explaining how to identify and deal with them. Before we begin, though, I would like to clarify precisely what I mean by “non-attachment.”

Non-attachment Does Not Mean Not Caring

One misconception about the idea of non-attachment is that it means not caring what happens. This is not true at all. In fact, in a truly non-attached state, your heart is more open and receptive to the needs of others than ever. Attachment, in the spiritual sense, is about the ego and the ways that it wants to protect, defend, and cultivate an individual’s desires, or in some cases the collective egoic desires of groups of people. Attachments are the things that egos believe must happen in the world based on beliefs and preconceptions that people hold. When these egoic desires are not met, negativity follows in some form, ranging from annoyance and petty quarrels in the mildest form to violence and wars in the most extreme.

In a state of non-attachment, an individual can hold any opinion and preference they want, but it does not interfere with their own happiness or that of others. People make the world a miserable place when they become so deeply attached to their own beliefs that they cannot compromise or find common ground. This is at the root of the political polarization and ideologically motivated violence we see in the world. Being non-attached allows one to consider all points of view and to remain peaceful inside and out when the choices of others do not match our desires.

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You Can Be a Non-attached Activist

Being non-attached does not mean you have to sit home meditating while the world becomes more unlivable. In fact, we can be fully engaged activists for a cause dear to our hearts while remaining non-attached. Of course, even activists could become attached to their own objectives. That would be self-destructive, though, since to succeed, we need to be able to listen to other activists as well as to people who want to deny that there is a problem.

If we are truly unattached, we can even accept that people might make all the wrong decisions. They might choose to cling to destructive habits, or they might choose violence over peace. As much as we might not like those choices, if we maintain non-attachment, we will still be able to love them and feel our oneness with them, which is always the key to creating peace, no matter how bad things get.

Attachment to Recognition

Of the three forms of attachment, the attachment to recognition may be the one we experience the most from the youngest age. From the time we first became aware of ourselves as separate individuals, when we were still just toddlers, we hoped that other people would notice us and give us attention. “Hey, look at me!” we cried to our parents and family members as we went through the process of interacting with and learning about the world.

As we grew older, our socialization process only intensified this tendency. As we neared school age, we realized that a lot of things in our world are labeled “bad and good,” “better than and worse than,” “worthy and unworthy.” We discovered that people make these comparisons about coffee brands, clothing labels, and car models, and we found out that people believe that’s true about humans, too. We quickly buy into the idea that some individuals—like movie stars, millionaires, and sports champions—get lots of positive attention, while others are ignored, outcast, or trapped in lives of poverty.

The Drive for Specialness

When we observe this, our natural desire is to stand out among our peers. While our cultures encourage this, no one must teach us to do this; it is built into our “Brain Operating System,” the rules and structures by which our brains work, because we are human. We start by trying to gain praise from our parents and teachers with skills we learn and grades we earn. Then we move on to trying to impress our peers with the toys we own or the clothes we wear.

The biggest problem with this drive for attention is that it can never really be satisfied. Most of us will not experience being the valedictorian or the sports star, and our achievements, even if excellent, will always seem “less than” to some extent. Even if we do achieve those things, the experience of it will be fleeting as the next star rises to the top and we are forgotten. Newsletter signup banner

Confidence vs. Arrogance

This drive to specialness has drastic effect on our self-esteem. Those who perceive themselves as failures—people who have no specialness—will automatically have low self-esteem and will become blind to their own potential. Everyone else will be caught in constant competition with others to rise to the top. Instead of loving and supporting others, our hearts close, and we look for reasons why we rank above them and they rank below.

This situation leads to a culture wherein people are likely to be narcissistic, displaying a kind of arrogance meant to project the message “I am better than you.” Even many “nice” and “polite” people engage in this to some degree, reacting emotionally if their claim to specialness—perhaps their physical beauty, intelligence, or social status—is called into question. Underneath it all, however, so many people are insecure and suffer great doubts about their own value. They have arrogance and pride, but they have no true confidence.

Beyond Comparison

The key to true confidence is to grow beyond comparisons, the obsession with “better” and “worse.” Of course, our brains always can and will make such comparisons, but we must recognize that there is no absolute truth in those comparisons. They are just information in the brain. Thinking, “I am better than her” or “he is less than me” is just a fleeting opinion formed in the mind. No matter how our culture may support the idea that some people are worth more and some are worth less, there is no truth in it.

Those thoughts are fine for finding the best person for a job or for finding the winner of the spelling bee, but they have no bearing on the actual value of an individual. The value of any individual can only lie in the soul since that is the only lasting, genuine part of who we are. Everything else—the trophies, the fame, the degrees earned—will eventually fade away.

Upgrading the Brain Operating System

As I mentioned earlier, this attachment to recognition is completely natural to the human brain; it is hardwired almost as an instinct. But, it is causing great misery on earth. Recognizing our true self, the soul, of every human being is the key to growing up and growing beyond this natural attachment. In other words, it is the key to upgrading our Brain Operating System. If we can do this, we can finally become secure in the unique role we have come to play here on this planet, and we can freely support and nurture the highest potential of others, as well.

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