On the Desire for Recognition

A student recently sent me a short e-mail consisting almost entirely of this thought: “Desire for recognition from others, including co-workers, family, friends…I really hate this.” The topic is worthy of serious consideration. Let us take a moment to examine this strange but all-too-common tendency in humans, the “desire for recognition.”

It is unlikely that human beings could ever completely numb themselves to the pleasure that comes of feeling appreciated by others. After all, we learn this pleasure as children, when, due to childhood’s natural dependency, the approval and acceptance of others — especially parents, older siblings, and teachers — feels, and perhaps is, essential to our self-preservation. It is not surprising, then, that some remnant of this understandable childhood need survives into adulthood, and possibly throughout our lives. And to the extent that humans can in any sense be described as social animals, it may be reasonable to grant that some measure of gratification derived from another’s approval or acceptance of what we do is a natural and innocent pleasure, and also a beneficial source of encouragement and confidence, of practical and spiritual use to all but the most ideally self-reliant individuals. Indeed, the capacity to be pleased by the approval of particular and respected others is probably an indispensable mechanism of political community, helping (in a healthy community) to constrain or limit the more corruptive or destructive inclinations of ordinary men’s souls within the bounds of what we casually call “acceptable behavior.”

We must qualify the above observations, however, with two further considerations.

First of all, should you, as a mature adult, derive pleasure from appreciation or recognition from everyone, or only from people you personally respect or admire? It is natural to feel good when someone we esteem and trust expresses approval for what we have done, partly because it indicates a proper consideration for the other person’s mind and judgment. For example, if I did not care at all what my friend thought of my ideas or my actions, how truly could that person consider me a friend? In what is the friendship grounded, if there is no mutually enjoyed kinship of character or attitude, such that I may perceive my friend’s judgment of me (whether positive or negative) as at least an echo of my proper judgment of myself.¬†

On the other hand, I would say it is unhealthy, and a sign of psychological immaturity, to be excited or particularly gratified by applause from “an audience,” by which I mean, broadly, the world comprised of people we do not know. Such a person, having placed excessive value on earning approbation without regard for its source, has become too concerned with pleasing others, in effect enslaving himself to others’ judgments, as opposed to one who is merely capable of feeling gratified at having pleased someone whose mind and judgment he knows well enough to care about. The latter type of person, whose pleasure at being recognized is tied to the identity and worth of the person whose recognition has been earned, would make a good friend. The former, obsessed with recognition or approval for its own sake, without regard for the nature or value of its source, would be Donald Trump.¬†

Secondly, building on the previous point, there is a substantial difference between feeling pleasure when someone gives us positive feedback, on the one hand, and desiring¬†positive feedback as such, on the other — corresponding roughly to the distinction between being pleased by a friend’s approval and being concerned with the approval of an audience, real or imagined. For example, when I write an essay, including the one I am writing at this moment, I try to focus completely on what I want to say, meaning what I actually think about the topic, without considering whether anyone else will agree with me. But after I publish it, if a good reader says, “I liked that essay, thank you for writing that,” I will surely feel some pleasure at the recognition. As long as the pleasure is consequent to the effort that earned recognition, there is no problem.

The danger, of course, is that pleasure is by its nature a temptation to repetition, which means, simply, that any pleasure easily and directly engenders a desire for more of the same pleasure. Hence, when I receive that kind of pleasant recognition for my ideas, I might, in spite of myself, incline toward anticipating that person’s approving opinion, and the pleasure I derive from it, when I write my next essay. If that sort of pleasure loop begins to assert itself in my psyche — and it takes conscious acts of will to prevent such a thing from happening — then the desire for recognition is taking control of my thinking, and therefore my next essay will necessarily be less honest (and of lower quality), because I will no longer be writing entirely to please myself, but rather thinking too much — strictly speaking, any amount of such thinking is too much — about other people’s approval.

Desire for recognition, then, is harmful to our efforts and results, because it makes us dishonest, in the most pernicious sense of lying to ourselves. On the other hand, if you do something well, and someone whose opinion rightfully matters to you says “Good job,” it is reasonable and healthy to feel some measured degree of pleasure, since it is always pleasant to find that we have pleased a friend — and then to forcibly forget about that pleasure as quickly as possible, so you can focus on your work again without sliding into the spirit-shrinking, psychologically enslaving trap of living or working for recognition.

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