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you are human

January 14, 2022

I’ve been thinking about how we sometimes fight hard against what's human nature.

I was talking with someone recently about how unfulfilled they feel in their job. They don’t sense that their work is valued, and because of this, they wonder if they have any value at all. “How do you do it, Nika?” this person asked. “How do you separate your sense of value as a person from what you experience at work?”

Separating your sense of personal value from your value at work is hard. It’s hard because it’s unnatural. It’s unnatural because humans are by nature social creatures, and we measure our value by our place in our social groups. How others see us makes an impact, whether we want it to or not, and if your work environment is your primary source of social interaction – which it is for many people these days – then of course, naturally, your sense of value is going to stem from how you think your work environment perceives you.

In fact, research has shown that we all tend to perceive our professional interactions as social interactions. This doesn’t mean that we approach our jobs as though we’re at a party. What I mean is that all the things that matter to us and affect us in our personal relationships – belonging, support, abandonment, rejection – matter in our work relationships. The emotional experience of being devalued at work is similar to how we feel when our friends don’t value us. If we feel rejected by a coworker, it’s going to hurt. If our boss leaves us in the dark or treats us with disapproval, it’s going to wound us.

This is human nature.

And yet, we try to fight it. We tell ourselves that what happens at work shouldn’t matter, that we should be able to compartmentalize, get past it, not let it get to us. Memes tell us to do this. “Experts” tell us to do this. And we go along with this advice, which leaves us concluding that we’re double failures: first, because we can’t feel satisfied; and second, because we let it bring us down.

It’s a losing battle because it’s a battle against being human. And the science backs this up.

Some of us have the luxury of feeling better by changing our circumstances. We can change our jobs, change our responsibilities in our current jobs, voice our frustrations with our employers and see solutions. For whatever reason, some of us have fewer constraints on our decision-making than others, and if we’re one of these people, then we should honor our privileges and shape our lives as we wish them to be.

But we aren’t all so fortunate.

If you are stuck in an unsatisfying job, relationship, friend group, or any context involving other people, consider whether your struggle to not let it bother you is a struggle worth engaging in. Before trying to “fix” something inside of you that may not be fixable – or may not be broken – consider what options you might have for changing your circumstances. If you can’t let go of the existing social connections that bring you down, then consider enriching your social life by introducing more fulfilling social connections that can balance out those relationships that hurt you. Or, if you have a rich social life, and you still feel unhappy, ask whether you’ve got the right social connections. Some social groups are less sticky than others: you might be stuck in your job, or your marriage (for now), but other types of relationships may be easier to switch up.

But there is a caveat. Social media is not, by its nature, a solution. It’s a temporary fix, something that can hold you over until you find those real, deep, meaningful connections that really make you feel fulfilled. If you rely on social media to make you feel better after a crappy day surrounded by crappy people, then you’ll be chasing a fix and never really feel content.

There’s also a warning. If you’re the type to say that you successfully go through life not caring what other people think, then you may have social attachment issues, may be delusional, or are professing too much because you’re trying so hard to win a losing fight. We need each other: this is what humans do. And because we need each other, it’s naturally automatic to care what others think of us.

If you’re feeling devalued in some aspect of your life, don’t think yourself a failure because you can’t shake it off. It’s like my cat Jasper feeling like a failure because he naps all afternoon. He’s a cat. That’s what he’s going to do. You’re a person. Your value is going to come from other people.

So, find those people who love you.

That is all.

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