We Don’t Need To “Earn” Who We Are | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

We Don’t Need To “Earn” Who We Are

At a corporate job I did a while back, there was a manager whom everybody saw as a “royal terror.”  People regularly left his office in tears, and left the company soon after.

One day, I asked a colleague why this man acted the way he did, and my coworker’s answer was interesting:  “he’s earned the right to act that way.  He’s worked his way up to the top.”

At first blush, this sounded silly to me.  “What do you mean, he’s ‘earned the right’?” I thought.  “Did God appear and tell him he could treat everyone like dirt?”

Waiting For Permission To Be Me

But later, it dawned on me:  in a way, I was trying to do exactly what this difficult boss had supposedly done.  I often had thoughts like:  “if I do really well at this job, I’ll start respecting myself, and I won’t be so scared of getting put down by other people,” or “if I get a lot of praise for my work, I’ll stop being so hard on myself.”

In other words, just as this manager had, according to my friend, “earned the right” to rage at his subordinates, I was trying to “earn the right” to treat myself decently.

This may sound weird to you, but if you take an honest look at your own life, I suspect you’ll find some place where you’re striving to “earn the right” to be the person you want to be — and denying yourself permission to be that person right now.

For example, some people I know tell themselves:  “If I work hard enough and make enough money, I’ll be able to spend more time with my family.”  Or maybe, one day, they’ll finally “deserve” to relax, be with the partner they want, or something else.

Giving Ourselves Permission

This idea that we have to “earn the right” to be or feel a certain way is deeply ingrained in our culture.  Unfortunately, I think, it leads to a lot of suffering.

After all, like I said, God doesn’t seem to be in the habit of showing up and telling people when they’ve made enough money, received enough degrees, or developed firm enough abs to be who they want to be.  If we’re waiting for someone to give us permission to be fully ourselves, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment.

At a deeper level, I think, “I haven’t earned the right to be that way” is a story we tell ourselves to keep at bay feelings we’d rather not experience.  If I convince myself that I “don’t have the right to be angry,” the payoff is that I don’t have to feel the discomfort, and handle the conflict, that can come with expressing anger.

The trouble with telling ourselves this kind of story is that, when we cut ourselves off from feelings that are hard to be with, life takes on a dull, muted quality.  Keeping ourselves from feeling angry, sad, compassionate, or whatever the emotion might be takes energy and leaves us drained.

So, I think we can all stand to ask ourselves:  if I gave myself permission to do what I want to do, and feel how I want to feel, how would I show up in the world?  Where am I holding back from expressing my joy, anger, or sadness?  For me, it’s been a scary but powerful question.

We Don’t Have To “Earn” Who We Are

At a corporate job I did a while back, there was a manager whom everybody saw as a “royal terror.”  People regularly left his office in tears, and left the company soon after.

One day, I asked a colleague why this man acted the way he did, and my coworker’s answer was interesting:  “he’s earned the right to act that way.  He’s worked his way up to the top.”

At first blush, this sounded silly to me.  “What do you mean, he’s ‘earned the right’?” I thought.  “Did God appear and tell him he could treat everyone like dirt?”

Waiting For Permission To Be Me

But later, it dawned on me:  in a way, I was trying to do exactly what this difficult boss had supposedly done.  I often had thoughts like:  “if I do really well at this job, I’ll start respecting myself, and I won’t be so scared of getting put down by other people,” or “if I get a lot of praise for my work, I’ll stop being so hard on myself.”

In other words, just as this manager had, according to my friend, “earned the right” to rage at his subordinates, I was trying to “earn the right” to treat myself decently.

This may sound weird to you, but if you take an honest look at your own life, I suspect you’ll find some place where you’re striving to “earn the right” to be the person you want to be — and denying yourself permission to be that person right now.

For example, some people I know tell themselves:  “If I work hard enough and make enough money, I’ll be able to spend more time with my family.”  Or maybe, one day, they’ll finally “deserve” to relax, be with the partner they want, or something else.

Giving Ourselves Permission

This idea that we have to “earn the right” to be or feel a certain way is deeply ingrained in our culture.  Unfortunately, I think, it leads to a lot of suffering.

After all, like I said, God doesn’t seem to be in the habit of showing up and telling people when they’ve made enough money, received enough degrees, or developed firm enough abs to be who they want to be.  If we’re waiting for someone to give us permission to be fully ourselves, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment.

At a deeper level, I think, “I haven’t earned the right to be that way” is a story we tell ourselves to keep at bay feelings we’d rather not experience.  If I convince myself that I “don’t have the right to be angry,” the payoff is that I don’t have to feel the discomfort, and handle the conflict, that can come with expressing anger.

The trouble with telling ourselves this kind of story is that, when we cut ourselves off from feelings that are hard to be with, life takes on a dull, muted quality.  Keeping ourselves from feeling angry, sad, compassionate, or whatever the emotion might be takes energy and leaves us drained.

So, I think we can all stand to ask ourselves:  if I gave myself permission to do what I want to do, and feel how I want to feel, how would I show up in the world?  Where am I holding back from expressing my joy, anger, or sadness?  For me, it’s been a scary but powerful question.

13 thoughts on
We Don’t Need To “Earn” Who We Are

  1. Joyce at I Take Off The Mask

    Hi Chris! This happens frequently, trying so hard to EARN our way to do something, and it leaves us either exhausted or just plain boastful later on. In my article about pride and grace, I’ve written the difference between feeling grateful and feeling proud that we deserved everything we received after all:

    Pride is saying, “I deserved this, I alone worked for it!”
    Grace is saying, “I deserved none of this, but ye have given me all.”

    Pride is reaping exactly what one has expected.
    Grace is astounded by the great harvest one has reaped.

    Pride is always envious, because it sees itself more worthy than the rest.
    Grace invokes only thankfulness, because it gives to those who deem themselves unworthy of it.

    Pride is prone to greed, because it is afraid of poverty.
    Grace fills those who are poor in spirit, and they shall lack nothing more.

  2. Tom Volkar / Delightful Work

    Thanks Chris, this is a scary question. My thoughts immediately ran to where I have made compromises in relationships not wanting to hurt others. In work I’ve transcended this tendency towards inauthentic living but in many close personal relationships there is a twisted sense of earning my way into the hearts of others when really I just feel like saying, “here AI am as I am, take me or leave me.”

  3. Stacey Shipman

    I had a physical reaction to your introductory paragraph. I once worked for a “royal terror”. If I knew then what I know now I would have realized how much pressure he was under and his angry reaction had less to do with me (and other colleagues) and everything to do with him and how he felt. I don’t believe anger is our natural way of being. It is though when tension is present and we’re not feeling good about something in our life. It’s a defense mechanism (I’ve used it!).

    I don’t think you “earn the right” to act a certain way. I do think you earn someone else’s trust and respect by your actions.

    I wish I had the self-confidence to respond differently to the “royal terror” I once worked for. No one deserves to be treated poorly.

  4. Sara

    Chris,

    This is powerful and I need to think on this post because I have mixed feelings. I suppose most of us have faced a “royal terror” in our lives. I’ve had my share and to be honest, most of the time, I’ve simply removed myself from the person, either by changing job or letting go of the friendship.

    But I get that this post is not just about dealing with a difficult person, it’s about being authentic in our world, which is very scary. I think we have to balance how much we share with staying truthful to ourselves. In my case, the quest is find that balance…so I can be myself, but also respect the space of others.

    These are just my initial thoughts. I’ll have to think more on this. This was a great thinking post. Thanks:~)

  5. Alice Hive

    Hey Chris,

    Oh yes, I know that one!

    Just like we’re often waiting for some time in the future in order to be happy, we wait for something in the future to treat ourselves in a loving way. It’s emotional and psychological procrastination.

    The great news is: When we realize that we can be all we want to be right now, we can start to live “the dream” right now. That’s where I am at at the moment, although I can’t say that I don’t struggle with it sometimes. Living the life I so far only knew as a dream can be a big change. But it’s a mostly pleasant one. :)

    Alice

  6. Hilary

    Hi Chris .. aren’t everyone’s comments great .. just add so much to your thought provoking post .. I’d add – that we don’t know how to communicate and that we therefore get ourselves into holes which we’re then not sure of the best way out .. this applies in working conditions and family conditions and we seem to be thinking of that one path only – without taking in the whole picture, or being prepared to relate to where the other person is at.

    I love Jocelyn’s words .. simply expressed .. and that’s the way we would all like to be .. and we all learn at different times in our lives ..

    I hope you and your family are having a good Easter .. with thoughts – Hilary

  7. Chris - Post author

    Hi Joyce — thanks for sharing your poem. I like how your poem points out that pride basically comes from a sense of being at war with others — a belief that I’ve got to knock someone else off the next rung of the ladder in order to keep ascending, and a fear that someone’s going to knock me off my rung. I can get why human beings have that kind of consciousness, being descended from primates that live in troops with a clear pecking order, and so on, but it definitely creates a lot of suffering when we get totally identified with it.

  8. Chris - Post author

    Hi Tom — yeah, I can feel the vulnerability of that admission and definitely appreciate it. In my experience, just being aware of the places where I’m strategizing, and trying to convince others that I’m good enough to be with, can be enough by itself to have me let go of those strategies and start actually enjoying relating.

  9. Chris - Post author

    Hi Stacey — thanks, I feel enriched by your share about your experience with your boss. It’s unfortunate, to me, that a lot of office environments seem to have the unwritten rule that the people at the top can let off steam by being abusive to people lower down in the “org chart.” I get the sense that, if the managers who tend to be that way felt more free to honestly communicate with the people “above them,” customers, their families, and so on, they wouldn’t have so much steam to let off on their subordinates.

  10. Chris - Post author

    Hi Sara — that sounds like powerful awareness, to see that you tend to deal with people who occur to you as abusive by withdrawing. I’ve certainly done my share of that in my working life and elsewhere. I can definitely relate to how scary it is to be honest about what’s really going on for us — and, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no substitute for doing that work with another person.

  11. Chris - Post author

    Hi Alice — I think that’s a great way of summing it up — that we tend to wait for something to happen that will “justify” treating ourselves in a loving way, but of course nothing ever seems to be enough. I’m glad to hear you’ve reached the point where, it sounds like, you’ve said “I’m going to respect myself right now.”

  12. Chris - Post author

    Hi Hilary — yes, I do get the sense that a lot of us are afraid that we don’t know how to communicate with people around us, and so we revert to strategies of attacking, manipulating, withdrawing, and so on. It would be great, I think, if we could have more trust in ourselves and our ability to ask for what we want.

  13. Alice Hive

    Yes, indeed. Sometimes I get thrown off that path for a short time but I always come back pretty soon. It’s much more easy to be happy this way and that’s a great motivator! :)

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