Nobody Special

I wrote an essay recently on Generation Y and social technology. In it I quoted an article from Psychology Today whichgave this assessment of this coterie of the younger generation:

“(The members of Generation Y) are arguably the most reviled generation in recent history and armies of consultants are hustling to decipher them. Called the ‘Trophy Generation’, notorious for receiving prizes simply for turning up, they are thought to be entitled, narcissistic, self-promotional, coddled, opinionated, whiny and needy. They seek constant feedback and immediate gratification. They multi-task and can’t focus. They’re sensitive to criticism and unable to work alone. They refuse to pay their dues.”

The parents of this generation have contributed to this state of affairs by the manner in which this generation was raised. The reference to the “trophy generation” is telling. These children were raised to believe that each of them, somehow, individually is special. This inevitably causes difficulties when they confront the real world and find the “specialness” their parents conferred on them was an illusion.

It is a natural inclination for parents to believe their offspring are somehow special. I used to gain some amusement from the young parents who used to work with me and who would expound breathlessly on the latest achievement of their young child. It was hard to believe that the progeny of others might somehow to have managed to crawl, to walk, to be potty-trained and mastered the basics of language as well! And if I was to tell the truth I would have to admit I felt the same sense of pride when my own children met the same milestones.

And of course this continues in the child’s further development. We often exaggerate their achievements and rationalise away their perceived “failures”. This tendency was further exacerbated by the “self-esteem” movement that postulated that we should take every opportunity to advance our child’s sense of self-esteem (hence the Trophy Generation mentioned above.)

I am going to run a controversial thought by you now. It is easy to criticise the “self- esteem” movement and I have done this elsewhere – but one would have to concede that a lot of the efforts of parents to make their children seem special is largely motivated by their parents wanting to feel special as well. Many parents live their own lives vicariously through the achievements of their children.

As children the most important gift that we can be given by our parents is unconditional love. Unconditional love nurtures us because we know there is nothing that we need do to earn it. Yet few people would seem to agree that their parents gave them this priceless gift. How many of us recall that our motivation was to “make our parents proud”. This entailed doing well at school, staying out of trouble, marrying someone our parents approved of and producing grandchildren they could dote on. In this way, their love was therefore conditional.

The marvellous writer and psychiatrist, Gordon Livingstone writes:

“Well-functioning families are good at letting their children go. Poorly functioning families tend to hold on to them.”

And there is no doubt that we fall for the same trap in the choice of partners. When we strut the social stage with a partner who is physically and socially desirable we believe that we are somehow enhanced. We are now “special” because we are associated with someone “special”.

Even more pathetically, we have in our heads this erroneous notion that out there, somewhere in the world, there is this special someone with the extraordinary qualities to make us happy. Our unhappiness must therefore be due to something lacking in our partners! Yet, as I have constantly reinforced in my blog essays, our happiness is largely a construct of our own minds.

What we don’t understand is that constructing a mutually satisfying relationship with a partner is dependent on the same factor that we saw above was required for the productive nurturing of our children – viz unconditional love. No doubt if you are planning to spend a lifetime with someone, it is useful to have shared interests and values, but it is surely more dependent on unconditional love. And I believe far from staking your future happiness on encountering and ensnaring “Mr or Ms Right”, there are a myriad of people out there who you could have a satisfying and enduring relationship with if you were prepared to work at it on a platform of unconditional love.

The good Dr Phil makes a distinction between possessive relationships and love relationships.

People in a love relationship he contends:

“Recognise that true love is a gift not a reward and therefore depends upon the characteristics of the giver not the characteristics of the receiver. They understand that love not given as a gift is simply manipulation and that love given as an unconditional gift benefits the giver even if it is never appreciated.”


[Again the good Dr Phil, cannily, often says, “If your partner should ask you, ‘Why do you love me?’ you should be very circumspect how you answer. If you were to say, for example, ‘I love you because you are physically attractive’, or, ‘I love you because you care for me so much’ or whatever, you have immediately threatened your partner because you have made your love conditional on a quality that might not endure. It would be better to say (as outlined above), ‘I give my love as a gift. There is nothing you need do to earn it and nothing you could ever do would have me withdraw it.”(Phil writes more eloquently than I and would probably put it better, but this is the gist of his important teaching as I remember it.)]


What passes for love in many relationships between adults more often resembles an unspoken contract for services rather than displaying the unconditionality espoused above.


I might have gotten a little off-track here. But what I was trying to show was that in our relentless drive to convince ourselves (and hopefully others) how special we are we don’t resile from using our children and our partners.


Unfortunately however, the biggest trick we play is largely to delude ourselves.


It is easy to test this assertion. Take a random sample of the population and ask each individual to do the following quiz:


Assess yourself on the following criteria, making appropriate adjustment for age and gender and rate your performance as:

  1. Below average,
  2. Average, or
  3. Above average.


Criteria for assessment:

  • Physical fitness,
  • Driving ability,
  • Sense of humour,
  • Common sense,
  • Self-understanding.


Invariably most will rate themselves as above average on these criteria. Now how can this be? If we were to score the results as 1 point for below average, 2 points for average and 3 points for above average, and if we have a truly representative sample of sufficient number the mean score in each category should approximate 2. But of course it is always higher because most of us rate ourselves higher than average. Why is this? Well even if our delusions are only modest, we want to believe we are at least a little bit special!


There are many downsides to this struggle to be special and I have outlined them in my frequent essays on self and ego. But mostly it serves to drive a wedge between ourselves and others.


It gives cause to arise the afflictive emotions that Buddhists tell us contribute so much to our unhappiness – emotions such as envy, greed, anger and guilt.


Most of those involved in this struggle believe it is a zero-sum game. If you are somehow special it detracts from me – and vice versa. I will thus come to resent your success and feel guilt at my perceived failures.


It is a very instructive lesson to learn that the essential choice available to us as human beings is the choice between “Love” and “Fear”. (See The Myth of Nine to Five by those admirable authors Scott & Harker!) There is not the opportunity in this short essay to elaborate on those choices except to say, as you might intuitively believe, that human well-being is enhanced when we come down on the side of “Love”.


Many years ago I proposed to the good Dr Phil that my definition of love is “the dissolution of separateness”. When I emphasise my separateness (specialness?) it is because I want to think that somehow I am different (likely superior) to you. This will usually manifest itself as hate, disdain, envy or disparagement, none of which is conducive to long-term productive relationships. When I disavow separateness and I concede that, warts and all, you and I have so much in common we are then able to empathise with each other. And consequently we can probably forgive each other because we share our foibles as well as our strengths. Then somewhere in this strange melange of humility and empathy “Love” might confer on us its own special satisfaction.


But let me leave the last word, to the thirteenth century Japanese Zen Buddhist Master, Dogen Zenji, who I believe I have quoted previously.


“To study the Way is to study the Self.

To study the Self is to forget the Self.

To forget the Self is to be enlightened by all things.

To be enlightened by all things is to forget the

barrier between Self and Other.”


And of course once we overcome that barrier between “Self and Other” there can be no thought of specialness.

3 Replies to “Nobody Special”

  1. Another good blog thanks Ted. But surely its not delusional if one really is above average !

  2. Learning to cope with failure is an important skill as is learning to recognise failure. Unfortunately when I was raising my family I had the belief that when you believe you are good at something you are more motivated to try harder at it. Hence I have probably unwittingly aided my children’s march into the trophy generation. So I guess now I should forgive myself this failure. The other important lesson I have learnt is never to take myself too seriously.

    Que Sera Sera.

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