Appreciation is one of those vanishingly rare feelings that everyone wants to receive but almost never does. It’s like talking to a truly good listener. Either these things are not being radiated outward by very many people very often, or they don’t mean what we think they mean. When it comes to appreciation, there are three basic possibilities:
The first, being surrounded by ingrates, is unfortunately quite common. Anyone who has ever wiped out the office microwave or cleaned up someone else’s coffee mugs understands this. People who expect to be cleaned up after and waited on, and don’t even realize that this is entitlement, are probably in the majority. It’s not usually a deliberate policy; they truly are unaware that they leave a trail of mess and problems for other people everywhere they go. I’ve been a secretary and a maid and a nanny. I get it. It’s not just a gendered problem, though; there are plenty of steel-toe-booted men with grease under their nails who feel the same way. It’s all about what we notice. We want our contributions to be celebrated, but we don’t necessarily celebrate those of others on a daily basis.
The cure for this is to stop dwelling on it. Do the work for its intrinsic value to you, or get away from it and do something else. For instance, I’m on the extreme end of tidiness and organization, so I accept that the cost of having things my way is doing them myself. There is a certain base level of housekeeping that has to get done, whether I live alone or with other people, so it is completely irrelevant whether I am the only person cleaning this bathroom every week. I’d be doing it for myself either way. I do do it for myself, and if anyone else benefits from it, then it is my choice to offer my work as a gift. Whether it is received as such is none of my business, any more than it is my business whether people like the birthday cards I send. All those tedious years I spent working as a secretary gave me a solid skill set that I use every day in working for myself. Most of the hundreds of people I supported probably can’t even remember that I ever worked there, and wouldn’t recognize me or remember my name. That’s fine; the reverse might be true in many cases. I got paid then and I benefit from my work now. None of that work was ever going to lead directly to anything I wanted to do, or an income level I found exciting. Until I got out of it, I was stuck at the wrong level, in a limbo of my own creation.
That is the second issue with feeling appreciated. My work was indeed appreciated, but not in the ways that mattered to me the most (emotional connection, fat wads of cash, inspiration, and inherent interest). This tends to be a bigger problem in personal relationships. Several of the unhappiest people I know are dedicated readers of romance novels. Now, I’m married to the love of my life, my best friend, and an extremely interesting person – all one man, yes – but our marriage has no resemblance whatsoever to anything I’ve read in a romance novel or seen in a “chick flick.” Which is unreal? My ten-year relationship, or an entire multimedia genre? We set up a system to divide the infrastructural elements of our life (money, chores, privacy, personal fulfillment, career growth, decision-making), and we each hold our end up. We report back to each other, but most of our conversations are about wacky stuff, our projects, gossip, or the news rather than Our Feelings or Appreciating Each Other for Taking Out the Trash. I could wait a million years for him to write me a love sonnet about my terrific job folding laundry, or passive-aggressively wait for him to, I dunno, build me a custom closet organizer or something. Or I can just enjoy his company and occasionally ask him outright to do favors for me. Which he does. He’s not a mind-reader, and I wouldn’t want him to be, because can you imagine living with someone who reads your mind all the time? I just want to hang out with him in the lowest-maintenance way possible, because he’s my favorite person to talk to. Many relationships start out this way, only to die a slow death due to a lack of systems and defined boundaries.
This is where the third appreciation issue comes in. We don’t always merit the appreciation we feel we deserve. I remember my first real office job, when I was 18, and I believed I should be promoted directly to management because I was obviously one of the smartest people there. Didn’t work out so well. This is a fixed-mindset problem. If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room, and you’re probably not the smartest person in the room anyway, because that person ain’t talking. My folly was in thinking IQ has anything to do with context, competence, contribution, or mastery. I was in the wrong job (mortgage bank), had no experience (unless you count making nachos at 7-Eleven), did something even a child could do (making photocopies 8 hours a day), and did not have the demonstrated track record of kicking serious ass. That whole “pay your dues” thing is frustratingly real, whatever your age. Fast forward 15 years, and I was making triple the income for what I considered the same type of work, because I had a college degree and more experience. That’s fair. The older and more experienced I get, the more I realize that I’m not even qualified to shake hands with the people who really get things done. Do what they did or don’t expect to get their results.
Appreciation in relationships is not distributed based on the desire for it. We tend to give with one hand and take away with the other. Many relationships polarize into bitter nagging and resentment from the one, coupled with annoyance and rebellion from the other. Nobody is the boss of anybody when it comes to love. Many of us could love each other better if we didn’t have to live together or share a bank account. We have to look to ourselves first. Would I be my roommate? Would I marry me? Many years ago, I decided that whenever I had a thought that “I wish he would” or “He should” [whatever], I would immediately look to myself and make sure I was fully following my own advice. Then I needed to back away, leave him alone, focus on my own homework, and let him do whatever he wanted to do at his own pace. Our relationship has evolved over the years, not because I’m some perfect role model or highly skilled manipulator, but because people mature and grow and change. We have to leave each other room to do this. We also have to start suspecting that maybe our mates are really the patient, long-suffering ones. Maybe they love us a little more than we love them, and we haven’t noticed yet.
Getting hung up on feeling appreciated is a losing battle. It’s like waiting for opportunity to come and knock on your door. It doesn’t work that way. Feeling unappreciated is a sign that we’re either doing the wrong thing, spending time with the wrong people, or caught up in ego needs. We need a perspective shift. We need to let it go and start focusing on people and situations we can love on their own merits. Or, in other words, we need to find what we can appreciate, and radiate what we wish to receive.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.