And it seems that there are so many others that are afflicted by this very same void in our culture. That something is the feeling of being validated or loved unconditionally.
My parents worked hard to provide for all material needs growing up – a safe home and environment to grow up in, food, toys, etc. Verbally, I was told that I was loved unconditionally, yet I was confused when I experienced that the love I received was ultimately conditioned by performance. Getting good grades, doing household chores, acting according to how my parents wanted me to act and, as I was reaching the age of adulthood, working hard and making sacrifices so that I could have an even more materially prosperous future.
When I didn’t perform according to expectation, my parents’ approval was vacant, and access to material resources were taken away. In these moments, I felt alone in the world, as if no one cared about me. And so what would I do? Work even harder. Why? So that I could feel the experience of being loved again, so I wouldn’t have to be alone. That was my real motivation for working hard.
When I did perform according to expectation, moments of celebration were tarnished by the introduction of new goals and achievements. “You graduated from middle school? Get ready for high school.” “You got that promotion? Well, which promotion is next?” “You led a successful company and made millions? Now what are you going to do?” The answer is never, “I think I am going to do nothing now, to simply be and play in the world.” But why not?
I got used to living my life according to the performance expectations of both my parents and society. All I needed to do was have a look at the mass perception towards those who have “failed” in the “game of life” as defined by society to see the potential for isolation and suffering.
So I kept performing. I spent a decade working sixty to eighty hours per week, face glued to a computer screen, total lack of concern for anything outside myself or my own personal goals. I wasn’t aware of the impact my lifestyle was having not only on my own happiness but also on the world at large.
My first awakening to the impact my lifestyle was having indirectly on the suffering of other beings was slow to develop, precisely because my own suffering was not being addressed. It is extremely difficult to have concern for others when we do not show the same level of concern for ourselves. I ultimately wasn’t strong enough to quit my corporate job so my subconscious maneuvered me into a position to be laid off. I remember how free I felt when I finally turned in my laptop. I literally walked out on to Sixth Avenue in Manhattan and yelled at the top of my lungs, “I’m free!!!”
Little did I know, I was hardly free from the conditioning that required me to prove my worth by working hard. Immediately, without taking a moment to rest from a ten-year career that took all my life energy, I set off on a journey to discover what I would do to “change the world.” Looking back, I could easily have replaced the words “change the world” with “validate myself.” Within months, I had moved to Arizona to get into a Master’s program and began seeking approval in a different arena.
At first, my parents were thrilled that I was going back to school to study ways to make the world more sustainable. But as I dived deeper into the root causes of our sustainability crises, it became apparent to me that the entire economic system, predicated on continuous growth and interest-bearing debt, was the problem. Going to work as a corporate sustainability officer would be equivalent to window dressing a corporate world still entirely focused on the bottom line while paying lip service to other sustainability goals.
So when I graduated after spending $100,000 on a certified sustainability credential – a ticket into any corporation for a $150,000/year job greenwashing its business – I left it all behind, sold my New York apartment, gave up on pursuing personal security through wealth accumulation, and proceeded to develop the Sustainable Human Facebook page in order to get into the deeper roots behind our unsustainable economic system.
However, I was still programmed by this incessant drive to work hard. Only now, because the work I was doing was not something that would ever be validated by my parents (or mass society), I believed I had to work even harder. Sure, this was work that I felt called to do, but because of the lack of validation, especially from my parents, I began to sacrifice every waking moment to it. I sacrificed time I could have spent with my wife, developing relationships with friends and family, or even looking within to find out why I had this seemingly inherent drive to work hard.
I even went so far as believing and calling forth things that I consciously thought I wanted but were only there to meet my subconscious need for validation and belonging. For example, for the past year, I really thought that what I wanted was to collaborate with others. I spent an entire year trying to build a web platform that could be all things to all people. In the process, I abandoned my own voice, my own intuition, and even my inherent talents and gifts. Instead of doing the work I felt passionately about, I began acting on every piece of feedback I received, trying to appease all who contacted me, never stopping to ask if it was something I actually wanted to do. What I really wanted was their acceptance.
What I really wanted was the unconditional love of my parents. And I was sacrificing everything in my life to get it.
Luckily for me, I have a wife who wouldn’t let that happen. She helped me to go within to discover the root source of this incessant addiction to working hard. Through this process, I learned how valuable and necessary it is to validate and love yourself, unconditionally. This simply means loving yourself no matter what other people think of you, even if you don’t meet your goals, even if you lose the game. You always give yourself a chance to recover, realizing that its not the mistake that counts, but what you do when you realize you have made one. Validation from the external world may never come, at least until many of us “workaholics” become aware of the violence we are inflicting against ourselves by not allowing ourselves to experience the true freedom that we are born into this world with.
It is still a struggle for me. The conditioning that compels me to work hard runs deep. But when I wake up each day, I try to ask myself what is it that will make me feel good today, and do that. Still, there is a voice within that tells me that I am being “lazy,” “irresponsible,” “a slacker” to which I respond honestly, “I love you and I always will no matter what you do or don’t do. You are good enough just the way you are”, and my anxiety will simply fall away. From this place is where my best work will manifest and it won’t require me to work very hard at all to complete it. In fact, work, all of a sudden, becomes fun, as I put myself in the position of choosing to work rather than the position of performing for the sake of some external reward or validation.
Going forward, I am going to begin paying more attention to my unmet emotional needs and wounds. Attention is the remedy. If we can acknowledge our pain and voice it, we can begin to alleviate it. If we can love ourselves unconditionally, we can heal ourselves and maybe even the biosphere as a byproduct. After all, the problems of the world are not being caused by “lazy people” or “slackers”. They are being caused by people like me, people who have not yet learned to validate and love themselves unconditionally and are embarking on an endless and impossible quest to fill that gaping hole with possessions and achievements that can never validate you in the ways that only you can.