For a while, my sister read a picture book to her infant son at bedtime that ended: “You are special, you are you!” Of course she thinks her son is special (as an adoring aunt, I do too!), but a recent interview with psychologist Jean Twenge on the Hidden Brain podcast made me think this could actually set my nephew up to feel profoundly disappointed when he reaches his thirties.
It is a disappointment that I grappled with, as growing up I too was told that I was special. Apparently it wasn’t just me; Twenge studies how American culture has shifted to increasingly emphasize our individuality in order to instill high self-esteem, using messages like “you are special!” and “you can be anything you want!”
Instead of being helpful, these cultural shifts have left millennials more depressed and anxious than the generations before them. As Hidden Brain summarizes: “One thing that could play a role [contributing to depression and anxiety] is the rude awakening many millennials face in their twenties when their high expectations don’t match reality — they don’t turn out to be as successful and important as their parents promised they would be.”
Doing well in school and early in my career let me hold onto the expectation of being successful and special for a while. The rude awakening came for me in my 30s, when I wasn’t sure what I was doing with my life and noticed that I wasn’t heading toward anything special. In truth, anything I had achieved was more due to my privileged background than any real brilliance or effort on my part. I was unremarkable relative to my peers, unspecial, and not destined to achieve anything worthy of an interview by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air (my recurring fantasy).
I felt disappointed. It was the rude awakening that Twenge describes, but one I’m coming to terms with. Instead of trying to prove that I really am special in some way, I am letting go of the idea that I ever was special to begin with. Special in its definition has a connotation of being better than. Instead of being better than anyone else, instead of needing to accomplish anything more than anyone else, I can simply be myself. It’s a shift from being special to being unique.
If we change what we tell kids from “you are special,” to “you are unique,” it would be true! We are each unique in our experiences, our abilities, and our relationships. Instead of thinking that these make us special, we can appreciate how we are distinct and aim for an accurate understanding of ourselves. I am singular to my partner, sisters, parents, my friends, and to my coaching clients. I have a unique combination of experiences working in the environmental field, in mindfulness and emotional intelligence, and the ability to read endless numbers of self-help and psychology books for fun.
These things differentiate me from others, but not in a way that makes me special. They are not a call for me to achieve or rise above, but a simple recognition that I am singular in my combination of relationships, interests, and experience — everything that makes life special to me.
If you too feel some charge around being special, consider the following:
- What messages did you receive about being special growing up? How have you translated these messages into expectations for your career and your life?
- Who is special to you and who do you want to be special to in your life
- What simply makes you unique?
- What ideas about being special might you let go of?
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