The need to feel special is common to human beings. We want to know that we matter to others; we want to be seen. We strive to achieve some special status in the eyes of others; how we are viewed by others matters to us. One way of knowing that we are special is when people treat us differently than they treat others. When we are singled out for special treatment, given special privileges, receive special favors, we feel special.
A problem can arise, however, when we feel uncomfortable with acknowledging our desire to be special. Many people not only feel uncomfortable with this desire, but will go to great lengths to deny their desire for specialness as if it were a sign of weakness or other flaw in their personality. These people often tend to act-out their desire to be special rather than acknowledge it. And they often act out in ways that adversely affect their relationships. They are are the folks who are always altering menus when ordering in a restaurant requesting special treatment in the form of dietary requirements. They often will often request that you modify plans to suit them or adjust schedules to accommodate their special needs.
We have all been in the position of hoping for special treatment when we violate rules. We hope that the traffic cop will let us off with a warning because of our “special circumstances.” We want the airline to make an exception for us when we are late for a plane or when our luggage is a bit too large for a carry-on. We are not bad people, we just want to receive that extra bit of attention to let us know that we matter in this very impersonal world; we want to be seen as a person, to be validated as unique. The issue isn’t whether it is good or bad to want to be treated specially; rather, it is how we deal with the reality of when we are not. And whether we can distinguish between being special and being treated specially. In other words, do we know that we can be special without being given special treatment?
Here’s an example from my practice: I have a policy — developed over a period of four decades in practice — of requiring 48 hours advance notice for canceling appointments without being charged. I have this policy in writing and reinforce it by an oral contract during the first session with all patients. In the contract I specifically state that this policy will be strictly adhered to without exception for any reason; I even highlight the words for any reason. All patients sign this contract and indicate that they understand the policy. In an attempt to be reasonable, however, understanding circumstances do arise making it difficult to abide by this policy, I also offer patients who cancel with less than the required 48 hour notice the opportunity to re-schedule as long as they re-schedule within the same week as the original appointment. I have even suggested to patients that when they have to miss an appointment at the last minute or due to other circumstances, I will do a telephone session and, if necessary, outside of my normal work hours. Another aspect of the contract spells out that I am available 24/7 for emergency calls and also accept telephone calls between sessions when necessary; my cell phone is given on my outgoing message of my voice mail and I regularly respond to email. In other words, I go to great lengths to accommodate my patients.
Despite these precautions, there is always someone who wants and often expects special treatment and believes that if I do not grant them this special treatment that I am being unfair or unreasonable. They often feel wounded and hurt, not to mention disappointed and often angry. They claim that they did not remember the contract regarding cancellations or phone calls or alternative appointments. And because they did not remember, they think I should make an exception. They believe that I should pay for their errors, their decisions, and their memory. And when I don’t accommodate them, they frequently act-out — much like the hurt child who runs away from home — by canceling their next appointment as though punishing me for not treating them as special.
What’s that about? Why is it that some people believe that their special circumstances are more special than another person’s special circumstances? Is it a case of wanting to be special or selective hearing when it comes agreements as if to say ‘the rules don’t apply to me because I am special’? Or are they thinking, if you loved me you would make a special case just for me? And if you don’t, you are just like everyone else who didn’t love me by going out of their way for me.
I don’t believe these individuals are mean-spirited or selfish. I do not believe that they are trying to take advantage of me. In my experience, these folks are hurting, damaged individuals, who never really felt special to anyone. Their inner child craves being special. They experience minor slights as major assaults. No matter how much people may have filled their “love bucket” as adults, the slightest injury is sufficient to drain the bucket. It is as if their love bucket has a slow leak, leaving them running on empty most of the time. Hence, when injured, disappointed, or hurt they feel devastated; it is often sufficient for them to want to terminate the relationship, whether with a friend, relative, or therapist.
It is often difficult to connect with them when in the midst of their hurt. They can only focus on the specific circumstance rather than focusing on their internal experience without blaming the person who disappointed them. Self-examination at the moment is not possible for them. They simply sit with a sense of self-righteousness that they should have been treated so poorly. In order for healing to occur, they must be able to fully experience their pain and their desire to feel special, to feel number #1 among others, friends, siblings, or patients. Their sense of self-worth depends on their ability to be special.
The desire to be special is common for most people. Some have experienced being special during their early and formative years. They experienced that sense of specialness in the presence of the significant people or person in their life. This early sense of specialness lets them know that they are important, can be loved, and can find love in the world. Unfortunately, many people never feel that sense of specialness. They question whether they are lovable. They distrust others. They distrust the love that may be shown them as they grow up feeling that they are not worthy of the love. They test people, mostly to prove their own assumptions. In those rare instances when they do feel a sense of specialness, they may idolize the person with whom they feel special. And when this person disappoints them, as invariably happens, they feel crushed. For them, the sense of connection is tenuous. They cannot both feel special and disappointed. It is as though they believe that to be special they must always have their expectations met. They wish for an idealized world of the child for whom all needs are gratified. It is as if they are trying to achieve what they did not experience when they were a child.
When responding to these people it is important that you have a strong sense of who you are. You must also hold your own boundaries rather take the easy route of capitulating to their demands. To do so would only serve to reinforce their behavior while building your own resentment which, in turn, would weaken the bond between you. As difficult as it may be, without admitting wrong doing on your part, you must be empathic to their hurt and possible sense of betrayal. “I understand your disappointment at my not living up to your expectations and your sense of betrayal. I do not see it the same way as you do, but I certainly understand and accept your feelings.” This validates their experience without validating their demand for special consideration. You can validate their desire without giving in to it. It is important that you not judge them or shame them.
It would have been easy for me to capitulate to my patient’s expectations by simply forgiving the fee for the session. The patient would have felt special, at least for the moment (until the next time) and I would have remained idealized by the patient. The patient, however, would not have grown; his desire for specialness would not have been explored. He would remain doomed to repeat this pattern. But my job is not to be liked or idolized. My job is to facilitate growth by helping patients confront themselves. In this case my job was to help bring to the surface his repressed desire to be special and to be treated with special favor. As a psychotherapist, I must always put my patient’s long term grow ahead of his desire for immediate gratification and my need to be admired.
Are You Special?
If you identify with the foregoing depiction, the following may be helpful to your self-healing:
- you cannot assess your specialness to someone on the basis of their meeting your expectations
- accept that not being given special treatment does not diminish you or the affection someone may have toward you
- do not judge yourself
- acknowledge your hurt without blaming the other person
- accept that being disappointed is a human reaction to having expectations of others that are not met
- do not evaluate the relationship on the basis of a single disappointment
- do your own inner homework by asking yourself: have you ever felt special; is it easy for you to feel special; do you easily trust people; do you think that you are worthy of being considered special?
Once you are able to understand your history and connect it with your current behavior, patterns may begin to emerge. As you acknowledge your early emotional wounds, longings, and unmet desires, healing can begin. Without such healing you may be prone to repeating the same drama repeatedly in various relationships making intimacy difficult.
[Please add your thoughts and experiences on this topic in the comment section of this blog. This blog is intended as a forum for folks to raise issues, share experiences, and promote dialogue on important issues of contemporary life. Please sign up as a Facebook Fan at www.docdreyfus.com/fanpage. For additional information about me and my practice, please visit my website at www.DocDreyfus.com.]