The Need to Feel Special

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.]

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19 Responses to “The Need to Feel Special”

  1. Barbara says:

    Thank you for this article. It was very helpful at a difficult time. Now maybe Ill be able to sleep. Thank you again

  2. M says:

    Thank you for this article. Although I’m a bit confused now – I find myself having a strong need to be treated specially and I miss the times when I was but I easily trust people, it’s easy for me to feel special, I often fancy people single me out as special and they actually do quite often (although not 100% of the time I fancy them do so), and I feel that I am, in fact, special without the necessity of anybody treating me like so.

  3. rachael says:

    thankyouu for the help. i have connected with a few parts of your article. i hardly ever feel special, and when i find those people that kind of give me a good amount of attention. i never want to lose them and i feel “crushed” when i feel like i do something wrong to them. like i just had an experience today with my p.t. i think i feel so close to her becuase she devotes a part of her time to helping me alone. and i felt like i screwed up today and now ive been crying about it. i feel so worthless sometimes.

  4. Sai says:

    I do not feel the need to be special.

    It has always confused me as to why my sister feels a great need to be famous, special, rich. I am completely content with being average, and I don’t see anything wrong with that.

    • Emmanuelle says:

      What you just said is the OPPOSITE of what you believe.

      I DO feel the need to be special.

      It has always confused me as to why I feel a great need to be famous, special, rich, etc. I am unhappy with being average. It’s something that is killing me emotionally. I’m actually suffering from depression and I feel this great NEED to achieve my dreams. Otherwise, I’ll never be HAPPY. I think that’s the key. Us dreamers need to feel special, rich, famous, have much influence because we aren’t satisfied with what we have. We need to to be happy.

      But you. You’re already happy the way you are. It’s an average life and I do not understand how the hell you can live a life like that. I’d rather be dead if I ever have to live a life like that. But I’m not going to. That’s only if I ever give up on my dreams that that despair would come. Sure I’ve lost motivation but I hope I get through this depression. I want to feel normal and alongside with that I need to feel special right now in my life to show that I actually am worth something.

  5. sil says:

    Thank you for this article. It helps me to understand my partner in a better way. However, he demands me to make him continously feeling special, as an example: he said that he would never eat something that I already cooked for someone else – which does not connect to my lack of cooking skills… Hence, I stay in a foreign country for him (of course i like it here), I made him a very personal and anniversary present and now 4 days later he does blame me again, that I would not treat him special enough and threatens me to end our relationship if I do not come up with another great, special and unique idea for dinner tonight. I do not know how far I can go nor if I can stand this theatre and drama much longer.
    Interesting question: What happens if I explode to these kind of persons, how do they react when someone really gets angry because of them? And how do they react when someone shows them the mirror?

  6. DLY says:

    This was helpful. I appreciate the thought behind this article. I am certainly one of those people.

  7. Need Advice says:

    I’m having such a hard time. My husband of 10 years didn’t do anything for my birthday. Well, that’s not entirely true. When he told me the night before that he hadn’t even gotten me a card, he went out at lunch the next day so a card and flowers would be waiting for me. That gesture fell flat for me because I felt I had to ask for it. My husband loves me, I know that. He thinks he’s lucky to have me in his life. How do I get him to put action behind his words? OR, do I just have to deal with not wanting/needing that type of attention to make these types of special days not hurt so much?

  8. Mar says:

    Today, my boyfriend called me from his uncles house number (mind you, he lives there and pays rent) to tell me his phone was dead. While I’m trying to have a conversation with him, he’s watching a knicks game. So, I give up on talking to him after a couple of sentences because nothing ever gets through to him when he’s watching sports. I hang up the phone, but forty minutes later I call him back to say goodnight. When his aunt answers I realized I called him back on the house number. His aunt wasn’t happy and my boyfriend also treated me coldy when he picked up the line. I feel terrible and I texted him back to say sorry. All he said was good night and now I’m stuck feeling horrible about myself. And I’m trying really hard not to make a big deal out of it because my boyfriend always cals me sensitive and yells at me when I make even the tiniest of mistakes. I just don’t know what to do anymore. He says he loves me but I don’t feel it in his actions. He yells, criticizes and belittles me. But could it just be me? Am I over exaggerrating in thinking that he shouldn’t be so angry at me for such a small mistake? I mean he did call me from the house first…. I don’t know.

    • Val says:

      This guy is self centered. He called you first knowing that you would talk while he could have an excuse not to listen. Thereby fufilling his obligation to speak with you without actually having to listen to you. Why is his Aunt upset? Do you call too often? Are you rude to her? Or is he telling her things about you that would predispose her to dislike you? You might be over-sensitive (most women are in relation to men) but your real question is why are you allowing yourself and your boyfriend to be unhappy by perpetuating this relationship. Find someone who treats you with respect and learn to respect your gut feelings.

  9. Lily says:

    I appreciate what you have stated in your article and identify with the need to feel special to compensate for how I had to learn to disavow my needs for unconditional love, forgiveness and protection as a child.

    Where I struggle is my entrenched belief that when you love someone you want to always make them feel special and protect them. That is how I approach my relationships with people and become very hurt and disappointed when I don’t feel this level of “loyalty” and “love” is reciprocated. My pain is exacerbated by the fact that I don’t know what healthy love looks like/feels like, so I am measuring others and myself with a broken yardstick.

    I am the product of a father who abandoned my family when I was two; a borderline mother; childhood sexual abuse; adult physical abuse; a narcissistic husband and my own issues of low self-worth, self sabotage, anger and depression. Sometimes I feel so hopeless.

    What do you suggest to enable me to see and do things differently in the interest of healing and living a fulfilling life?

  10. na'd says:

    great article for sure
    i am afraid tho i am one of those who like attention and being spoken in the nicest way ever
    i dont like yelling at me or pointing out my mistakes ( i guess many dont like it either) but the thing is that i get hurt when people leave me aside , when they dont notice what i say , when they prefer to talk with my sister instead of me .. and the list goes on.. :\

    as far as i can tell i was always being treated good at family ( i am the younger child and everyone seemed to just love me and my skills : a great student with a sharp mind , quick thinking while at the same time i was treating myself as an average person )
    i always felt guilty cause my other brothers couldnt be treated as nice as me so i was trying to make them feel better by not doing things , not bragging ab myself only to discover that this behaviour put me into resentment

    i know i am capable of many things, i do feel powerful ab achieving various BUT i am terribly shy when it comes to people ..i cant reveal myself
    i feel haunted in my past.,its like i see everyone as my brother ..as being ”lower” than me and i cannot argue with them
    i feel only sympathy and often underestimate them

    They prove me wrong many times .. then i empathy them
    i say i tried to make me look not as good as i am..and u pay me back this way”??
    i cannot brag tho..i cannot act but being humble

    i feel bad when it happens
    i try not to blame anyone ..but that questions kills me inside..

    what am i? special or no i want to find it out

    maybe all the attention i was feeling as a child is nothing that imagining or pretending from themselves..s/th that perhaps i felt it was never real..so i am searching
    maybe i am wounded emotionally
    maybe i never was loved properly by parents

    will i ever know the truth ??..

    thanks for reading

  11. Val says:

    Great article. I am looking for subject material for a humanist sunday school class about societies and the need to feel accepted. One thing that needed clarification (and maybe this is my cry at being special) but there are some of us who do suffer from serious food allergies (shellfish, peanuts etc.) By us I mean the laymen who might misinterperet your “need for special treatment” as a physical manifestation of a food allergy. Do you feel that this need can lead to a physical illness or was it vauge dietary example meant to illustrate a different point?

  12. Courtney Overby says:

    What about the case of general superiority, like not necessarily in relation to one individual or circumstance but when it relates to feeling “average” about personal/professional goals, knowledge and experiences. Like a zero sum game where effort feels like it isn’t equaling any pride or accomplishment.

    How do I maintain motivation, value and commitment? Is there practices for overcoming personal prejudice for being average? This is much like the suggestion for not judging yourself perhaps.

    It just seems that being average makes me feel as if I’m just one of six billion people, the insignificance of it all.

    Am I seeking special treatment and dont realize it?

    How do I fit into your suggestions when I don’t necessarily see my “averageness” challenges in terms of another?

    Is there above and below average people? Or is it solely being treated more or less specially.

  13. admin says:

    One lesson I learned a long time ago is that our sense of purpose, specialness, and general self-worth must be defined by who we are rather than what we do. There are two questions people need to answer: who will I be in this world and what will I do with my life. Most people tend to define themselves by what do, what they have accomplished, rather than who they as a person. People are remembered more for their character and who they have touched in this world, rather than what they have accomplished. Those than have learned the secret to living their lives from the inside out rather than from the outside in, have a longer, more fulfilling, and happier life. For more discussion of this concept I refer you to my book, Living Life from the Inside Out http://www.livinglifefromtheinsideout.net

  14. Sal says:

    I appreciate the article but did you write this just after getting annoyed at a patient who got angry about you not returning the fee? If you did, I think you’re the real child in the article. The article looks like you’re annoyed by these individuals. A 48-hour policy is uncommon and disturbing to most people and I don’t think all of them get angry because they want to feel special. Most of them probably just don’t like it and try to get away with breaking the rule- special or not special.

    It looks like you wrote the article taking a side against these patients. I honestly don’t find it very good. Thanks for the info on the subject, though.

    • admin says:

      Thank you for taking the time to respond. However, I think you may have missed the point of the article. The issue is not about the 48-hour cancellation policy (people responded similarly when the policy was 24-hours; others arrive late and want additional time at the end, etc.) The need to be special is not a bad thing. We all want to be special. Many of us crave it to make up for the time in our life where being special should have been a given; babies and children are entitled to feel special. But, alas, many of us did not get that need met and are still seeking it. Sometimes we seek it in inappropriate ways. I remember the first child patient I saw when I was a young school psychologist. Wilbur was five years old and the youngest of 12 children. His mother could not remember his name always calling him by one of the other children’s names. I met him just after his first few days in kindergarten. One day he came into the session all excited exclaiming, “the teacher knew my name first among all of the children.” I smiled and asked him how he thought that happened. He replied, “I threw a rock at her!” Regardless of how he achieved it, Wilbur felt special. One of the task of treatment is help people come to terms with their need to be special. help them grieve for what they did not get, and then, perhaps, help them find healthier ways of getting that need met as an adult.

  15. Spencer says:

    I identify with about half of this article. I have a very deep desire to feel special, though I am still trying to find what in my past brought about this “need”; however, I don’t usually blame others when things go wrong, more so I blame myself. If a situation arises where I want to feel special but for whatever reason I don’t, I will cite myself as the reason, thinking that if I were better, people would think I’m special.

    Anyway, thanks. You helped me a lot.

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