There is a popular theme in self-help circles that you can’t achieve anything without first imagining it and believing it can be done. Want to change some part of your life? Visualize it down to the last detail. Act as if it has already happened or is on its way. Make room for this new thing that is sure to come.
While I don’t doubt that imagination and vision are important for making big changes in any situation, I don’t think they’re enough.
No matter how clearly you can visualize, and how deeply you want something, if you don’t think you deserve it, you won’t let yourself have it. You’ll sabotage or drop the ball or lose interest at just the moment when things could change for the better. And the worst part is you won’t even know why.
What do you deserve? That is such a tricky question. It rubs up against how we were raised and our current socio-economic standing, our values and our self-esteem, our sense of entitlement and our deepest shame.
In your own life, there are probably situations where you’ve drawn a line and said “I refuse to be treated this way.” Maybe that’s how long you’ll wait in line or how you’ll let your child speak to you. But somewhere, somehow, you’ve defined how you deserve to be treated.
You probably have an amount of money that you feel is reasonable to earn for the work you do. It might be more or less than you’re making now, but somewhere is a number that would feel pretty good. You’d feel like you deserve to make that amount of money for the job you do. A lot less (or more) than that would start to feel off. You wouldn’t feel like you deserve to be paid that amount.
It goes on and on.
Do you deserve to take a break or shut down the computer for the night?
Do you deserve a cookie?
Does your beloved deserve a special gift for all he or she has put up with this year?
All day long, we’re judging ourselves and others by this completely subjective measurement of “deserving.” And if we find ourselves or someone else wanting, we’ll withhold.
You don’t deserve to take a break because you haven’t gotten enough work done this morning.
You don’t deserve that cookie because you didn’t work out today.
Your beloved doesn’t deserve that nice gift because they haven’t gotten you anything.
“Deserving” is a lousy way to measure how you’re doing in life. It’s an ineffective method to decide what to do next. Instead of coming from a place of judging, what if we made these kinds of decisions out of compassion and love? Or, if that feels too squishy, what if we just used efficacy as a guideline?
Maybe you didn’t get everything done that you wanted to this morning, but you’ll be more effective in the afternoon if you take a break and clear your head.
Maybe you decide not to eat the cookie, not because you don’t deserve it, but because you know a healthier snack will help you feel better longer.
Maybe you give a gift to your beloved as a gesture, a way of reaching out and connecting.
None of us get what we deserve in this life. Many of us are unimaginably lucky just for being born in a certain time and place, to a family who loved us and cared for us. Others’ lives will be terrifying and painful because they were born in a different time and place, to a different kind of family.
Working hard and playing by the rules often yields good results, but not always. Undeserved tragedies strike people, communities and countries all the time. And many others get lucky through no work of their own.
When you tell yourself you’ll only get something once you deserve it, you’re rigging the game against yourself.
Instead of wondering if you deserve to be loved, work on being loving. Create the conditions for love to happen. Remind yourself that hurt and heartbreak aren’t a vote on how well you’re doing. It’s simply a symptom of being a human in relationship with another human.
Instead of wondering if you deserve to have a treat (large or small), think about your longer term goals and weigh your actions against those goals. If you’re saving for a car, spending money on a gadget today will leave you farther from your goal. It’s not a matter of “deserving” the gadget, but weighing the needs of your current self and your future self.
Instead of telling yourself that suffering or mistreatment is happening to you because you deserve it, remind yourself that being treated with basic decency and respect is a human right. You don’t need special treatment but you do deserve respect. And, it goes without saying that you owe that same respect to others, whether or not you think they “deserve” it.
You will never do enough, be enough, achieve enough to deserve a perfect life. And you will never screw up so badly that you deserve to be alone and in pain.
Instead, do the best you can, with what you have. Remember that no one owes you anything, but that life works better for all of us when we help each other out. Be grateful every day for the countless people who believed in you and gave you the benefit of the doubt – who were there for you even when you didn’t “deserve” it.
And finally, if you have a dream, embrace it. Don’t kill an idea before it even has a chance to grow by assuming that you can’t possibly be the one to bring it to life.
I don’t know what you deserve. But I do know you deserve better than that.
All photos taken by me, with an iPhone.
They all represent things I wasn’t sure I deserved.