How to Cope With Not Receiving Recognition
A few shifts in perspective can help you thrive.
Posted February 10, 2023 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- While recognition-seeking is a basic need that can come with benefits, it can also contribute to psychological problems.
- Identifying one's own approval-seeking and relentless striving is the first step to coping with not receiving recognition.
- Other strategies include being intentional about who to seek recognition from, putting it into perspective, and acting in line with one's values.
“The hamster wheel of recognition” relates to the human desire to be acknowledged or given credit for your efforts. While one person might want recognition for how well they cooked dinner, another might pursue a promotion at work for a status upgrade, and another might share their creative work in hopes that it will stand out. These scenarios all depict a desire for recognition.
Given the many obstacles to receiving recognition, the main question here will be: If I don’t get the recognition I deserve, how can I handle it in such a way that it doesn’t ruin my mental health?
Recognition-Seeking Reflects Deep Psychological Needs
Although not everyone wants to be famous or even popular, recognition-seeking in some form reflects deeper psychological needs. According to the American Psychological Association, a psychological need is “any need that is essential to mental health or that is otherwise not a biological necessity. It may be generated entirely internally, as in the need for pleasure, or it may be generated by interactions between the individual and the environment, as in the need for social approval, justice, or job satisfaction...”
While recognition-seeking is a basic need that can come with benefits, such as motivating people to persist in the pursuit of goals, needing recognition can lead to psychological problems, as evidenced by the anxiety and depression experienced by some celebrities and social media influencers due to the constant pressure to provide fresh and popular content (Jennings 2021). We see similar negative outcomes in the general public as well, whether in employees getting burnt out from putting in overtime without sufficient acknowledgment for their efforts, or the stay-at-home parent who is unpaid for the labor of carrying out child rearing and housework.
Furthermore, in a society that values productivity, earnings, and achievements over emotional well-being and goodness of heart, it is easy to label hard work unrecognized as a "waste" of time and resources. In this way, recognition-seeking might lead not only to feelings of rejection but also worthlessness. It might also lead people to spend too much time chasing more projects than they can handle. This tendency to bite off more than you can chew can have negative impacts on your relationships with others, as you sacrifice time and attention towards the people you care the most about.
Recognition-seeking might also inadvertently hurt relationships, which is ironic if it is meant to fulfill a need for connection with others. As an example of this, as a child, I often felt misunderstood for my recognition seeking, such as when I was teased for being a "teacher's pet" and a "know-it-all.”
The reality is, we cannot get rid of recognition-seeking entirely. So what can be done to prevent or mitigate the negative consequences of recognition-seeking when there are clearly positive, or at least irresistible, aspects to it as well?
Luckily, there are other things you have more control over when it comes to managing the darker side of recognition-seeking. I would be lying if I said I have mastered these perfectly given that, from time to time, the "people-pleasing" and "relentless striving" bugs still creep up. However, I would argue that calling yourself out on these behaviors is the first step. Doing so relieves you of unnecessary shame, and you will be able to reflect on how to use it to do good for yourself and others. After you recognize it, the following strategies might be helpful as well:
- Be in Competition Only With Yourself: While it is impossible to live in a vacuum where you never compare yourself to others, you can make a conscious effort to focus on thinking about how you have improved over time. For instance, if you are feeling down because your friend runs a food pantry and you have volunteered there on only one occasion, focusing on the fact that you are volunteering more than you did in the past will give you a greater sense of meaning in your accomplishment.
- Choose Who You Seek Recognition From: There is no shame in being intentional about whose feedback you give more importance to. In fact, this is what makes sense given the futility of pleasing everyone. One exercise I do with my clients is to ask them to imagine a favorite celebrity. I then ask them to imagine asking all of their peers (classmates, coworkers, etc.) what they think of that same celebrity. Would every person like them as much as you do? Inevitably, even the most famous people will have their critics. A major reason for this is the diversity of humankind. Picasso is not everyone's cup of chai because not everyone appreciates abstract art, not because Picasso wasn't a great artist.
- Remember the Power of One: Here's another exercise to try. Reflect on one person who had an appreciable impact on your life in a positive way. This could be a parent, teacher, partner, friend, writer, podcast host, celebrity, or historical figure. Then, imagine having a positive impact on just one person, and that person regarding you in a way that is similar to how you think and feel about the person who impacted you. Use this to remember that there is great meaning and value in positively impacting just one person's life. Once again, you don't have to win 'em all.
- Give Others Recognition: When I find articles that effectively communicate one of my beliefs, I share them in posts on social media, with a brief comment on my response to them. Recognizing others not only helps the people who are being recognized, but it also might help you feel good about performing an act of kindness. Recognizing others’ work is also a form of giving to the public, who can benefit from the work.
- Live in Accordance With Your Values: By examining the personal values you prioritize (such as by using Hayes' Valued Living Questionnaire), you can better understand the extent to which you are living in a way that aligns with the kind of person you want to be. For instance, if you highly value social connection, but you are not making time to hang out with friends, you are likely to feel pretty unhappy.
Similarly, with recognition-seeking, make sure to periodically ask yourself what the "why" is behind your efforts. Then, ask yourself if this reason is moving you closer or farther away from the kind of person you want to be. For example, if you sense that your motive for volunteering is shifting further away from helping others and more towards earning a volunteer award, don't linger on guilt, but rather, use this as a cue to redirect your mindset so you are steering again in the direction of your values. Think of it like realizing, upon glancing at your speedometer, that you are driving too fast. Lingering on this observation might cause you to get distracted and get into an accident or get a ticket. Rather, it is more effective to get your speed in check by slowing down.
Life can feel like a race to get to the finish line of your goals. When those goals are solely based on seeking recognition from others, you risk self-sabotage and emotional distress. By periodically slowing down and checking in with yourself, your needs, and your values, you will gain an effective roadmap for finding meaning and purpose, as well as ensure that you don't miss the more scenic routes along the way.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Psychological Need. In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved July 29, 2022, from https://dictionary.apa.org/psychological-need
Hayes, S. (2019) The Valued Living Questionnaire. https://stevenchayes.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/The-Valued-Living-Questionnaire.pdf
Jennings, R. (2021, May 25). The influences are burned out, too. Vox. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2021/5/25/22451987/influencer-burnout-tiktok-clubhouse