Nothing gives me a sense of belonging like being in a place where I feel valued. I’ve done all manner of things along the way, as a volunteer, as an employee, as a leader and as a participant. I’ve been part of a number of communities – Pagan, folk, geographical, school-centred, organisations, companies… and there are some trends. It all comes down to a collective culture, and whether the community defaults to valuing members and appreciating their contributions.
I’ve been places where the culture was more of not praising or valuing. This tended to go alongside not trusting people to make good judgements or do good work. This turns very quickly into a low morale scenario where the people involved do what they must, but have no motivation to do their best. I’ve seen other cultures where a small number – one or two usually – wanting dominance, disempower everyone else by rubbishing their contributions, undervaluing their time and effort and creating a sense of unworthiness. At its extreme, I’ve been places where I’ve been treated as a nuisance and an inconvenience even when I was doing everything I could to make a meaningful contribution.
We all need to get and to be able to hear negative feedback. We all muff up and need to know when that’s happened. However, if you’re in a situation where nothing you do is good enough, it starts to feel like maybe you are the problem. Whatever the proffered reasons are – too slow, too stupid, not careful enough, not talented enough, if you’re devalued continually it can get inside you and inform your sense of self. That’s very bad news, in terms of personal wellbeing.
I’ve run a lot of things over the last ten years. There have been one or two people who have waltzed in, made demands, offered little, got stroppy when I didn’t make enough fuss over their ‘contribution’ and waltzed away again. With the organiser hat on, I find people who are a genuine nuisance are few, and they select themselves out as soon as they find they can’t be the centre of attention, have all the influence and do none of the work. I’ve also found that anyone who turns up because they care and want to help, will be useful. I’ve yet to meet anyone who was actually stupid or talentless or who could not be found a niche. I’ve been treated as such a thing more than once. I’ve long since worked out this has everything to do with group culture, and nothing to do with me.
We’re all good at something. It might just be that we bring our enthusiasm and make a good audience – something any organiser or performer knows how to value. People who want to be part of the solution stick around to stack chairs, show up early to make tea, take the litter away, help with the publicity, or just say ‘ really enjoyed that’ so that the person running things also gets to feel valued. A culture of not valuing ends up as demoralising for people in charge as it does for everyone else.
When you’re in a culture that does not praise or value, it is easy not to notice that it is widespread. If you think this is just about you, and you get bogged down in your own feelings of unworthiness (I have been so prone to this along the way) you don’t spot the bigger picture. We should be praising the good bits. It makes the needful criticism so much easier to take. It keeps us thinking about what we can be grateful for, and remembering that everyone who turned up has a value just because they did that. Cultures, be they in workplaces or social groups, are made up of people, so as individuals we can challenge cultures that undervalue. We can do differently. A word of thanks, a round of applause, can make worlds of difference.
I have felt worthless, useless, unwanted and a nuisance in some spaces. I have felt valued, respected, trusted and welcome in others. I have been the same person all the way through, it is an issue of culture. This is one of the reasons why I think it’s so important to consider what underpins emotion. Only when I think about how I feel can I spot these patterns, and hold a sense of what is mine to deal with and what comes to me from outside. When we decline to let outside influence get in, then we work from places of ignorance that are bound to distort our perceptions. When we let everything from outside us get in we are equally vulnerable to getting a distorted sense of who we are and how things work. The quality of feedback from outside depends on the culture we are in and the calibre of individuals. One thing I do know, is that if someone can never find a word of praise or kindness for you, the problem is more likely with them than with you. Nobody is entirely useless.