I begin each day at my office with a stack of client charts. I sort through them, making sure that everything is in order for the day, and then I hide them away inside my desk. Why do I hide them? Because we have eaten a lie, and its wound runs deep, and a pile of charts is like salt on that wound. You see, all of us, with the barest of exceptions, have been conditioned to believe that our value, our worth as a human being, is relative to everyone else’s, that our value is achieved by comparison, by competition, and ultimately by victory over the rest of humanity. So, we engage in a deeply wounding game in which the grand prize is personal worth. And until those lies are exposed and the wounds are healed, it is difficult to imagine a space in this world where the game has been called off, where you don’t have to compete for attention, approval, and value: a stack of charts can be perceived as another reminder of the lie, fooling you into thinking that the therapist will be deciding which client is healthiest, funniest, easiest, or most important. So, out of respect for the wound, I bury the charts away and anticipate the day when the healing has begun, the lie is exposed, and that stack of charts will lose its power to harm.
The games that we play vary dramatically. Your particular game, your on-going competition for value, seems to be dependent on the particular lies that you were fed. We receive these false messages about our value from so many sources. Some of the messages we take in are injected by people who use us for their own purposes. These wounds are the deepest and the most obvious. The relative or boyfriend who wouldn’t stop when you said no and drilled into you the belief that your value is dependent only upon giving others what they want. The father who lined you up in the kitchen at midnight after a case of beer and screamed messages into you that you have never been able to shake, convincing you that you have no value, because we beat up and abuse the things that don’t really matter. The mother who raged when you wouldn’t talk to her or when your words weren’t what she wanted to hear, filling you with the belief that your value is dependent upon feeling just the right things at just the right time.
But many of the messages we swallow about our value are delivered to us unwittingly, by people who genuinely care about us and intend us no harm. A glass of milk is spilled at the table, and a parent huffs and gripes, or scolds and reprimands, and a lesson is learned. (My value is diminished when I make mistakes.) Or when we bring home our first set of As in the fourth grade, we see our parents aglow with pride, we notice that we get a little more cake at the dinner table, and they seem to be just a little bit kinder for a while. (My value is increased when I perform well, and it seems assured when I perform better than everyone else.) Or we get our first car, with wheels a little bit brighter than anyone else’s, a speaker system that produces the purest and deepest bass sounds around, and people start looking at you, and you notice that the Facebook friend requests surge. (My value is dependent upon what I have, and how beautifully and how loudly I wield it.) Or you land the big job or the right wife or a house in the right neighborhood, or whatever thing it is that your particular lie has convinced you will bring prestige and power and influence and respect, and, sure enough, people start asking and admiring, and you think that maybe, just maybe, their mouths hang open a bit wider in awe. (My value is dependent upon what I achieve and the number of people who admire it.)
There is a culture reinforcing all of it, too, telling us that this thing or that thing will solve it all, satiate the hunger. And what is it that needs to be solved in us, what is the hunger that needs to be satisfied? From the moment that our minds can comprehend that there is me and there is you, we begin to crave and seek out an assurance of worth. We are like starved creatures, and we will feed on anything. Discernment is an afterthought when you are emaciated and the stomach is cramping—we will take our food in any form we can get it. And so the lies come, and we eat them, and they satisfy for a time. But the energy given is malignant, convincing us that the competition continues, and that if we sit on the sidelines too long, someone else will take the lead. So, we dress ourselves up to look like we’ve won the game. We quit eating because the smaller the size of the jeans, the bigger your lead in the game. We mortgage this and that and find ways to stay ahead. Or, if we can’t muster the energy for any of it, we play the game in our heads: knocking that person down a notch, raging at that idiot on the road, smirking at that person with screaming kids in the checkout lane. We play. And play. And play.
But we must fight to remind ourselves that we have eaten crummy food and swallowed crappy messages. I think most of us do want to fight that fight, but the reality is that, if we quit swallowing the messages we have been fed, we are still hungry. Where do we begin to find some semblance of assurance about our value as a human being, our worth as a creature? Maybe we can begin to find it in the truth of baseball cards.
When I was a kid, fourth and fifth grades, I would wait for my allowance every week, then hop on my bike and head to the local department store. In those days, baseball cards were a big deal for young boys (especially boys who were Cubs fans and needed some kind of intrigue during a baseball season). I would go, and I would buy as many packs as I could afford that day. I would open them quickly, thumbing through the stack for a card of value. But what gave a particular card value? The irony is that a baseball card’s value was only partially (even minimally?) determined by the popularity or batting average of the particular player it depicted. Ironically, the value of the card was almost completely determined by its rarity. That is, if a particular player card was mass-produced, that card was referred to as “a common,” and it had the same minimal value as any other “common.” But if only a small number of a particular card was produced, the value of that card soared. And there was a further level of irony: some of the most sought-after, most valuable, cards were “error cards.” These were cards that contained some rare error, a misspelled name for example, that was not detected in the earliest printings, but was later corrected. The flaw gave the card a particular uniqueness and a rarity that elevated its value dramatically.
I think these are the truths we need to consume. We need to know that our value comes not from what we do or achieve, or how far ahead we are in the pennant race of life, but that our real value is located in the fact that there is only one of us. Only one person with our particular set of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, passions, gifts, callings, and experiences. There is no other story like yours, only one of you has been produced, and because of that, you have infinite value. The games we play in our competition for value, our attempts to do what everyone else is doing but just slightly better, actually have the opposite effect: they make us common and decrease our value as human beings. And I think we also need to consume an even deeper truth: the flaws that we carry with us, the mistakes we have made, they give us value, too. We will seek to correct them in later “printings,” of course, because most of us want to be better people who make the world a better place, but for now, those “errors” we have made further distinguish us as rare creatures with a unique story to tell with our one life. And we need to tell that story, because no one else can.
So, I bury the stack of charts in my desk, knowing that for many of us the lie is still alive and the game is still being played, and this visual reminder that I will be spending time with other people will get confused as a competition for value. I bury them, but I anticipate the day that you will walk into my office, and you will sit down, and you will see a big stack of charts on my desk, and you will smile, because you know that, in this space, you are an “error card” of infinite value, and it feels so good to be retired from the game.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.