09 Oct 2016

Look at me

‘‘Look at me" is one of the most fundamental desires of the human heart.

Bertrand Russell

Russell’s observation might have been driven by his childhood experiences: loss of parents at an early age. Home tutored. Cold grandparents, left to his own devices. Or possibly not. Perhaps he said this because he noticed that people want to be acknowledged. So, if we agree with Russell that one of our basic needs is to be acknowledged, what does this mean for our own needs being met and for considering this in the workplace?

A child playing, trying something new, pushing themselves a bit further than they thought they could. Often the refrain when they are doing this is to call out, usually to an adult ‘Look at me, look at me’ In fact this is the need to have a new skill, a new piece of growth acknowledged by someone else. It takes it beyond the child’s own uncertain understanding of what they have done; have I really done this? to having the new stage and the achievement acknowledged by another. It could also be that the child’s cry of ‘look at me’ is not just for the achievement, but also for them, as themselves. In that moment they are asking not only for their new achievement to be noticed, but also themselves as a person.

This need to be ‘looked at’ in an affirming, rather than a negative way carries on into adulthood. Many of the posts on Facebook and twitter are reflections of our desire to be noticed. Either for the cleverness of our insights, our wit or the fact we are having a fabulous time. And it is good when others acknowledge that. The ‘look at me’ in this context is healthy. And in the hard-core, real world, it is healthy to want to be noticed as well. However, the ‘look at me’ doesn't always need to be public. Not everyone is craving the full blown publicity in a public forum. And no-one is craving and insincere response to ‘look at me’. And the last thing anyone is looking for is a scornful response to ‘look at me’.

There are two sides to ‘look at me’. The first is recognising our own need for someone, every now and then, to respond to our moments of ‘look at me’. When we have done something which has been tough, when we make an additional contribution, when we have made something new, it is good to have another say ‘that’s impressive’. Like the child, we know in our heart of hearts that this is good ‘stuff’. But like the child, we might think it is just in our own head that it’s good. So, to have another person say ‘look at what you’ve done’ adds a layer of security to our achievement. It also means that we are likely to build on it.

The second side to ‘look at me’ is to recognise this same need in others. To remember that it felt good when someone looked at us and what we had done and in a sense to regard that acknowledgement as a gift. Then to offer that, when appropriate, to another person.

So, to consider when ‘look at me’ is not healthy. If we are going to make the case that a dose of responding to ‘look at me’ is a healthy thing for all of us, we need to think about when this turns sour, when there is a scornful response to the ‘look at me’. This is when there is a lack of generosity of spirit, when the need to put another person down, to be spiteful, is more important than building them up. The worst thing one human being can do to another is to hold them in contempt. The ‘look at me’ is a space where individuals are vulnerable, where they want the unadulterated warmth of another human’s estimation of them. And this vulnerability can be exploited so that others can feel ‘better’ about themselves, by sneering and making unkind comments. This aspect of our psychological makeup, identified by Russell, has the capacity to go two ways.

But assuming it is the opposite, that the ‘look at me’ is both expressed and responded to honestly, how does this translate into the workplace? First, if we think it is important, we give it out first. We respond to our colleagues ‘look at me’ signals, by noticing, by asking and by affirming their work. The ‘look at me’ response might be quite low key, just a few brief words between two people. Or it might have a bigger forum, when it is appropriate for someone’s work and contribution to have a wider forum. but this needs careful thought. Not everyone craves the limelight. And indeed, the ‘look at me’ is less about a big splash and more about an honest acknowledgement either of a job well done, a generous act or simply and positive presence.

In the classroom, there are plenty of ‘look at me’ moments. And they are more likely to be more demanding from the pupils and students who have not had this at home. Every child needs to have one person in their life, who will stop what they are doing, to listen to what they are saying. Not at every moment of every day, but enough to know that when they have something important to say, there is a significant person in their life who will take them seriously. Who won’t sneer or minimise either their triumphs or their sorrows.  The teacher in the classroom has a role to play in the ‘look at me’. This is the quiet acknowledgement of a child’s contribution. Instead of rushing straight on, just the pausing, the nodding, the saying ‘that’s interesting, can you tell me more’, the praise for honest, hard work, done without fuss, are all ways of acknowledging the ‘look at me’ need in the child. And this doesn't only apply to young children. Every teenager, every adult, every one of us, needs to know that we are taken seriously. And that there is a space for ‘look at me’ which is neither vain, nor ambitious, but a simple joy of being recognised by another human being.


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