I've had more than one gut-check realization about myself and my identity over the last handful of years. I've recognized or been called out as a habitual complainer, seer-of-all-things-negative, a serial perfectionist and "realist". The list doesn't stop there. It may seem as though I'm heaping on a whole load of self-pity, but I'm really not. As difficult as it is to have this kind of awareness, it's entirely freeing and motivating at the same time. I mentioned that my personal list of gut-check realizations wasn't finished, as it also included a real eye-opener for me: service and contribution.
For as far back as I can remember, I was the 'nice guy' who always put everyone first. Now, you may be thinking, "How is that a bad thing?" A valid question, as being nice and putting others first is hardly negative. What I've really learned, though, is that action and presentation can often mask true intention and expectation -- even from yourself. I was pulling the figurative wool over my own eyes, believing that my intention was simply to do good by others. While there was a healthy dose of that lumped in, when I took a step back and really looked at things, I realized that a great deal of my intention behind those actions was to gain in some way personally.
I've heard it said that there are no true selfless acts; that no matter how selfless we intend to be, we always stand to gain something -- even simply being happier. I won't delve into that debate here, but suffice it to say that my acts of service and contribution were not entirely selfless. I recognized that my actions not only included intention, but expectation as well. I attempted to gain approval through my contribution; ultimately, I was attempting to fulfill my need for significance by repeating the behaviour. Looking back, I can see how, as time went on, fewer of my contributions were focused on simply doing right by others; rather, they sought to gain significance, importance, recognition, and approval. Not so bad as to want a pat on the head and a treat, but not particularly far off.
How did I recognize this and begin making the correlation, you may ask? Awareness of that little pang of expectation. Follow the loose thread, and you'll find the weakest point in the fabric. I found that my reactions to others' behaviour was rather telling of my own personal motivations. I'd become mildly frustrated if others didn't show appreciation, or even ask for more without showing any approval for what I had done. Instead of acknowledging how I helped improve another person's situation, I was dismayed that no reward was left for me. That expectation of approval and significance was tainting any good intentions I had.
This was particularly disturbing for me, as I had identified as that 'nice guy who always did nice things for other people' for a really long time. To realize that it was tainted with a kind of selfishness and expectation was both revealing and revolting. Thankfully, I had learned enough about gratitude, abundance, and forgiveness to help me let go of the negative feelings toward myself and re-frame my concept of contribution and service.
Contribution and service, at their core, are all about connection, empowerment, and people uplifting others. We are all one-and-the-same, and when we seek to contribute to others' efforts and lives, we ultimately improve the whole. Recognizing that, and then actively choosing to become a part of it, is so very powerful and exhilarating.
I've finally come to embrace service and contribution in the way I had originally intended it: to lift up and empower others. No longer do I seek or expect approval and significance from my actions; rather, I know that in doing right by others, the universe has my back: karma, reciprocity -- whatever you want to call it. It's been incredibly empowering to adjust my intention, and let go of the expectation and self-serving nature of my prior self. The change itself may seem small when put in words, but the impact it's had on my mindset and level of happiness has been exponential.