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The Power of Acknowledgement


Man washing dishes
Even joyful things can benefit from Acknowledgement

It’s 2024, and I still have the most expensive dishwasher. He consumes a lot of energy, is frequently finicky, and goes by the name of me or Tony. While I look forward to the day a machine does our dishes, I don’t call it a chore anymore. I don’t enjoy the caked on food from hours earlier and always appreciate when the household rinses things off, but the activity feels much more like a meditation.


The warm water filling of the sinks. Suds develop. Dishes go in dirty, get scrubbed, rinsed, and stacked clean. Sound fun? Maybe not. The point is: I willingly and happily do the dishes. I don’t need to be asked, and I don’t need to be thanked. The funny thing is, I can’t remember a single time that my wife Kristy has thanked me and I didn’t feel a warmth and additional sense of satisfaction for doing a job that I already did willingly. 


This concept has lead me to wonder why acknowledgement has so much potency.


It’s been well documented that my wife Kristy and I have had a very adventurous relationship. We fell deeply in love and lived together for 3 years, only to see that version of our relationship dissolve largely in part to my inadequacies  / dysfunctions as a partner. We spent a year apart with almost no contact, only to reunite as friends and find out there is something deeper in our connection. We got married a few weeks ago, and completed a huge circle in our lives and relationship.


With all the triumph comes the reality that we still have repair to do in the bridge between our first version and the second. Most of that repair takes no physical action in the traditional sense. There’s no amount of back rubs, thoughtful love notes, or well-planned romantic dates that are going to pull the splinters of wood from sub-dermal wounds of our past.


Acknowledgement was the only way those wood shards were going to get lifted.


The effort required within the act of acknowledgment is immense. The ego, one of the most powerful components of every human, must be softened and asked to put its guard down. That is a battle that can take an entire lifetime to master. Sometimes it waits until a deathbed, and sometimes it’s so strong, the ego is never softened and people die without ever having acknowledged truths that could have been medicinal for both parties.


So why is acknowledgement so potent? Let’s break it into two halves: The acknowledger and the recipient.


The Acknowledger


Acknowledgement requires the ability to step outside of one’s self and see another. These could be called compassion and empathy. We may not know why it feels so good to be empathized with or for others to have compassion with us, but for me, I believe that it shows me that a person is willing to override his or her ego and place the importance of me on an equal plane. When the acknowledger can do this difficult act, it feels good for himself because, I believe, it is allowing them to release guilt and shame. Acknowledging a thing means to admit it’s there. Not acknowledging it doesn’t prevent it from being there, it just allows the act to stay under the surface like that shard of wood. The action gets to fester as a foreign object to the soul. The incongruity causes defenses like a callous or scar tissue to develop, and instead of working on releasing that foreign object, effort is then spent protecting it.


Raccoon stuck with his hand in a can.
Sometimes it's hard to let things go.

Consider this: There’s nothing immediately challenging about carrying around a cup of water. It’s not overly heavy. A person could probably do that activity for 14 hours without much strain. The challenge of carrying a cup of water doesn’t come from its weight, it comes from the burden of being less than our full capacity, and we are doing it to ourselves, even if its at a subconscious level. It reminds me of the way to catch a raccoon. Put something shiny inside an enclosed space where the raccoon has to slip its paw in like an envelope, and then can’t pull it out with a clinched fist. Human egos trap us in the same way. Just like those lovable trash pandas, we just need to let go. Yet often we can’t. 


Acknowledgement is that release–a release of the burden and often the release of the source of pain.


The Receiver


In his book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz explores the benefit of taking nothing personally. This is the art of having an intensely friendly relationship with the ego, and perhaps is the most psychologically healthy act to strive for. And most of us are human beings that have a less-than-monk-like relationship with our inner voice and ego. Ideally, not caring how another person behaves towards us sounds amazing. Functionally, this is not how most people are able to operate in life, at least all the time.


Woman frustrated while driving in traffic
Road Rage is Real

Consider a person who cuts you off in traffic. Don Miguel Ruiz  may be able to shrug this off as no big deal and move along his day without giving it a second thought.  Others might respond by honking their horn out of fear, surprise, or anger. Others might just shake their head with a condemnation or insult. They must be from California. What happens if that person flips them off after? Feelings usually escalate. The wrong then gets doubled. The ego is now fully engaged.


What happens if that person waves a hand, and mouths the words “I’m so sorry” behind tempered, tinted glass? A whole different experience typically happens. Oh, they just didn’t see me, I’ve been there. The ego flares up because we weren’t considered. The ego softens when acknowledged. Acknowledgement brings a type of balance back to that situation. Acknowledgment allows the receiver to feel seen, feel heard, and most importantly, considered. 


And for me, this is really what life is all about. We are not all equal, meaning that we are not all having the same experience. We all have our unique limitations, struggles, starting points in life. We all have our unique gifts and talents, too. We don’t need to be born or grow in life with sameness in our capacities. What humans want is to arrive with sameness of opportunity, consideration, and value.


You know those little trackers at the bottom of a social media post, or the ability to see how many people have viewed an Instagram story? Those things feel good because they feel like acknowledgement. Something you said or something you did had value to another. 


Repair


Consider the most petty reason one of your personal relationships has turned sour. No judgement. No guilt. Just self reflect. I’m willing to bet a considerable amount of money that at the bottom of that souring is the fact that something went unacknowledged for so long that the resentment over the lack of acknowledgment is now stronger than the initial wound. I’ve seen family members tear apart because of this. I’ve seen friendships completely dissolve and even ask the larger friendship group to pick sides and create schisms in all directions. It reminds me of the squirrel on ice age and his little nut that creates entire land masses to break apart.


In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden a China man and the main servant to the protagonist Adam Trask boils down the reason Cain kills Abel is Cain’s feeling of rejection and his inability to reconcile that. When an injury happens at the hands of another person, that core feeling of rejection comes up. Acknowledgement at its core is the repair of that rejection. It is the fundamental ointment of acceptance of another person through acknowledgment that another person has feelings, had an experience, and is worthy of compassion, empathy, and equal consideration.


Any healthy community that exists for a considerable amount of time practices repair in some way, and at the root of that practice comes acknowledgement.


Ho'oponopono cemerony.
I'm sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.

Hawaiian’s have a practice called Ho'oponopono, which is a  traditional practice of reconciliation and forgiveness, emphasizing the restoration of harmony and balance in relationships. It involves acknowledging responsibility, expressing remorse, and seeking forgiveness to heal and resolve conflicts. In this practice, it can be quite uncomfortable to hear how another feels about you, and it can be quite uncomfortable to admit things you have done to create harm. In this instance, the choice isn’t whether you want to feel pain or not, it almost seems that it’s a choice of how long you want to feel it and to what degree.


Feel the pain more intensely yet remove it quickly, or numb and decrease the pain’s intensity, yet prolong it over time and add the consequences of have it begin impacting other elements of one’s life. Acknowledgement’s power can be seen in how difficult it is to do. Its potency resides in the fact that something so powerful must have benefits when exercised in a healthy way, and damaging consequences when it’s not. Consider the element fire. When harnessed, heats our homes, makes our food digestible, and is at the core of our cars running and our cities functioning. When it’s not harnessed, it’s forest fires and infernos.


Acknowledgment Practice


The coolest part of acknowledgement is that its benefits are everywhere. If your spouse or kids do something amazing, big or small, watch what acknowledgement does. Wow, that is a really great drawing. Honey, thank you so much for making a great dinner, especially after a long day. If you do something that upsets a friend, child, or spouse, it basically works the same way.


Sally, I’m really sorry for yelling. I can see that made you feel sad. Although I was upset, I think there’s a better way I’d like to handle that. 


Honey, I realize that me not texting you and letting you know I’d be late is frustrating. I can see that you’re feeling strongly about that and I know that me having better communication would have made a difference there. 


Want to make this practice powerful? Focus on the facts and be specific with the details you’re noticing.


Want to avoid cheapening this practice? Don’t try to defend your reasons or make excuses. The reasons can be explained later if necessary. Acknowledgement isn’t about defending. It’s about recognizing another person’s experience and having that be the primary focus and purpose. It sounds so simple, and in a way on paper, it is. The hard part is the temptation to do other things or need to defend the ego’s irritation with hedging, explaining, or justifying. Basically this is acknowledgement mixed with something else. If acknowledgement is gold, then the other stuff is base metal. The more base metal added to gold, the less precious the gold becomes. Give pure gold and see if you can have the patience to watch what it does.


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