Unimportance: A Technical Note on Its Nature, Consequences and Treatment
Unimportance has been recognized in some form since the beginning of modern medicine. Many of the earliest recorded cases of the disease were among older politicians and military commanders. Still, researchers were prone to ignore the issue because of the generally held belief that old soldiers and politicians tend not to die, but merely fade away. The historical literature also identifies occasional reports of the disease among housewives but the diagnoses were mostly superficial. The women’s complaints of unimportance apparently were not taken very seriously by consulting physicians. During the 1930’s in the United States a developmental psychologist noted what she thought were symptoms of the disease among young adult samples of former high school football heros and cheerleaders, but little came of that.
The frequency of reported cases of unimportance increased dramatically at the close of World War II, especially among discharged army captains, known as 90-day wonders, and laid off highly paid shipyard foremen. Because the disease was not considered fatal and the symptoms varied so much as to defy developing neat diagnostic systems, little research was devoted at understanding unimportance. People who had become unimportant, thought increasing in number, were pretty much left to doing for themselves. They were pitied by some people, avoided by others, and simply ignored by society in general. This went on until far into the second half of twentieth century.
Disease has its political dimension and unimportance is no exception. Despite its nastiness, alarm, disability, and embarrassment, a disease must be considered significant by several politically and socially prominent people before it receives much scientific attention. Perhaps the most powerful means of having someone believe that a disease is serious is for them to catch it.
Obviously, this is what has happened regarding unimportance. A considerable and growing number of formerly influential people are becoming unimportant, and consequently there is greater support for discovering a cure for the disease.
A first step, it seems to several of us at the Think Pint, is to prepare a green paper summarizing what is known about the disease, its consequences, and treatment. That is the modest purpose of this document.
Nature of the Disease
Most researchers studying unimportance agree that unimportance is primarily psychological, but can be influenced by physical conditions and the presence of other diseases.
A few scientists, consisting almost totally of those who have become unimportant, claim that unimportance is not psychologically based, but results primarily from the stupidity of one’s colleagues, friends, and family. For present purposes we will go with the majority opinion and honor the assumption that unimportance is primarily psychological.
There are several implications worth noting. First off, you can’t see or touch unimportance. You cannot get a slice of it for a slide, pour a sample into a vial, or even scan it with a computer-based diagnostic program. Basically, we are stuck with a situation that when people say they have become unimportant, there is little or no choice but to acknowledge that probably they are correct. Unfortunately, this does little for the person’s self-esteem, and also plays havoc with the patient-therapist relationship. We will have more to say about this when we discuss the treatment of unimportance. Telling people who claim to be unimportant that they are not is simply to start a pointless argument. Put more succinctly, people who say they are unimportant are. No one can know better.
What, if anything, can be said with some certainty about the disease? First, it is not, as once believed, restricted to older people. Many teachers and other trained observers of human behavior report seeing signs of the disease among elementary and middle school students. A related characteristic of the disease is that some afflicted are reluctant to admit having it. That is, it is difficult to convince more than a few people to acknowledge they are unimportant. There are two sub-sets involved here, one of people who are aware but won’t admit, and the other dummies who don’t know they are unimportant so can’t admit, even if they would choose to.
Research is beginning to tell us more about sex differences and unimportance. For example, the age of initial onset is younger among females than the other guys. In some studies of white females the mean age of onset was 18, with the most frequent precipitating event being high school graduation. Other studies report a lower rate of feeling unimportant among gainfully employed women than among unemployed housewives. There are no reported studies of unimportant minority women.
The impact of being unimportant has also been studied, more or less. Men react much more severely to becoming unimportant than do women. Several writers speculate this is due to many women experiencing a series of mild unimportant symptoms early in life, whereas men are more likely to avoid such experiences, thus being hit harder when it finally happens. Consequently, when unimportance finally strikes men it does so with a bang.
Another aspect of the disease, one that has serious implications for research, is that occupational groups differ significantly regarding the number of becoming unimportant people. For example, older unimportant male former executives and professionals are ten times more likely to be available for observation than members of actual former working sub-groups. Golf courses, expensive resorts, tour ships, fishing docks, and expensive bad restaurants are some of the most fertile fields for data collection.
Unfortunately for researchers, such places are not populated by random samples, and thus devoid of working class subjects. Thus, it is more difficult to identify unimportant people among tradespeople, truck drivers, waiters, and hair dressers. Whether they exist in sufficient number or just don’t hang out much together is an unimportant question.
These and other issues caution against generalizing about unimportant people. It is unwise to jump to conclusions about retired unimportant people from the few studies of unimportant retired old fart executives and dentists.
Only a few remission studies of unimportance have been reported. There is evidence that fresh experiences can precipitate remission. There seems to be two general classes of this kind of remission. The first is people who are generally dependant upon happenstance occurrence of events. They get lucky, in other words. The second is people who work at generating such events by manipulating personal circumstances. They may be useful to follow. Researchers are being more accepting of the idea that, while not curable, unimportance can be kept in remission indefinitely with the help of changing circumstances and events, ready cash and faulty self perception. Retired former middle management people and medical professionals can be especially effective at ignoring signs of becoming unimportant.
Varieties of Unimportance
Work is underway to identify different kinds of unimportance. Four tentative types of unimportance are recognized, with the caution that research results are incomplete.
Chronic Unimportants report feeling unimportant for as long as they can remember. Chronics cover nearly the full age spectrum, running from post infant to older adult. The greatest reported frequencies are in late adolescents. It is unknown whether this is a function of age, or simply that adolescents are more prone to whining more.
There is no known treatment for chronics except increased exposure to life events. Still, research continues. The Think Pint, for example, has mounted two unimportant WYTIWYA studies (what you think is what you are), but the data are far from complete. They may be lost, actually.
Unimportant, With Neurotic Tendencies
Unimportant with neurotic tendencies is found among both men and women, with a significantly higher frequency among females. This may be a function of females being more prone to observation as opposed to any real difference. Many unimportant with neurotic tendencies frequently generate behavior designed to get attention. Typical behaviors are loud talking in restaurants, confusion finding their check book while at grocery store check out counters, claiming not to understand anything with numbers or push buttons, and asking for advice on every possible occasion.
Some unimportant with neurotic tendencies succeed in getting attention, and this can provide brief if temporary relief. Others seem to internalize their unimportance, and develop independent self reward systems that work very well. Their neurotic behavior may annoy others, in other words, but also compensates them for their unimportance. Developing local support groups for unimportant neurotics that employ the 12-step method has been suggested.
Unimportant, With Depressed Tendencies
The main characteristic (and problem) with the unimportant depressed is that they will not talk about it. This is a particular burden carried by their spouses and friends (not that these are mutually exclusive). Often they go into unimportant shock following a traumatic event such as being passed over for a promotion, losing a sale to a younger person, having the last child leave home, diagnosed as needing tri focals, or having their names omitted from mailing lists. Their unwillingness to discuss their unimportance makes the unimportant depressed difficult to reach. Additional studies may show that unimportant depression will dissipate as time distances trauma. Some believe that two categories will emerge: those who show a gradual but complete self-cure, and those who gravitate to other kinds of unimportance.
Unimportance, With Adolescent Regression
Unimportance with adolescent regression seldom appears in people under age 40. When the symptoms occur before 40, a more accurate diagnosis probably is Adolescent Unimportance, Chronic type. Unimportant with adolescent regression is more likely to manifest nonverbal signs of the distress than complaints, per se. Common signs are wearing farmer caps with references to old fartness, bumper stickers on RV’s referring to spending children’s inheritance, statements on license plate frames claiming grandchildren are adorable, T-shirts documenting places they have visited and colleges they have not attended, ordering sweet mixed drinks, and carrying oversized purses and wallets stuffed with cards, pictures, and other functionally useless items. The concern about those suffering from unimportance with adolescent regression is primarily social, not psychological. From a personal perspective they generate behavior that usually compensates for their feeling unimportant, often in a satisfactory manner. Socially, unimportant with adolescent regression are often perceived as a nuisance and when the symptoms become serious and frequent enough certain public health intervention strategies, such as quarantine, may be advisable.
Consequences of Unimportance
This section includes several observations and examples of personal consequences of being unimportant. Becoming unimportant can be one of life’s threatening and debilitating experiences. It can signal the decline, and a sign that whatever the past, it was more interesting and involving than the present and future. Becoming unimportant may mean being ignored, perceived as insignificant, overlooked, rejected, passed by, misunderstood, set apart, disconnected, invisible, and left to oneself to determine self worth.
Having no one except an unimportant person to confirm self worth is probably the most devastating consequence of becoming unimportant. Yet the condition itself is not necessarily calamitous. For example, a former associate left his university professorship after a career of successful teaching and writing. We encountered him several years later, and asked what he was about. Recording New Zealand bird calls, he informed us and was about to make his seventh trip to the Bay of Islands.
We asked what he did with this recordings. Nothing besides the doing and listening he told us. He doesn’t give a hoot or whistle if anyone else thinks what he is doing is important. He isn’t sure himself. He knows that he enjoys recording New Zealand bird calls, and as long as he does and there are more to record he will devote some of his unimportant time to the activity.
Another acquaintance, equally disconnected from a career of professional work, contracted a serious case of unimportance shortly following retirement. His first reaction was to return to full-time work, which he did, but he soon found that was not a cure. Upon learning that he had retired once, his new coworkers thought he must be unimportant. So he retired a second time and turned to his neighbors for confirmation of his worth. As an elected association officer in a very small neighborhood, he soon took to making weekly walk-abouts, inspecting his neighbors lawns for weeds that needed pulling, plants not on the approved list and screen doors installed without neighborhood association permission. The neighbors were attentive to him for awhile, but one by one ignored his efforts to overcome being unimportant. Last seen he was mass producing custom picture frames in his wood shop, probably because someone took pity and complimented him on his first.
A well known consequence of becoming unimportant is to engage in new activities. There is some sense in this if the patient can refrain from looking to others for performance approval, which most cannot. This is especially tricky business because of latent needs for external approval. Tennis and golf are currently very popular among unimportant people. Most begin by telling themselves that winning is not the point, nor is seeking approval for techniques. Before they realize, the need for approval arises subtly in other ways. Who has the most stylish tennis shorts, the latest Nikes, the advanced model golf cart, or puts on the best post-match party?
Substitute activities tend to run in fads. Macrame, furniture restoration, stained glass window making, and organ lessons all had their moments. These internally rewarding behaviors may work briefly, but people eventually seek external confirmation of self-worth via their new activities. Usually this just doesn’t cut the mustard. There is nothing as pathetic as a poorly made stained window or an organ player with two left feet.
The personal consequences of becoming unimportant probably depend a lot on the perceived magnitude of the fall from being important or not unimportant. For example, a high school second string tackle who peaks out at 17 does not have as far to fall as his mother who has been boosting him since his birth. He has immediate distractions to compensate for some of his disappointment and frustration, such as college or work, and meeting the challenges of becoming a certifiable adult. His mother may have fewer demands, and thus scant avenues of escape from unimportance.
Among the retired, the personal consequence of becoming unimportant depends on how much their importance depended upon former jobs. The research is pretty clear on this. For example, undertakers, used car salesmen, and real estate salespeople can tip toe into unimportance, becoming used to the lukewarm water gradually. This is also true for people who do law, medicine, back hoe work, and horse shoeing for a living; that is, those who sell their services for a fee. In contrast, people who do administration, teach, nail sheet rock, word process, or install tail lights on Hondas have no such options: Unimportance can strike quick and hard upon retirement.
The onset of unimportance also depends upon what else you have going. For example, former executives who feel important because they play golf well, are worshiped by a spouse, belong to a prestigious bridge club, or have a challenging affair going on the side may not become unimportant upon leaving the work place. Retired civil servants who see retirement as an opportunity to drink sherry and watch more day time television may never have time to become unimportant.
Though several major laboratories are attempting to develop unimportant drugs, no breakthroughs have been reported in the literature.. For the time being, consequently, the treatment is dependent upon behavior therapies and common sense. The latter is not readily found among people suffering from unimportance (nor is there an abundance of it in the general population, for that matter) so behavior therapy is getting most of the play. There are five general therapeutic strategies. These are Prefrontal Lobotomy, Denial, Travel, Unimportant Anonymous, and Drifting. Of these, Prefrontal Lobotomy is by far the most powerful treatment strategy, but its side effects are serious enough that it is neither recommended nor discussed here.
Denial has a favorable treatment record for many mental health problems, so it is no surprise that it can do wonders for unimportance. To work well involves a three-step process and a considerable amount of persistence. Step one is to identify and list as many signs of unimportance as possible. These might include the lack of important phone calls, less e-mail, decrease in lunch invitations, reduced social contacts, and even increased aloofness of pets. It is useful to make the list as complete as possible. A spouse may be helpful in identifying signs of increasing unimportance.
Step two is developing at least two and preferably three rationalizations that explain why each item on the list isn’t true. People lost your address, the mailman is paranoid, phone wires cut, computer down people think you are too busy to bother; that sort of thing. These are crucial to a cure, so plenty of time should be devoted to developing and refining rationalizations. Keeping a daily diary can help.
The third step, obviously, is to carry out the rationalizations. Every time there is a sign of unimportance, zap it with a denial from the list. With a little practice it becomes second nature. The main caution is never, but never, entertain the thought that a sign of unimportance may be valid. Zap! Zap! Zap! is the idea.
Travel, or avoidance, as the technical literature refers to it, has impressive results. It does not cure unimportance, but it does a terrific job of masking unimportant symptoms. Unfortunately, it is a somewhat expensive solution and excluded by most medical insurance plans.
An unimportant travel treatment plan that has some promise is to form a small corporation and charge the travel as a business expense. At least the treatment my be tax deductible after conferring with a tax expert. AThere is growing evidence that the unimportance avoidance effect of travel is considerably greater in countries where English is a common language than where it is not. Serious attacks of unimportance can be caused from being misunderstood by waiters and clerks, especially in countries where shouting doesn’t help much.
Application of the 12-step idea as a help to becoming unimportant was noted earlier. This was probably inevitable because it is applied to nearly every other human condition. The chief criterion seems to be if something qualifies as addictive. If the case can be made for horniness (sex addicts) or watching television (TV addicts), then why not addiction to unimportance?
Even though there is a plethora of unimportant groups, we do not know of any functioning unimportant anonymous groups, so will appreciate notes regarding any. Meanwhile, there are several publications that describe the twelve-step ideas and procedure, and it seem that they would be easily applied to unimportance. The only caution we offer is that only recovering unimportants be permitted to lead such groups.
Drifting (as in down the river of life in a sturdy canoe with a good paddle) is not so much a treatment for unimportance as it is a means of avoiding it. It is based on the notion that holding a manageable interest in some idea or activity can serve as a guiding light, and the contemplation of it can relieve unimportant symptoms. Drifting was developed by a the physician Dr. John H. Watson of London in the late 1800s. Drifting, as the term is used here, is not to be without purposes, but instead akin to drift boating down the McKenzie River with a casting rod in hand, always on the lookout for signs of a lively trout and at the same time being alert to some of what else one passes on the way.
Watson reduced his promising medical career at a somewhat early age. However he possessed considerable ambition and intellect, and thus given his circumstances was a prime candidate for becoming unimportant. He chose, instead, to drift. In Watson’s case the manageable interest was to chronicle the work of an interesting associate, one Sherlock Holmes by name. He published his writings in The Strand, a popular magazine of the day, and ultimately contributed to the successful drifting of many readers.
Watson’s technical writing about drifting is not always easy to follow. Fortunately, he did list several easily understood drifting principles. First, except for family members, be careful never to take anything overly serious. Second, when you do, do something about it. Third, Watson advised remembering that there are already some people who have forgotten your name, or perhaps even that you exist. Fourth, as you drift, try to think about and enjoy your manageable interest every day. Fifth, be careful not to let paid employment get in the way of enjoying your interest. And sixth, Watson advised never to tell anyone, even yourself, that your manageable interest is important. It may be pleasant, difficult, challenging, intriguing, funny, worth doing, exciting, or useful, but never, he cautioned, important.
There is no question that unimportance is becoming more important. Finding a cure becomes more crucial with each passing year. Because the incubation period for unimportance may run for several decades there is no way to predict its ultimate social consequences. In the mean time, there is plenty of unimportant work to be done by all concerned.