We seem to have an epidemic of feeling inadequate and unworthy. And as a result, we’re constantly trying to prove our worth. I invited my colleague John Harrison, LPCC to write this post to help us understand why we question our worth and how to reclaim it.
The past few years watching my kids grow has been interesting to say the least. Aside from the joy of being a parent, the struggles that come with it, and the endless self reflection on my “parenting abilities”, I’ve noticed something profound. When children are born and when they are young they don’t question themselves. They don’t understand a world that sees people through a lens of “right and wrong”. Watching my two little girls express themselves freely with no sense of filter, guilt, shame, or over analysis has been freeing, to say the least. “When does this end”, I wonder. When will my kids start to judge themselves, their actions, and see themselves and what they do as “worthy” or “unworthy”?
Nothing seems to keep people stuck in their heads more than questions like “Am I doing the right thing?” or “Will this be accepted?” The fact is that we live in a dualistic world. Part of being human is to judge, to discern, to place labels on the things we encounter — including ourselves. Reflecting back to the day my first child was born, I was a new parent and responsible for a human life. There’s a bond that is instantly present when you see your child come into the world. It’s not a thought. It’s tangible. And it’s unmistakable. I love this child. Not because of what they do. Not because of what I expect them to be. Just pure unconditional love. There’s nothing like it.
The start of expectations
At some point expectations do enter in that parent-child relationship. “Get your shoes on! We have to go! Now!” “Don’t talk to your mother like that!” “Don’t hit your sister!” The love is still there, but I’ve started to have expectations of my daughter’s behavior. Undoubtedly, she feels this. “Mom and dad get a little edgy when I take a long time to get my socks on. What gives?”, I imagine her thinking. Such is the process of a human, I suppose.
Those learned behaviors follow us into adulthood. “Do this to get accepted.” “Don’t do that. It might hurt people.” “Don’t say that, you’ll scare people away.” “People won’t approve of me if I do that.” We all have these thoughts. That voice. There’s nothing wrong with knowing appropriate ways of relating to one another, having a good sense of boundaries, and learning from mistakes. But there is a serious problem that haunts us: We see ourselves as equal to our behavior. We think that what we do is who we actually are. Our worth is in our actions. Or is it?
The “I am good when I do good” myth
Sure, we can say that our behavior doesn’t define who we are, right? We can say we believe in second chances because everyone makes mistakes, right? It’s not so easy, though. Many of us fight a silent internal battle that creates a tremendous amount of unconscious suffering. And it looks like this:
“I’m not like other people.”
“I am not as good as others.”
“I don’t measure up.”
“People don’t want what I have.”
Or it might look like this:
“I’m entitled to act this way.”
“People don’t understand the problems I have.”
“I deserve to get what I want because I said so.”
“I’m better than they are because I am more capable.”
Both are an illusion. At some point when we’re young we transition from a state of being “OK” as we are to “I’m OK when I do this and act this way” or “I’m OK when other people tell me I’m OK.”
We’re all equally worthy
An innate sense of value, a core sense of worth, is no different than knowing we are “same as”. We are the same as anyone else in deserving and receiving love and appreciation. Feeling connected with others. Having an important place in this world.
Imagine this place of “same as” is a horizontal line. Below it is a place of “shame” or seeing self as “less than” others and our environment. Above that line is a space of grandiosity or “better than”.
Think of all of the messages we get as we grow into adults and interact with society. Getting good grades in school. Winning at sports. Being seen as “special” and valuable because of a talent we possess. And we can see what happens to our sense of self when we don’t make the grades or excel in sports. When we’re not as shapely or attractive as the accepted body type or definition of beauty. We see ourselves as being in “lack”. It’s an illusion.
We are all unique, but no one is “special”
Nothing changes for any human from that point of birth when unconditional love is given to that age of, say, 5 years old, when self conceptualization begins. Where did that unconditional sense of love go? When do pressures of “what can you do for them?” and “where can I fit in?” begin?
A healthy sense of self esteem understands that we are all unique, but none of us are special. Nobody has the upper hand. Nobody is better than anyone else. Nobody has it made or has been fast forwarded to a point of ultimate arrival. We admire and worship celebrities. We give our power away to politicians and “leaders”, not fully seeing that they are no different than we are.
It’s our job to give ourselves the love we seek
We are all capable and deserving of love and acceptance. But the trick is that to avoid being in that place of “playing the victim” and “feeling entitled” we have to see that nobody is responsible for giving us this sense of innate worth. Nobody but us. So as we look for accolades and “atta boys” for a job well done…and as we expect the next “best thing” to improve our sense of self, we are inevitably left feeling empty. Lonely. Unfulfilled. It’s nobody’s job but our own to pull ourselves to that line of “sameness” and connectivity. It’s nobody else’s job but ours to humble ourselves and know that no matter how good we are at something, it doesn’t mean anything more than we are “good” at something.
Comparing and judging leaves us empty
The amount of pain in the world caused by comparison, resentment, entitlement, and self depreciation is stifling. The lessons learned from hitting the dead end of “never getting enough” and never “feeling good enough” bring us ultimately to this place of sobriety. “What am I if what I do and what people think of me doesn’t make me happy?” “What am I if I can’t please everyone?” These are hard lessons to learn. That person that appeared to “have it all together” is revealed to be suffering. That politician that seemed to have good intentions is found to have committed acts of greed. That person we saw as successful with heaps of money is actually lonely and has never had a real relationship with anyone. What then?
We’re all connected
As the world as we know it continues to fall apart, is it possible that what seems like the end is actually a new beginning? One that awakens us to the knowing that we are all connected. Our suffering may have a purpose after all. Our illusions of being disconnected and not being enough might bring us to a point of exhaustion and maybe a point of total despair. But if we are open to it, maybe there is a stronger message underneath all our false beliefs of who we are. It might just look like that little kid we once were. The one that knew that all was right with who they were. That part of us that has fallen asleep and is just waiting to be recognized again. Unique and important because…we are. Without question. Without bounds. Our birthright.
About the author
John Harrison is a licensed professional clinical counselor and coach in Cincinnati, Ohio. He works with individuals in finding their flow and potential by assisting them in finding their “why” through their issues of stress, burnout, and depression. He works with couples who are looking to heal from emotional distancing and infidelity and helps men learn to intimately connect with their partners.
John also hosts The True Calling Project, an inspirational and down-to-earth podcast.
©2017 John Harrison. All rights reserved.
photos from Unsplash.com