A Sense of Self-Worth
Where do you get your sense of self-worth, your sense of value to the world? I’ve always found it externally, in what I do for others, in what others have praised me for. When I succeed, I am happy; when I succeed in helping others, I am ecstatic. When I am wrapped in the cocoon of my loved ones, I feel secure. But when I fail, when I let others down, when others don’t let me know what I am worth, my ego deflates. When I can’t fix all my husband’s problems, when I overreach at work, dropping balls because I’m trying to juggle too many of them, I feel that I am worthless, of no value. I retreat into myself, sleeping, escaping in novels and games, diving into more work or sometimes even excessive social activities, trying to redeem myself, trying to regain some of that external reward that I need to feel that my life is worth living.
Was I always this way? Did I lose my sense of value when I was abandoned as a baby, thrown away like so much trash? Or did I lose it as a child when I was teased for looking different than all the other kids in my suburban school? Or in going to church every week for the first 15 years of my life, where I was told that I am not important as an individual? Maybe I lost it when I was sexually abused as a child by the boyfriend of a camp counselor, then was so ashamed that I never told anyone for years and years, stomping out the memories to make it seem like it never happened, like that person was not real, like what happened to that person didn’t really matter at all. Or when I was bullied as an adolescent, shunned and made to feel ashamed of how smart and socially awkward I was. I might have lost it in college when I was raped by a guy that I met on a trip to New York, the guy I talked to on the phone every day for a month, the guy who thought I owed him something for making the effort to come and meet me? Did I lose it in school when I received incredibly harsh and somewhat personal attacks on my work? Or maybe when I almost lost my job? How much has each of these events made me devalue myself?
Yet how can I not have gained a internal sense of worth from my loving parents, proud of how smart and successful I was? How can I not see what I am worth from the perspective of my colleagues who rallied around me, showering me with support when I nearly lost my job, then lifting me up in celebration when I was reinstated. How can some of the beliefs of my dear friends who have made it clear how much they love me and value me not have rubbed off on me? How can I still not know, at least emotionally, reflexively, how much I am loved by my loving husband, who has tried to tell me time and time again how I am the most important thing in his life? Or by my insightful daughter, who shows me her unconditional love every day? Yet the voice in my head never thinks that what I have done is enough, always worries that what I am isn’t real, that others will see through me and shun me, that the people I let myself care about the most will leave me because I am not worthy of their love or even their regard.
But what have I missed out on by thinking this way? How many potential friendships have I lost by being too defensive, too prickly, because getting close or opening up was too risky, too scary? How many valuable ideas have I not shared with colleagues because of fear of ridicule or failure, of fear of being found out as an imposter? How much did I not learn in school because I was afraid to speak, afraid to contribute, afraid that my contribution was common knowledge, not worth saying, or that my question had an obvious answer that I should have known? How many years of marriage have I wasted on arguments rooted in my own insecurity? Even more frightening and crushing, am I giving my daughter the same destructive voices to haunt her future sense of self-worth?
How does one develop a sense of value? After almost 40 years of believing I am nothing but what I have done for others, how can I start to believe that I have an intrinsic value? How can I know how much to value myself and when my value should matter?