Self worth is a difficult lesson for a lot of people, including myself. And how well we learn it depends on a lot of varying factors. From how we were treated in our early childhood to the ways we see how we’re able to effect our surroundings, to make changes in our lives. If handled poorly, we can be paralyzed by fear for not adding up to our learned expectations. And these standards or expectations can sometimes feel impossible to meet, tanking any self worth we may be trying to build. But for most, it usually starts when we’re children.
Childhood’s What Makes You
During my childhood, I was told the message of not being enough, on a regular basis. There was a constant stream of criticism and negative judgements, with a finite amount of praise or positive reinforcement. In fact, I only ever remember receiving one compliment from one of my caregivers in my childhood. And it was based on how attractive my calves were. This did not make for a caring or warm, nurturing environment.
I was however, told how lazy I was regularly. Regardless of whether or not I was doing what was asked of me. A task that usually took the form of a chore of some sort. And to add insult to injury, I wasn’t shown or taught how to do the tasks that I was being called lazy for not doing correctly. Nor was I shown any amount of patience or thoughtful guidance on how to do anything that was asked of me. It was just expected that I should know how to do the task and do it perfect. This is the definition of an impossible standard and was crippling to my budding self worth.
So with all these negative messages and impossible standards I was being pummeled with and measured against, how did I find my way out of the trap of beating myself up for never feeling enough? Short answer, I didn’t for a long time. I continued to abuse myself and others in the same ways I was abused. All to hide the lack of feeling any self worth.
Living Under Unachievable Expectations
These dangerous and unreasonable expectations I was raised with, followed me throughout my life. I was using the insanity producing sentiment of, “is that all you are capable of?” to pass judgement on everything that, not only I was doing, but of what those who were close to me were doing as well. I almost always had a condescending attitude towards what others were doing. And nothing anybody did measured up to my impossible standard.
What I feel was most confusing about these impossible expectations I held and those holding me to them was, that there was nothing backing them. They had no foundation, but I held on to them with conviction. Never questioning why I was measuring everything/body up in this way. But I was holding onto this way of being while being gripped with a sense of fear that if I didn’t meet my own impossible standards, I would be abandoned again as I had felt I was in my childhood.
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my caregivers were acting under this same convictions of feeling unworthy of feeling belonging. For no other reason than because we were withholding our acceptance of one another from each other. We were keeping the very thing we wanted from ourselves by holding it back from those we were judging so harshly. They felt as little self worth as I was feeling. And we were all trying to hide it from each other.
This is probably what is meant by we have the keys to our own prisons. But if the keys are so buried under the rubble of our unreasonable standards, how do we even know what to look for? We need a guide, or a role model to begin the search for our own release from out of our prisons of unreasonable expectations and critical judgements.
Waking Up From The Unachievable
This is no easy task. I was so saturated with the ideas of perfection that I was pummeled with in my youth, that the unachievable seemed reasonable. And this is dangerous thinking. I was acting mean, entitled and made sure everybody within hearing range knew what my thoughts on the matter, whatever they were, were.
I was so entrenched in my unsustainable beliefs, that it took an act of God to wake me from them. This act came in the form of a woman. I met, and thought I fell in love with a woman who made me change my entire way of being. The relationship didn’t start out in a way that was romantic, or even healthy. But she taught me a few lessons that were essential to me changing the person I used to be. The most important lessons being how to forgive and feeling self worth.
Learning to Forgive & Accept What is
We didn’t start our relationship in the best way, but we were infatuated with one another. The term, “real recognize real and you looking familiar”-Jay-Z, resonates with me because it describes the feeling of recognizing the same type of hurt in the other and wanting to care for it. This, I’m convinced, is what was happening with us. We would have been much better as friends. But the alure of helping each other to heal from our similar wounds was much too strong to let our relationship just be casual.
So we stayed together. And, we were tested every step of the way. Some things happened that I won’t go into detail about, but they were comprised of what usually bring most relationships to a bitter end without any chance for reconciliation. And I was asked to move past them in the first month of our relationship.
This wasn’t easy, but I was willing to come to terms with them, forgive them and heal from them. Even giving up things I loved for her sake, hoping to make it a little easier for her to bear the cost of her actions. But all my efforts were for not as she continued to spiral down. Not easy to watch for sure.
But I don’t for a second regret the changes and sacrifices I made on her behalf. Mostly because they ended up making me a better person in the end. And for that, I am grateful to her. But forgiveness was easy when I felt heard and seen for the first time since I was a child. Real recognize real has a powerful effect on those who’ve been neglected. And it was just the remedy I was looking for from feeling as though I was never adding up.
Forgiveness Starts with Stellar Communication
The ability for me to learn how to forgive myself and others, for not meeting my impossible standards and just about every other infraction, perceived or real, came down to how well I felt as though I was being heard and seen. And then reciprocating to that to myself and others. And feeling heard and seen really comes down to how well we communicate with one another. This also helps to foster self worth.
So the lesson I learned in the above relationship was, that for me, communication and feeling heard and seen were most important to feeling self worth. This may seem like a no brainer, but for the chronically neglected, this set off a large lightbulb. The ability to be recognized in my emotions, and having someone react to them in real time, was what had been missing from my emotional world for what felt like my entire life.
It felt so comforting. To be held in a space of feeling heard instead of the feelings of not adding up to the others expectations, that I would do just about anything to hold onto that feeling. This is what made forgiveness so easy for me. This space of feeling heard and seen allowed me the courage to overcome the feelings of hurt and sense of being done wrong. And it’s from here that I was willing and able to build a healthy relationship. One built on a mutually felt sense of self worth.
These were the tools I was missing. The ones I was never taught by my caregivers in my youth. No wonder my relationships all failed in the past. But I also learned from our relationship that, just because I was ready to communicate open and honestly with my partner, didn’t also mean that she was ready to also. So in the end, our relationship failed. Though not for lack of me trying to make it work.
Finding the Right Person & Being Willing to Do the Difficult Work of Communicating
As I’ve said above, it can’t only be one person doing the work of communicating. If this is the case, there will most likely come with it a feeling of unrest. Of not feeling heard and not quite knowing why. This was how I felt when I was unable to communicate my feelings to my partners. And in my case, I chose partners who were outspoken and knew exactly what they wanted. They wanted somebody who would come along for the ride while they made the decisions. This is not conducive to listening. And I was looking for someone to do the work of living my life for me.
It seemed like a win win, but this type of control over another usually leaves one person feeling as though they have no control over their life. And as though they aren’t doing enough to feel loved. For me, I was feeling listless, a lack of self worth and left wanting more. More out of my life, out of my relationships, more belonging. I was drinking too much to numb the dis-ease of these feelings. Of lacking and feeling isolated. It was a lonely place to be.
So now that I know what was lacking from my past relationships, what’s changed? How does what I know now, change the ways I see and choose my relationships in the present? For starters, I’m more aware of the people around me and their ability to listen to what I have to say.
Listening to Feel Heard
A partners ability to listen to feel a sense of being heard is now at the top of my list of desirable attributes. Before I was looking for one thing only, and that’s how good looking my partner was. This seemed to be the only thing that mattered to me, but looking back now it was the number one value that all of my caregivers could agree on. The lesson being, you could do terrible things to others, but as long as you were attractive, it was okay.
Only, this type of foundation in a relationship leads to connections based on superficialities that do not last. It also breeds resentment from my experience. There is a feeling of distance between each other that brings up the question, am I enough? Do I have self worth? This is because our emotional worlds are usually left unattended to, uncared for by our partners. And probably ourselves. And if you don’t feel heard or seen in a relationship, then you have what I’ve described above. Something that is based on control over the other. And feeling as though you have to do more or be more to feel loved. The sentiment in this type of relationship being, I have what you want and you’d better do as I say or or fit my idea of you or I’ll take it away. Conditional love.
But if we listen to each other, attune to each other’s needs, then we begin to build true intimacy. Feeling heard brings with it a sense of feeling loved and belonging. So being heard and listening to one another is a way to feeling belonging to each other. Feeling enough for the other person. The sentiment in this type of relationship being, I hear you and I’m here for you. Unconditional love. This is how we build connections that are strong and lasting. Not withholding love from the other to feel belonging. But giving love to be open to receive love.
Giving Love to Feel Enough & Self Worth
So in the search for healthy relationships, we don’t have to push ourselves to give as much as humanly possible to feel loved and accepted. This is a trap that we get caught in. Usually because we already don’t feel as though we’re enough as we are. Instead of focusing on what we can do for others to feel loved, let’s instead focus on how do we accept ourselves and others as we are. Then we’ll be driven to do for ourselves and others. Only not from a place, as Brene Brown so aptly puts it, as “hustling for approval”. But we do so because we want what’s best for ourselves and our loved ones.
So if you feel as though you’re not adding up in some way, or have to do more in order to feel loved, self worth and belong to and with another, slow down and take a look at why you feel this way. Question what you’re believing about yourself and your belonging. You may just find that you’re already enough. Peace : ) & thanks for reading.
Image Credits: “Impossible standards just make life difficult. #fortunecookie” by dziner is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.