What exactly do we mean when we say someone has low self-worth? Do we mean that they do not value themselves and their place in the world? That they place others as more important or worthy? And if we agree that this is so, does that imply that they do not feel they matter, or does it mean that there is something to fix, and once fixed, then the worth can kick in and the rewards that life can offer will be attained, or at least come within reach?
That has certainly been so in my case, and I can still have spells when all of a sudden my sense of worth plummets. I have a week when life is getting on top of me and I’m surrounded by reflections showing that I’m not up to scratch – the house has suddenly become messy, the sink clogged with unwashed dishes for a few days on end. Work feels tedious, people annoy me, or I feel like I’m not bringing as much value to my job as I could. I take less care with my grooming, I feel fat and like a frump, or I feel old and past it… the list can go on and on and the reasoning behind the self-critical talk can be ridiculous… just an excuse to bring myself down a peg, and then give-up and take solace in checking out by watching TV or overeating, or surfing the net and countless other distractions.
So where does this attitude of self-critique and sense of unworthiness come from? Are we born with it? Have we ever looked at a baby and thought, “My goodness, that child has self-worth issues!” I certainly have not. A baby lets us know exactly what they want in no uncertain terms, and doesn’t seem to ask “Am I worth it?” They innately know that it is not even a question that needs to be considered.
Can we therefore surmise that the sense of self-worth is with us at birth, and that lack of self-worth is learned? And that all learned behaviour serves a purpose, which we perceive makes it ‘easier’ to survive? As children we develop our awareness of the external world and learn what is acceptable to others and what is not. We learn the social norms and standards of our specific culture from the outside in and are rewarded for some achievements and behaviours and punished for others.
At the same time, the trust in our inner voice and promptings fades. Our self-worth becomes a measure of recognition from the external world. Most of us get caught up in this miasma to some degree. No parent is perfect and able to always understand what the child needs. Let’s be frank, as parents we muck up. We’re not always attentive and in-tune with ourselves, let alone with a child, and if there are siblings or a demanding partner involved, it can easily go off the rails at times.
As children grow and learn to negotiate life with others, we see different behaviours – no two children in the same family will respond in the same way to the same circumstances. One child may be naturally confident whilst their sibling nurses hurts (perceived or real) for a long time. They may try different ways of getting love and attention and feeling good about themselves in ways specific to them.
I remember at one time, when I was about nine or ten, deciding that I was going to change my attitude and become ‘acceptable.’ How I got to the point of feeling I was not good enough is another story, but suffice to say it was a combination of how I was in the family, the reactions and messages I received, and what I did with that information. At one time I chose to be super ‘good’ and ‘helpful’ because I’d taken on the beliefs that I was self-centred, unattractive, a bit nasty and in many ways, simply not good enough.
Growing up in the fifties I read a lot of books and watched movies where most of the heroines had virtuous qualities that I clearly lacked. So, looking for redemption, I attempted to re-shape myself in their image. I dutifully devoted myself to household tasks that I did not enjoy to get positive attention, and focussed on being helpful, a ‘good girl,’ loving sister, grateful, appreciative, uncomplaining etc.
It makes me cringe to write this down. Of course, it was a short-lived week or so of reshaping myself in that particular way. Although I was loving and caring by nature, I was trying to shape myself to an ideal, a goal external to me, to achieve a sense of inner settlement and worth in the eyes of others and, quite frankly, it was unsustainable and not coming from any inner feeling that flowed naturally. It was forced and against my rebellious grain.
But to be honest, the same pattern has played out in many different guises throughout my long life. As an adolescent trying to be attractive to boys in crazy stuff, like not farting in their presence, dieting to get as close as possible to the body image and shape presented at the time, being unobtrusive, interested, patient, undemanding… anything but real. Is it any wonder that being the real me felt like an unknown exotic foreign land, and life was extremely unsettling? I didn’t know what I needed to do to be acceptable, I just knew it had to be different.
The truth is that when I am feeling comfortable in my own skin, I do not question my value; I just get on with it. I look after myself. I make sure that I have enough sleep, that I have clean clothes that feel great to wear in my wardrobe, that my shoes are comfortable, that there is a selection of food in the pantry and fridge to sustain me, and I enjoy my work and my relationships with friends, colleagues, family and the general public. I do not hold back.
However, when faced with a challenge, the depth of self-worth is revealed. Do I back myself up or am I so timid that at the first hint of criticism I withdraw back into my shell? It takes courage to step out of comfort and risk expanding into a larger version of ourselves. Like a snake we must shed the skin that constricts and constrains our growth. Or a tadpole that must change form to evolve, or a caterpillar that builds a cocoon to midwife its emergence as the butterfly. We are constantly called to more.
There is also a deeper level of self-worth to be considered. We are not here to live mundane, safe, comfortable lives, but to constantly unfold into our ever-expanding potential. As humans we are not constrained by the limitations of species specific instincts, but hard-wired to attune ourselves to the innermost calling of our Soul that, in one form or another, forever beckons us to ask questions, to seek justice for all, equality, brotherhood.
The other night I stepped outside to drink in the beauty of the ‘heavenly firmament,’ the Milky Way constellation that we are blessed with in the Southern Hemisphere night sky. I felt held and inspired by the reflection of beauty, constancy, ancient timelessness, expansion and home that the night sky brings.
As I lay down to sleep, I literally had stars in my eyes and felt connected to the glory of the universe that we are all part of, because as science has presented, we are made of the same particles. We literally are all equal on the basic physical level. The stars just are and they shine because that is their nature; they do not hide one day because they do not feel good enough to shine. Sailors set course by the stars; ancient structures, such as the pyramids, measure the movements of the heavens, and the stars are a constant reminder that we are, in essence, forever part of the infinite, expanding and eternal grandness that is our universe. To be less because of so-called low self-worth issues is simply an excuse to not come out of hiding and comfort and shine forth.
We don’t describe people as having high self-worth, we see them as shining lights who are leading the way. People like Natalie Benhayon, whose love for humanity is so great that she simply and playfully shines a light on The Way, works tirelessly but joyfully to inspire all women and men to re-ignite their own fire, their true worth and to shine forth too.
By Anne Hart, BSocSc, Goonellabah