What I’ve got coming to me

What are you worth? This isn’t a question about the material assets you’ve accumulated, or your earning potential. I’m asking about self-worth; your belief in your value as a human being and your worthiness to be happy. Because in this life, you only get what you think you deserve.

The concept of being ‘worth it’ was hijacked long ago by marketeers who want us to splurge on their products. As in, “go ahead, you deserve the luxury of that avocado and macadamia nut spa body scrub – you’re worth it.” This kind of pitch says, you owe it to yourself, as if you have been depriving yourself of happiness all along and now it’s time to cash in. Or else, they are appealing to your sense of entitlement, where you have felt that for all the injustices and insults you’ve endured over the years, you are owed this thing as compensation.

There’s a big difference between what you are worth and what you are owed. Actually, nobody owes you anything.

The real sense of self-worth is all about our definition of “who I am”, and is something separate from what “what I own” or what place in the organization “I occupy”. It is maintained by our self-talk; the inner conversation that defines how to relate to ourselves and our world. Through this conversation, we create a valuation that reflects our ability to measure up to expectations.

The problem that most of us face is that to a large extent, we unconsciously define our self-worth by comparison. We are comparing our results to those achieved by others and expectations created by parents, teachers, managers, and society. These outside forces judge us and teach us to judge ourselves, based on cultural conditions. As we grow, we assimilate these conversations and appraise our worth in terms of how well we are measuring up. If our appraisal process as is defined by others, not by ourselves, we have no ownership of it and therefore no sense of control around our worthiness.

This puts us in a very disempowered position. In order to be happy, we need a sense of fulfillment. To achieve fulfillment, we need to experience success. When success is defined by others, it is elusive. When we are successful according to others’ expectations (competence), we are rewarded and from this comes our self-esteem. We learn to equate praise and reward with our worthiness to be happy. So if our measure of our own worth never really belongs to us, we have no way to change it.

This closed feedback loop helps us understand our sense of worthiness and maintains a kind of equilibrium between internal and external measures of worth. It helps us know our place on the value chain. So we become accustomed to asking for what we think we deserve, based on past successes or failures in comparison to the relative successes and failures of those around us.

Psychologists talk about inner and outer self-esteem; one as being inherent self-worth and the other formed through external recognition. The inner disposition has a lot to do with our personality. For example, while people in my childhood were extremely positive and supportive, I was overly self-critical and often dissatisfied with myself – a feeling that has taken me a long time to shake. I read about supermodels who consider themselves to be ugly, and mega-stars who consider themselves failures. How can this lack of self-esteem be a response to such positive external feedback?

In the nature/nurture debate on personality, nature wins every time. A leopard can’t change its spots, but then again, spots don’t guarantee success or failure unless the leopard believes it. I think the more relevant question is: how important are those spots you’ve been wearing up ’till now?

So am I doomed by my personality to be undeserving and invite failure? It’s true I am naturally anxious and still occasionally fear the worst. Yet I’ve become conscious of the power of these thoughts and through such training as NLP, have learned to re-frame failure itself to the point where I welcome it as a valuable learning experience and so don’t really fear it as much. I don’t believe fulfillment, happiness and self-worth are just about thinking pretty thoughts or Stuart Smalley self-affirmations; they are the result of a single-minded attention to determining our value to the world on our own terms.

“At bottom every man knows well enough that he is a unique being, only once on this earth; and by no extraordinary chance will such a marvellously picturesque piece of diversity in unity as he is, ever be put together a second time.” — Nietzsche