As comedienne Lucille Ball quipped: "You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world." Part of that self-love is feeling that you're worth it, that you are good enough, and that you deserve respect, kindness, and satisfaction with your life. Although this seems simple enough, unworthiness is more common in our culture than we might expect.
Simply put, worthiness is a person's judgment of their own value, merit, or usefulness. It stems from our deep human need to be known and seen for who we really are and what we have to give. In healthy amounts, it's the sentiment most clearly expressed in the words of author and poet Maya Angelou: I'm not perfect, but I'm pretty good.
In contrast, unworthiness is often a self-fulfilling downward spiral, where a person believes she isn't helpful, useful, or good. Someone who believes that he's worthless may also set out to prove his worthlessness through a series of poor choices.
How to Recognize Unworthiness
Many people who have issues with unworthiness tend to internalize and overly-personalize situations. If something goes wrong, they're at fault. Of course he yelled at me, the thinking goes, I burned the chili. Or, I'll never get that pay raise, so why would I bother even asking? Unworthiness tends to involve repetitive, unhelpful self-talk that's dominated by what has been called the Judge or one's inner critic. Remember what happened last time? this voice warns. You made a fool of yourself.
But for every instance where unworthiness manifests as a habit of underachieving at work or the avoidance of healthy risk-taking in relationships, there are just as many instances where unworthiness is so embedded that a person isn't even aware that it's at the root of their choices.
For instance, a person may find herself in a series of abusive relationships or with an addiction. Such issues often act as masks, covering up a core feeling of unworthiness. In order to successfully address the issue, the unworthiness needs to be addressed also.
The Quest for Dignity
It's been said that all of life is a quest for dignity. And as you continue on your own quest, here are three starting points for developing a stronger sense of worth:
1. Look at your patterns.
Overcoming unworthiness asks us to become more reflective and self-aware. This isn't always easy especially when your inner critic has a stronghold on the way you talk with yourself. It would rather you continue obeying it, rather than learn to listen to kinder and more nurturing parts of yourself.
In the face of your inner critic's resistance, be brave. Examine the choices you've made in the past, and notice what they share in common. If things always seem to go well, right until the moment you mess it up, there may be a deeper belief of unworthiness that's overtaken your healthy sense of perspective. Deep down, do you believe you actually deserve success?
2. Zoom out.
Take a moment and a deep breath and consider the external factors that lead you to doubt your own goodness and worth. Was a parent or other authority figure critical of you? Sometimes the loudest inner critic isn't our voice, but one that we've internalized and adopted as our own.
3. Make a decision. You have the power to choose which beliefs are in your life, and which are not welcome. Once you accept and internalize a belief, it's harder to uproot it from your subconscious mind. So cultivate awareness of the beliefs and judgments in your life, and get in the habit of deciding whether or not each one deserves a place in your mind.
To aid you in that, try this Gatekeeper Exercise: the next time someone tells you or you tell yourself: You're not [articulate/confident/attractive] enough or You'll never [start your own company/find a sexy and loving relationship/lose 60 pounds], take it as an invitation to pause, take a deep breath, and decide whether to accept, reject or reflect upon it.
With practice, you may be surprised how many beliefs and judgments come your way that you no longer automatically accept as your own...and how the simple act of gatekeeping helps to protect and build your sense of value and self-worth.
While overcoming unworthiness is a process that takes time and effort, the payoff is nothing short of life-changing.