Yesterday, in the sweltering summer heat, I watched my grandchildren squeal with delight as they found relief from the 105 degree temperature in a backyard inflatable pool. My 18-month-old grandson’s diaper filled with water until it fell off. Smiling from ear to ear, he played and ran around the backyard with innocent joy emanating from his entire being.
His joy was infectious, and I too felt complete contentment despite the heat of the day. He wasn’t worried that the pool was simply a little blow-up pool; he didn’t care that he was naked and completely vulnerable; he wasn’t concerned with what the other kids thought of him.
Each giggle shouted with delight that the joy of life was within his reach. He did not reach for anything outside of himself or the present moment because his authentic self was completely present and confident. It was a perfect moment.
Confusion About Who You Are
Somewhere in the transition from child to adult we lose this confidence and understanding of the inherent worth of our authentic self. Our society conditions us to look outside ourselves for the basis of our self-esteem and the definition of who we are.
This type of thinking takes us away from our authentic self as we buy into beliefs of inadequacy and doubt; these thoughts become so strong that the absolute truth of our worth as a human being becomes distorted.
Common thought patterns that distract us from the truth include:
– You are what you acquire — The more you get, the more worth you have.
– You are what you look like — Your worth comes from your external appearance.
– You are what others think of you — Others’ judgement or good graces determine your worth.
– You are what you do — What you do for a career or the roles you fulfill become the measure of your worth.
– You are your life experiences — Your identity becomes tied to your problems, your painful experiences, or even your successes.
Let’s look at each of these individually
1. You are what you acquire. The misbelief that you are what you have has been around from the days of lords and peasants. This belief suggests that having more makes you a person of more worth and value.
However, in the twentieth-century we have accelerated this toxic belief to an all-time-high as we feverishly accumulate more of everything. Recently there was a series of tv ads with adorable children being indoctrinated with this misbelief. The adult asks the kids, “Who thinks more is better?” They all raise their hand and say some charming things. One little girl says “We want it all.” The ad ends with: “It’s not complicated, MORE IS BETTER.”
Many of us fall into the trap of passing this belief on to our own children. A child of a modest farmer, my father was determined to provide the best of all the world had to offer for his children. He did not want them to taste of poverty and want in the same manner he did.
On Christmas mornings we were lavished with many expensive gifts. I carried on this same tradition with my own children. One Christmas I noticed that within an hour or so after opening the gifts, my children were bored and complaining. The gifts had not delivered any depth of well-being or happiness. The thrill of the gift wore off quickly. They did not have a better sense of how much they were loved and valued by their parents because it was just too much. As it turns out, more is NOT better.
2. You are what you look like. How your body looks as an indicator of your worth as a human being is a common misbelief that separates you from your authentic self. Society tells you that you are diminished if you have any physical flaws.
A few years ago my mother passed away from cancer. I accompanied her to all her appointments at the oncology office. Often, the conversations in the oncology waiting room would turn to the areas of life’s deepest meanings.
One woman felt cancer had given her the gift of letting go of the belief that she would be happy and loved if she was beautiful. She had spent her days obsessively weighing herself. She had spent her money on plastic surgery and on an elaborate wardrobe. She explained how she had worried over every little physical flaw, truly believing her worth as a person was based on her external appearance. She sat visiting with us with a bald head, in sweats and a t-shirt, and with no makeup.
The peace on her face was a beauty that drew everyone to her. She laughed as she explained that to begin her day she used to get up, weigh herself, and then check for a cold sore, pimple, or any other little irregulation in her skin. Through the course of cancer and the accompanying chemotherapy, she described the liberation she felt at letting go of such self-absorption.
With complete pleasure, she described her maiden voyage into public with no hair. Through her laughs, she described how the cancer helped her reclaim that which was important in her life. Her energy shifted to faith, family, and friends as the foundation of her life. She stopped trying to gain love and acceptance through how she looked. She recognized her own inherent worth and value.
3. You are what others think of you. We spend our energy trying to please others so we can feel good about ourselves. This sets us up for disaster because it is a moving target. Others’ views of us come through their own filters, judgments, insecurities, and fears. That is a no-win situation.
We distort compliments or distrust what others say, assuming it comes with a hidden agenda. Rather than recognizing that others are confused about their own self worth, we worry and fret about what others are thinking about us. In return we judge and criticize others, each doing the judging out of insecurity, creating a never ending cycle of trying to establish worth according to what others think.
Answering the question, “What will the neighbors think?” can feel like the source of all truth.
At 24, Jennifer was tired of her minimum-wage-job working in a grocery store and decided to go to college. She got through the registration process without a hitch. However, on the first day of class she was filled with anxiety. She worried that others would think that she must be stupid because she was too old to be just starting college.
She came to therapy the next week dejected because the worry of what others were thinking had gotten so intense that she couldn’t force herself to set foot in the classroom. She decided that going back to school just wasn’t for her. Her story is an example of letting what you believe others think of you separate you from the potential within yourself. When you are aligned with your authentic self, you have freedom to explore and develop your inner potential.
4. You are what you do. A few weeks ago while at the theater with my son and his wife, I ran into the Dean of the college from which I graduated. This man had mentored me and taught me much about how to be a therapist. I held him in highest regard in every way.
With fondness, I introduced him to my son and daughter-in-law. He downplayed my accolades and in a despondent manner that took me completely by surprise responded, “Now that I am retired, I am a nobody. No one gives a hoot what I think or feel anymore.” He had so identified with his role as professor, therapist, and mentor that when he no longer had these titles he felt as if he was nothing.
Your awards, rank, plaques, career, or roles you play are a poor substitute for the depth of truth offered by living true to your authentic self. You are more than what you do.
The notion of a mid-life crisis comes from entering a point of life when you find out that a successful career doesn’t feed your soul. You still feel empty. What you do is not an accurate barometer of your worth and value.
5. You are your life experiences. Many have tied their identities to either their problems and suffering or their successes and praises, and they wonder who they would be without them.
I work with clients who have experienced childhood abuse. It is common for some to identify so strongly with the abuse that it becomes how they see themselves. Through the course of healing, a new paradigm is offered: they are a person of inherent worth, and abuse is only one of their life experiences.
Any of your painful experiences can take on this role. It’s easy to feel as if your divorce, cancer, wealth, education, travel destinations, hobby or any other life experience is who you are. You have an opportunity to learn from your experiences. They impact how you see the world, but your experiences are not what give you worth and value. That comes from within.
Ultimately, these beliefs are like a bucket with a hole in it. The energy you give to them in an attempt to relieve never-ending feelings of inadequacy always leaves you feeling empty. These beliefs can never offer the salvation they promise because they are false and feed the fearful false self.
Speaking of these beliefs in such a manner does not adequately express the pain that comes from buying into them. Writing about them sounds sterile and clinical, but the truth is that they are painful. I have sat with client after client who experiences intense suffering from the chronic feeling of not being worthy or good enough.
I grew up in this culture with these beliefs being spoon-fed to me since childhood, and I know firsthand the pain they cause. To be separate from the truth of your own inherent worth and value leaves you in a state of constant striving but never arriving.
Aligning with Truth
Having explored the path of aligning with the truth of my inherent worth personally and walking the same path with many clients, I know that we just can’t talk ourselves into a sense of our true value. It is difficult to change long-held thinking patterns–especially ones that are so deeply entrenched within Western society.
- How do you align with the truth of your inherent worth on a personal level despite what society says?
- What is the path to accepting and believing the worth of your own human soul even with with all your weaknesses and shortcomings?
We can look to nature to begin to shift our perspective. For example, the graceful and beautiful butterfly fluttering through the air is a symbol of our innate worth. The butterfly starts as a common and sometimes ugly caterpillar.
The caterpillar might say, “Are you kidding me? You’re crazy! There couldn’t possibly be a butterfly here. I’m crawling on the leaves, and I need to be content with that. I couldn’t possibly fly.” Yet there is inside each caterpillar a butterfly. It is built in–it is inherently there. You can’t cut open the caterpillar and take the butterfly out. It is just there–period. The caterpillar’s belief in its own worth and value is not even relevant to the existence of a butterfly within. I love this analogy. The same truth applies for the essence of each human being.
The symbol of the butterfly teaches the vital principle that there are a few things in life that are just true. Whether you get it, understand it, or believe it doesn’t make any difference to the truth of it.
What about the notion people believed for years that the earth was flat? For those who believed this, it became truth to them, but that did not make it reality. They lived their lives as if the world was flat. They only ventured a short distance into the sea.
The fear of thinking of the world in any other way was overwhelming. Of course, the whole time they were believing that the world was flat, the truth was that the world was round. The roundness of the earth was and is true no matter what people believed. The belief that the world was flat was a thought and nothing more.
An emotional connection to the thought did not make it true. As Christopher Columbus left the illusion of living under a false belief, he followed the light of truth. He simply said, “Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.” From there, he could align with the absolute truth that the world is a sphere.
Your worth and value as a person exist regardless of your belief or understanding of them; just as the earth remained a sphere despite common beliefs. This truth rests at the foundation of human intuition.
When you hold a newborn baby, you can feel the inherent worth. The babe is worth protecting. A hope of well-being for the child emerges from your heart. We don’t seemconfused about the worth of a newborn. Where does that worth go? As the child grows and becomes mischievous does the worth just vanish? This doesn’t make any sense.
The worth is as built into the very essence of each human being as is the butterfly within each caterpillar. This is truth. You can feel it at a gut level. You have built-in worth and value. Your belief in your own worth is not relevant to its truth. You may believe it or not, but this does not affect the truth.
You can believe it and embrace the joy of well-being, or you can believe you are worthless and feel the misery and isolation such rejection brings. It is clearly a choice because the truth remains constant and unmoved. Bernie Siegel, M.D. in his book How to Live Between Office Visits defines embracing who we really are as “one’s willingness to become reacquainted with one’s true self and to allow one’s fellow man to do the same.”
We are each loveable. We are each human beings with many flaws, but that does not negate our inherent worth. Listening to the deepest part of us always leads to the same truth. One young client called it her “inner knowings.” The field of psychology generally calls this connecting to our authentic self.
In the Book of Romans in the New Testament, Paul asserts we are “Children of God” (Romans 8:16-17). Regardless of the name you assign, when you allow yourself to listen to your authentic self, your heart knows the truth. You have inherent worth regardless of what you have, what you do, what others think of you, or what you look like.
When you have the courage to move past these disastrous thinking patterns, you can follow what your heart already knows is true. Embracing this one truth will give you a sense of peace and inner fulfillment.