Building Self-Worth Through Gratitude

The Abstract MIrror

Building Self-Worth Through Gratitude

Sometimes I feel I don’t have the right to offer my opinion regarding the challenges we face in life.  The truth is I’ve been very blessed throughout my life in many ways and generally speaking, have had what I consider to be a great life and a wonderful childhood.  I know many people who have not fared as well and when I consider what others have endured, it seems almost insulting that I would have anything to say on the matter.  The irony is, this is a form of feeling not good enough and unworthiness in and of itself.  Of course, I realize my feelings are misguided and that anyone, no matter where they come from in life, has value to add from their experiences and interpretations of those experiences.  I will try to share a little of mine here.

I was raised in a (mostly) Catholic family.  I say mostly because of my mother’s family and my mother were very Catholic but my father was agnostic, meaning he didn’t formally acknowledge any kind of god or higher power.  Since my father was rather indifferent, naturally, my mother wanted to raise me in the catechism of her faith.  As you can imagine, guilt and shame were part of the daily regimen.  In fact, this is one of the main tenets of Catholicism and Christianity in general – humans are born unworthy of God’s love, because Eve (don’t get me started). Therefore, believe in Christ’s ultimate sacrifice so your soul can be redeemed.  If you don’t believe, you burn.  And by the way, it doesn’t matter how perfect or pious a life you lead or how hard you try – you will never, ever be worthy unless you believe what you are told to believe.

I know it sounds a little draconian and I’ve over-simplified it somewhat.  But this is essentially the message you are given in the church, albeit in a slightly softer tone.  It’s in the stories you read, in the prayers you pray and in the songs you sing – “Lord, I am not worthy!”.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve uttered that phrase and in how many contexts.  We could probably fill books about why and how many different ways this is so incredibly unhealthy, but the main focus here is the lack of self-worth.  If it isn’t obvious already, this mantra of unworthiness permeated my life.

Relationships are the most obvious place to examine for me, especially romantic relationships.  When you feel unworthy, you lack self-love and you certainly lack confidence.  This is hardly attractive to somebody looking for a relationship, at least not for the right reasons.  There were countless times when I was younger where this played out in a variety of disappointing ways for me.  And of course, this cycle begins to feed on itself as one continues to validate one’s unworthiness via their outside experience.  Naturally, this makes it more difficult to find an emotionally healthy partner.  Furthermore, once I was in a relationship, I found there were issues due to these harbored feelings of unworthiness.  After some years, I began to see a pattern in my behavior whereby I was allowing myself to be mistreated but my guilt (see: lack of self-worth) kept me in the relationship anyway.  With time I learned to walk away from these unhealthy relationships sans the usual guilt and hence am much happier today.  As a side note, I’ve also found that I am perfectly happy alone and don’t require a romantic relationship to feel fulfilled.

This is certainly true of friendships as well.  In any kind of relationship, I have always had a tendency to put the happiness of others before my own.  At face value, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this.  It is not uncharacteristic of human beings to sacrifice for others they care for.  Parents do it every day for their children for example.  The problem arises out of the “why” as well as to the extent to which it occurs.  Feelings of unworthiness caused me not to like myself and so I would seek validation through others – so much so that I was more concerned about how others felt about me than whether or not they actually treated me well.  I remained friends with people who were not real friends at all because of this.  It goes the other way as well, meaning that even some friends who treated me well I didn’t necessarily like, but I still cared what they thought of me and so I would remain in the friendship which was, in essence, a fallacy.  This was incredibly disingenuous and not only unhealthy for me, but unfair to the other person who had really done nothing wrong.  As I look back, I realize I did this constantly when I was younger and of course it wasn’t obvious to me then.  One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that, to me, unhealthy friendships are sometimes less obvious than romantic relationships.  They tend to play out more slowly because there is less exposure.  Typically, I will see my partner almost daily but I have many friends where weeks and even months go by between visits.  I have learned to identify unhealthy friendships more quickly as I’ve grown, both in terms of how I am treated and how I treat the other person.

The last aspect I’ll discuss is my relationship with my parents.  Growing up, I was always terrified of letting my parents down or disappointing them.  They were never mean to me and they certainly never mistreated me.  The problem for me was, again, validation.  If I didn’t feel validated in my parents eyes, I didn’t feel worthy and I needed them to make me feel worthy because I certainly couldn’t feel that way on my own.  I realize that most kids seek validation from their parents when they are young and this is probably a common part of growing up.  The catch here is that I still see myself working through certain aspects of this today that have lingered even as I’ve become older.  While my life is not traumatically impacted by this the way it once was when I was young, I am still aware of nuances in my thought processes that reflect this.  I am guarded about certain aspects of my life and at times experience anxiety for fear of conjuring feelings of disappointment or disapproval in my parents.  I’ve also noticed that I sometimes have a subtle tendency to seek out parental praise and appreciation when it is not necessarily needed.  It’s something that has been extremely pervasive for me throughout my life and I have found it to be one of the most challenging aspects of self-worth that I work to improve.

By the way, this is to say nothing of how feelings of unworthiness affected my professional life, my financial status, my body image, and my overall physical health.  If I went into detail about all of these things, we’d be here forever.  The point is to illustrate how far-reaching this problem is for me and for many others as well.  It’s touched virtually every aspect of my life and it is my belief that we all experience feelings of unworthiness to varying degrees and in different contexts throughout our lives.  That’s why I believe all of the stories in this blog are so valuable – because it lets people see that everyone wrestles with these issues and that nobody is alone.  It is an integral piece of the process for healing and growing.

So I’ve rambled a bit about how feelings of unworthiness have affected my life.  Now what?  What can be done and what have I done (if anything) to change for the better?  Well, for me it started with awareness – first awareness that there was a problem, and then awareness of when and how the problem occurs.  The awareness of the problem began to come into focus when I was in my early twenties and I became aware of profound unhappiness that I was experiencing in my life for no apparent reason.  As I became more aware of this unhappiness, I started to look for answers.  I read about existential suffering (which is a broader topic) and started to learn about meditation and became aware of my thoughts and my thought process.  As this awareness grew I could see that I had developed many negative thoughts and thought patterns over the years about my self-worth.  This was key for me because I started to see the breadth and scope of the issue.  I can’t stress this enough: if you don’t have awareness around your thoughts and thought patterns, it is significantly more challenging to elicit change within yourself.  There are different ways to develop awareness and for me, that has been through meditation.

Once I’d built some awareness, I was able to take some action.  There are various things which can be done to shift your thoughts and thought patterns – mantras, self-love exercises and specific types of meditations, working with a therapist (which is also great for building awareness) – these are all wonderful and I’ve had varying degrees of success with each of them.  However, for me personally, the single most powerful tool to shift my thoughts and thought patterns has been developing a far deeper sense of gratitude.  Gratitude has allowed me to see the world through a very different lens than I once did.  It has radically altered my beliefs, not only about the external world around me but also about myself.  Daily, focused gratitude exercises, even only for a few weeks, was enough to show me how powerful the practice can be.  As I practiced, I started to find power in being the most grateful for the small things that I took for granted.  Eventually, I started to have gratitude even for the things in my life which appeared to be negative and realized there is a silver lining in everything that happens, no matter what – even if it doesn’t directly benefit me.  As this progressed, I started to feel more grateful for all aspects of myself.  I developed a deeper sense of self-acceptance and self-love and certain negative beliefs about self-worth which plagued my thoughts started to fade.  It is not a magic cure-all and it does take work, but gratitude moved the needle in my life more than all the other exercises I had done previously combined.  Of course, this is my own experience and everyone is different so YMMV.  However, for me, gratitude is a powerful tool to wield on the journey of life and I encourage anyone who is even mildly interested to try it for themselves.

I hope these words have been in some way helpful to at least one person who’s read them and that they evoke something positive in their life, however big or small.  Of course, I am not finished with anything I have discussed here.  I am still learning and improving and growing and I believe I will continue to do so for the rest of my life – and I am perfectly content with this.  I think it’s important to look at how far we’ve come rather than how far we feel we need to go.  I’m not sure if there is ever a finish line to cross with these types of things in life anyway.

Written by:  J.D.

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