Tell me why my worth isn't attached to my achievements.
July 29, 2009 3:50 PM   Subscribe

CBT Related: How do you convince yourself that your personal worth is not contingent on achievement and success?

I am engaged in cognitive behavioral therapy and have been successfully remapping some distorted belief systems in a number of areas. Success in truly adopting a new "healthy" belief system relies on your ability to rationally, logically convince yourself that this new belief is INDEED true. To the degree you actually believe it, you will adopt it. It can sometimes be tricky crafting arguments that challenge my unhealthy beliefs that my brain will actually accept...but with practice I get better at it. There is one MAJOR sticking area though...and that is my belief that my worthiness comes from my ability to achieve and succeed.

This belief causes considerable anxiety and grief for me personally and I have had a tough time coming up with an argument that I actually believe to the contrary. Since grade school we have been programmed to equate achievement with success (you got an A! you're now DESERVING!) And our society pretty much reaffirms this programming through media and popular culture. Those who succeed are more desirable mates, higher earners, more influencial...they get more, control more resources and are generally admired. To me, this translates to "better person." I am convinced by reams of data that they are not necessarily HAPPIER that much I believe already. That being said, I generally feel down about myself when I am not achieving, succeeding, manifesting my awesome existence through stuff that makes people say "ooooh!" I constantly feel the pressure to amount to something extraordinary or suffer the consequences of being less than worthwhile...

What are some rational, realistic arguments that challenge this powerful belief system? So far I have been unable to convince myself that my own worth is unhinged from what I accomplish in life, and I am looking for the perfectly crafted argument that will drill penetrate my brain like a shiv with the handle broken off.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
I have always been a fan of the Desiderata, and this passage in particular is one I often find myself dwelling on:

"If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. "
posted by vito90 at 3:52 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, not to get all philosophical about it, but you and everyone you're comparing yourself to are all ultimately going to suffer the same fate in the end, so in a sense the question of worth is irrelevant. No one is worthy enough to escape death after all. It works both if you're religious (wherein god measures your worth ostensibly by how morally good you are) and if you aren't.

Also, in your own wording of this question you point out that you are accepting American society's definition of worth, which just seems pointless. Why would you let something so vast and vague define your worth for you? Think about all of the things that American society embraces that you might disagree with and then evaluate whether their standards are acceptable for judging you.

Finally, I personally think what ultimately defines our worth is how we effect other people. I am worth a whole lot to my family and friends. When I do a random kind deed for someone, I am worth something to them. When I am kind to myself, I have self-worth. Etc.
posted by sickinthehead at 3:58 PM on July 29, 2009

That is a brilliant question and one that I too have struggled with, in the sort of logical thinking tree that comes with practicing CBT. I'm right there with it until I get to the worth question.

However, when I get there I tend to remember the following things and it helps me to feel better:

1.) No "system" or way of looking at the world is right 100%. If you choose to look at the world in a way that values someone's "worth" by their achievements and success, you gain something from that (a world in which great heights of material success and positive opinion of others can be reached), but you also lose something (the basic human dignity that comes with valuing people for their existence and the beauty they possess by simply living in the world, purely and happily).

2.) I think "worthiness" can be a loaded concept when you're in the depths of anxiety about how you're perceived by others. You're looking at it from a tweaked angle. The word "worthiness" might be the wrong word for you in this context. Value and worth as a person for exactly what, is what you should ask yourself. The right to happiness? The right to exist peacefully and without fear or misery? Yes. But the happiness question is what's sticking in your craw. Success and achievement create worth on a stock exchange in which the chips are the opinions of others. If that's what's important to your happiness in that moment, that's what you're probably getting stuck on. You'll feel better in that moment if you follow the logic tree a little further and rationalize whether or not the opinions of others actually makes you happy.

I'm sure you've already found and you'll continue to find it can feel a lot more like a feedback loop and a lot less a flow chart to peacefulness and calm when you're feeling particularly down on yourself and anxious. That's the beauty of CBT, though, if you really learn how to think things through to their logical conclusions, even if it feels like you're playing thought pinball, jumping from one concern to the next, eventually the ball WILL drop through the hole if you let it, and you will get much better at it.
posted by pazazygeek at 4:01 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I read something recently about this that said people attach inherent worth to animals, and so they shouldn't be afraid to attribute it to people as well. Every dog I've ever had has been, at best, completely useless and, at worst, a tremendous pain. I've liked them anyway.
posted by dortmunder at 4:02 PM on July 29, 2009 [11 favorites]

I would hazard that you are having trouble with this because you haven't defined "success." The closest you've come to describing what you're looking for is your statement about "things that makes people say "oooh!"" Is it that you believe your worthiness comes from hearing others voice their admiration and approval? That might be an easier belief to remap than vague concepts of "success" and "achievement."
posted by Wordwoman at 4:03 PM on July 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

Those who succeed are more desirable mates, higher earners, more influencial...they get more, control more resources and are generally admired. To me, this translates to "better person."

What are some rational, realistic arguments that challenge this powerful belief system?

I think once you know a lot of people well who are hitting all these data points and realizing they still have the average amount of happiness distributed among them, you realize more that happiness is just in many ways an accident of brain chemistry and not something that has a mathematical relationship to achievement. That's part of it. Assuming you're having your basic needs met, the rest is details. Your perspective on those details has more to do with your quality of life than the actual details.

My anecdote: I had a good set of friends in Seattle. Two of my friends were a couple who was pregnant and decided (seemingly spur of the moment) to move to Brooklyn. A lot of people asked them "what are you doing, that's crazy..." and they said "well, it's time for a change, R has a job opportunity there and generally we're just happy people so we're pretty much going to be happy anywhere" and it turned out to be really true.

I think a lot of people set up these competitive steps with "society" such that if they get to a certain place, achieve a certain amount THEN they'll be happy. I often ask myself "What can I do to be happy in the next hour. Anything?" and then, sometimes, I try to do those things. So there's short-term and long-term happiness, for one thing and sometimes you're just not in a place where working on long-term happiness works, but short term happiness is often within reach.

Part of it is also setting up achievable goals that are personally based and not societally based. This is easier if you turn off the TV and limit big media consumption (for me personally). So, you can still be an achiever, but you're more competing against yourself, not "society" and certainly not the strange strangers on the television. So, some things may include

- write someone you care about a letter, write one every day this week
- get to inbox zero [this alone gets you head and shoulders above many people]
- volunteerism, find a cause and go devote five hours a month to it

Figure out what people on the blogs you read are doing and try to do something like that with your own measures for success. Assuming you have a peer group that you like, be sure to mark these achievements. So, I guess what I'm saying is, instead of convincing yourself that you're losing the race, create a new race and go do as well as you can with it. Every community divides itself into many subcommunities for the purposes of measurement and comparison [think "the most favorites on MeFi" "makes the most comments on MeFi" "has the most contacts on MeFi"] and if you slice it enough ways, there are ways you are achieving and successful, you just need to learn to find and then value those ways.
posted by jessamyn at 4:10 PM on July 29, 2009 [9 favorites]

[Much of this is a simplistic summary of the implications of Carol Dweck's brain/learning research and her brain science for dummies book on it.]

A lot of our focus on "achievement" and "success" is on the end or the reward, not the process of growth. We are taught that the whole point of work, study, learning is to get the A or the gold star or the raise -- and we learn to do just enough to gain that external validation. In that sense, much of our achievement is not focused on challenging our brains or learning new things but about avoiding risks or experiments that might result in growth but also might get us a C in the process.

Studies of brain regeneration or re-routing after injury demonstrate that the brain can grow and change throughout our lifetimes; we can continually get smarter and learn to do a host of things we can't do now. Our talents, intelligence, abilities are not fixed. So, how does that relate to worth and achievement?

Let's say a 10 year old kid does an easy level crossword puzzle, and gets it all right very quickly. How do the parents react? "Oh, Billy! That's great! You're so smart and so quick! Wow, what a wonderful job!" All sorts of praise and reward will build the kid's sense of self-worth, right?

Wrong. It stops learning dead in its tracks because it teaches us that getting everything right the first time, and quickly, is the whole point -- and that the best way to do that is to take on only the easiest, least taxing, most predictable task that doesn't stretch our abilities.

Dweck says when a kid (or you) complete a task perfectly and easily, the correct response is to say, "Whoa, OK, that's too easy for you; let's find you a tougher puzzle." And if you "fail" at something, the correct response is, "What did we learn from that, and let's talk about what things we can do differently to learn more the next time."

So I guess it's less about divorcing worthiness from achievement than re-defining achievement --- all those external (or internal) flattering rewards and praise that make us feel worthy are actually counterproductive. Worthiness isn't winning the blue ribbon; it's striving to know more, find a different or better way, pushing ourselves rather than playing to our strengths or coasting.

And I guess more generally, since humans are always in the process of becoming who they are, worthiness is dynamic rather than static.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:24 PM on July 29, 2009 [10 favorites]

One way to change this thought pattern might be to keep yourself busy with things that make you happy that are not achievement oriented or competitive in nature. Meditate, cook wholesome meals, journal regularly, investigate topics you're interested in thoroughly, ask others questions about themselves, take long walks, adopt a pet, be a good influence on the people around you.
posted by lunalaguna at 4:33 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I struggled with this for years until I realized that I was holding myself up to standards that I would consider unethical and immoral if I applied them to others. In other words, if I figured you had to be successful to be "worthy," I would think the poor, some of the disabled, children, sick people and others who I believe are truly worthy and important to be unworthy. By being human, you are worthy of dignity and respect. Period. So give that to yourself the way you would to others.

Second, achievement and success depends a lot on factors over which we have no control. I may be the best journalist in the world, but if everyone decides that no one should be paid for content, I may have to quit that field. That doesn't make me a failure or unworthy-- it means there are conditions in the world over which I can attempt to assert some control, but which are ultimately not up to me. My book might be utterly brilliant, but if the PR people don't do their job, no one may know about it and it may go unnoticed and make no money.

The real way to achieve self esteem and to be worthy is to be useful and do estimable actions. My book on abusive boot camps wasn't a bestseller-- but it did lead to Congressional action that might ultimately change the law. It helped many parents realize that this was not a good idea for their kids. It helped a lot of kids who had been abused feel like they aren't alone or crazy. I did my best, I did something useful and I take satisfaction in that.

If my goal is to be useful, not acclaimed, I can do that no matter what the circumstances are by being kind and helpful and by recognizing the humanity in everyone and sharing what I can. I can be useful and, as they say in AA, take the action and let go of the results.

This way, I hold myself to high standards but not ones that pervert my real values. Do I fail and still worry about status and all that? Sure. But again, I try and I know that I value other people for being themselves and that I deserve that too.
posted by Maias at 4:58 PM on July 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

For me it was travel that broke that association in my mind. I traveled for a couple of months through some 2nd and 3rd world countries and seeing how happy most of the people were with nothing made me recalibrate my definition of what is success and what is really required to be happy. It has greatly reduced the stress in my life as I now have no desire to keep up with the Joneses. Perhaps as it has been suggested above a way to do this is to recast your idea of what is successful. I also found that this book helped to firm up this transition in my mind.
posted by troll on a pony at 5:03 PM on July 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Your best friend is in a car wreck. They're in a coma and will never recover. What do they deserve? What are they worth?
posted by MsMolly at 5:53 PM on July 29, 2009

To be quite honest, I never ever thought for a second that anyone's worth was attached to their achievements. I recommend reading Kurt Vonnegut as an adolescent, but the tricky part will be building the time machine.

The thought experiments other people have suggested already might be helpful. Also, think of your favorite person whom you know. Now think of Donald Trump. Donald Trump is almost certainly more "successful" than that person in all the conventional measures, but who is really worth more? If you were in a lifeboat with Donald Trump and your favorite person, and could only save one, whom would you save?

You may substitute "Carrot Top" or "George W. Bush" or "Barack Obama" or "Tony Blair" or "Margaret Thatcher" or whatever conventionally-successful person you think is a blight on the face of the Earth.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:49 PM on July 29, 2009

I just watched a Ted Talk that covers this: A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success by Alain de Botton.
posted by limeswirltart at 7:24 PM on July 29, 2009

"Try to become not a man of success, but try rather to become a man of value."
-- Albert Einstein, as quoted by LIFE magazine (2 May 1955)

I think historically and culturally America has been more prone to this type of striving as a measure of self-worth. ("The vast majority of men live lives of quiet desperation." -- Thoreau; "As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?" -- de Tocqueville) But once you realize this is a cultural construct, built around a society designed to exploit and profit off of vast supplies of resources, you also recognize how in later years it formed the basis of Babbitry.

Ultimately measuring success is the real conundrum. Many of us may spend our entire lives seeking to please others. Many of us will reject success and become slackers, the basis of an entire 1990s subculture and some notable films. Yet others of us will seek to succeed, but demand to define the terms of that success for ourselves.

There really is a sui generis aspect to the supposed "self-made man" of earlier cultural lore. Today there are management and life- and money-management gurus who will essentially give you a beat to which to set your own drum. But to be that type of success, like Gates or Jobs or whomever, you also need to be a little deaf to the objections of others.
posted by dhartung at 9:25 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

This will sound odd, but you might try moving someplace more class-ridden for a while. One of the positive flip sides of this (I would argue) overall negative phenomenon is that people often have an unconscious sense of limit, of the kind of career options that will likely be available, appropriate and desirable for them. And so when they grow up and fall into one of those options it may in and of itself be satisfying or unsatisfying but it does not define them. Their family, their friends, travel, the person they love...that's what you live for, and your career is just something that you do.
posted by Diablevert at 9:42 PM on July 29, 2009

In the same vein as Diablevert's post...

Go live/volunteer in a third-world country for awhile. Your definitions of success/failure/whatever will be fundamentally altered.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 11:12 PM on July 29, 2009

In a few years, you're going to be dead. So are all of the big achievers you know. Their high earnings, their influence: all gone. There's no such thing as "lasting success". There's also no such thing as "your worth". The only thing that's worth anything is your experiences, as experienced by you. Of course, the quality and fullness of your experiences might depend on your being "successful", but only to a certain degree: in this view, success would be defined as you being able to do the things that make your life worthwhile. No outsider can determine what these things are.

(Concluding that success/achievements are completely irrelevant for a worthwile life would be exaggerated and misleading, I think. "Success" in a very wide sense should not be discounted - in the sense of you being an autonomous agent who is able to influence his environment and overcome problems. It is not a valuable thing in and of itself, though, it's just a stepstone or necessary condition to generate valuable experiences.)
posted by The Toad at 1:26 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

In a few years, you're going to be dead. So are all of the big achievers you know.

Consciousness of mortality is indeed a really helpful barometer for deciding the worthiness of one's activities, or at least it seems that way to me as I careen through middle age toward the crypt. When you're contemplating what to do, instead of asking, "Will this make other people say 'oooooo'?" try saying, "I have a constantly decreasing finite number of minutes and hours left. Is this what I want to do with X of them?"

It's amazing how that can shift and temper your more senseless ambitions.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:42 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

I am always harder on myself than others. If I fail at something, it seems to be the worst thing ever. But if your friends and family are going through a tough time, I love them just as much. I have respect and compassion for others and I have to remind myself to have it for myself.

I also agree with above that defining success is important. You may be setting yourself up for failure. When will you have succeeded? Or in my case, when will my house be clean enough? Turns out never. My mom will also probably never be impressed either. Really, her standards are too high. I either have to accept that or never be happy with it.

No matter what the context, there will always be better than you. Try not to let it get to you.
posted by Gor-ella at 6:32 AM on July 30, 2009

I can see that this is difficult for you, and for others, but you might want to question the assumption that "Since grade school we have been programmed to equate achievement with success (you got an A! you're now DESERVING!) And our society pretty much reaffirms this programming through media and popular culture."

Some of us had no such programming, or were to busy being told we had to be pretty or godly or whatever the hell our partents wanted us to for us to pay attention to the message you were getting. If you can see how this assumption of yours is not, in fact, a hard-and-fast rule, that may help.

Also, Donald Trump.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:32 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

So I realize this is an old thread, and not sure if you are still struggling with this concept, but I really apprecated the honesty of this talk:

"A Kinder Gentler Philosophy of Success"

It is a TED talk and only about 15 mins or so, but greatly releaved some of my anxiety about achieving "success".
posted by veronicacorningstone at 2:17 PM on April 7, 2010

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