How can I develop a more stable, internally based sense of self-worth? Or how to stop feeling insecure?
May 23, 2012 11:18 AM   Subscribe

How can I develop a more stable, internally based sense of self-worth? Or how to stop feeling insecure?

I generally feel pretty good about myself, but that feeling is highly linked to my ability to perform well at school or at work. When I'm doing well at these tasks, I feel like I'm on the top of the world. It becomes very easy to function in work, hobbies and in social situations.

If something happens to me to suggest that I'm doing poorly, for some reason, I basically go comatose. I spent 3 days crying in bed after getting a poor review on one of my projects. I feel like I care too much.

I've been doing some research on how to build self-esteem, and I'm having a hard time finding anything that's applicable to me. I don't believe that I'm inherently better or worse than any other person, but I do believe that my "intrinsic value is a human being" is fundamentally worthless if I can't perform well, and stake a secure place for myself in the world. I feel like I have a difficult time conceptualizing or even understanding the idea of people being valuable just because they are human, since to the best of my knowledge and based on my past experiences, being human by itself has never guaranteed anyone anything. It doesn't matter how human you are- if you don't have the money to maintain yourself, or the talent, connections or skills necessary to acquire the money to maintain yourself, then your humanity essentially stops mattering to all other humans. So every time I mess up, I feel like I'm moments away from living in a ditch on the side of a road forever.

If for a few moments I wind up being able to convince myself that it's okay to make mistakes, it's not because I've really let go of the idea of achieving worth through accomplishment, it's because that I know that making mistakes will allow me to improve my skills, thus increasing my opportunity to achieve worth through accomplishment.

What steps can I take to stop feeling like I'm going to destroy myself if I can't keep up a good face? How do people think they're valuable just because they exist?
posted by jumelle to Human Relations (11 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
Mindfulness meditation helps immeasurably with this because you learn to focus on the things in front of you (and inside you), which perhaps paradoxically allows you to see the big picture. There's no scorekeeping; you can't "win" at meditation or even "get better." But your mind will be clearer and you'll gain a wider perspective on life.

I hear Mindfulness for Beginners is a good secular introduction; if you want to go the Buddhist route, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is a good book but my favorite is Three Pillars of Zen. Anything by Pema Chodron is A-okay too.
posted by desjardins at 11:42 AM on May 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Some people are naturally more motivated by extrinsic factors and accomplishments. That's not inherently a bad thing and honestly, maybe not something you have much control over. What you do have control over is your behavior following a bad review. Put your mistakes in perspective, do not allow yourself to ruminate or catastrophize. Remind yourself to consider the totality of your work, to consider yourself as a whole person. That's where your "humanity" clause comes in. It's difficult to just accept your being human as valuable because that is such an abstract concept. I actually think getting to a point of feeling valuable for existing is not what you want. More practically, you just need to be able to develop some coping mechanisms in the face of "failure." When you're in the throes of despair, tap into your reasonable side and consider that it IS okay to make this mistake, because you have succeeded in the past. You have done enough to lead you to the point of being able to make this mistake and hell, you've made mistakes in the past and lived to tell the tale and mitake once more. Remember your successes, the body of your work and life and go from there. That may be an easier way to consider your humanness. Make your "worth" feel more tangible.
posted by Katine at 11:44 AM on May 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


if you don't have the money to maintain yourself, or the talent, connections or skills necessary to acquire the money to maintain yourself, then your humanity essentially stops mattering to all other humans

While I don't agree that your humanity stops mattering you other humans if you don't have these things, I agree that they are important in being able to survive, and be successful.

But I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that "talent" isn't the correct term. Talent implies something internal and unchangeable, and many studies have shown that success in a particular skill depends almost ENTIRELY on putting forth SMART EFFORT and DELIBERATE PRACTICE than on any innate ability in a person. The word you should use is "skill" for that term, instead of adding it as something separate.

That said, all these things are achievable simply by working through them. You can get money to maintain yourself by getting a career. You can obtain skill through practice and effort. You can gain connections by working on your interpersonal skills and learning to talk to people and helping people or making yourself useful to them.

Frankly, I find behavior such as shutting down because of a few scrapes and bruises on the road to life as silly behavior and if it happened to someone close to me, I would just slap them upside the head and tell them to quit being asinine. But I don't know you or the severity of your condition, and I can't physically slap you upside the head through the internet.


If for a few moments I wind up being able to convince myself that it's okay to make mistakes, it's not because I've really let go of the idea of achieving worth through accomplishment, it's because that I know that making mistakes will allow me to improve my skills, thus increasing my opportunity to achieve worth through accomplishment.

There is no reason to let go of the idea of achieving worth through accomplishment, because it is true in many ways. If you're looking for intrinsic, innate self worth, you're smart enough not to delude yourself into believing that horse-crap. The important thing to take away is what you already know, that whatever it is that's bringing you down is just a bump on the road to success and you will learn from your success and you will do everything you can to gain those things that make you important to your community and those people. Everyone makes mistakes so most people won't judge you permanently for most of your mistakes. Just show them that you'll do better.

You may find someone that loves you just for you, but that is a completely different kind of human relationship, and you still need to upkeep those other relationships with those items you mentioned before.
posted by Peregrin5 at 11:53 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Two things helped me: 1) therapy (over years), and 2) developing more realms of my life in which I could build skills and self-worth.

I tried pottery (very good for humility, being so consciously incompetent at something as an adult), tai chi, hiking mountains, yoga, boot camp classes, volunteering, reading new genres, taking free language classes on-line, biking, boxing, teaching gym classes, and I can't even remember what else. And I wasn't great at most of them, but I did develop new skills, gain knowledge, become stronger and more interesting, and... gain self-esteem.

Eventually, on days when something at work stinks you can go for a great Run (or bike or cookathon) instead of crying. Because you're more than your work.
posted by ldthomps at 12:18 PM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


I assume that when you consider how much value you place on your friends, you don't base it on "their ability to perform well at school or at work"? That it actually involves things like loyalty, sense of humor, fun, and emotional connections?

Next time you are feeling like you're worth nothing because of a project, try putting yourself in your friends shoes and realistically asking if this would change their valuation of you if your positions were reversed.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 12:19 PM on May 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


There's a lot wrapped up in your question. It sounds like you're dealing with general anxiety and a negative worldview. I could have written this question word for word a few years ago. I'm not like this anymore. I still have moments of insecurity, but I just let them go now.

What changed?

I went through a really tough time. Devastating breakup, parent got seriously ill, depression, career crossroads. I had at that point completely isolated myself from other people because, like you, I thought that the only way I could get people to help me was by forcing them to value me--through money, power, and connections. After my ex left, I thought I was completely alone. To my surprise, friends and acquaintances whom I hadn't spoken to in months came out of the woodwork to take care of me and spend time with me. They didn't owe me anything; most of them didn't even know what I'd achieved. Most of them didn't and don't care about the degrees I have or what I do at work. They just want to sit with me, have a good conversation, share a meal, hear about my day. They just like me. I was and am completely humbled by what they did.

It also helped that I went through some CBT to deal with the catastrophizing (that's what you're doing, you know--you're making unprovable generalizations about humanity and scaring yourself with them). I also traveled, said yes to every invitation I got, and gave myself permission to do exactly what I wanted. Not what I thought other people would be impressed by, but exactly what I wanted. Even if that was just hanging out at home watching TV.

So, if you're anything like me, you're actually very secure. It would take a lot of missteps for you to end up in a ditch. You probably have more friends than you realize. Spend more time with them, and make a real attempt to understand why they like you. Stop assuming you know what everyone is thinking; you don't. At work, give yourself permission to fail. Have your cry, but keep moving. Solve problems and luxuriate in your successes.

Good luck. You can MeMail me if you'd like to chat.
posted by rhythm and booze at 12:21 PM on May 23, 2012 [13 favorites]


The deep root of your problem is likely perfectionism. Try reading this or this.

Perfectionism is a cancer. Kill that shit. Learn to be okay with "good enough." Learn to forgive your mistakes as you would a friend's. (It's hard.)
posted by griselda at 1:02 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I spent 3 days crying in bed after getting a poor review on one of my projects. I feel like I care too much.

You are not your results. You are not your resume. It's possible to be a good caring person and still mess up on some task.

Also, Constructive Living made a big difference for me. I found out that my emotions don't have to influence my actions--I can hate doing something and still do it.

intent, meaning and emotions are secondary to the way we act. People would do well to increase their personal responsibility for individual choices while decreasing their tendency to obsess about 'oughts' or 'what ifs'.

posted by Ideefixe at 1:29 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


The book that changed my life on this front is Radicla Acceptance. There's also an audiobook version.

The basic gist of mindfulness in this application is to build a little space between your automatic self-judgey thoughts and your automatic reaction to them (to cry or whatever), so that you have the option of letting them go unanswered, like weather. Fascinating stuff.
posted by softlord at 3:59 PM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Joining the chorus on the meditation front.

It is perfectly fine to be ambitious and have certain expectations about the standard of things. Telling someone who is like that to be less like that is like telling an extrovert to be more like an introvert.

But meditation will get you to a point of clarity where you will be less upset about things and more understanding of why you get so upset about them in the first place. A lot of why we behave in certain ways has absolutely nothing to do with the current situation. Meditation helps you to tap into the root of issues so that they become less of a problem now. It is basically calming your mind to a point where it can unpack your own issues without having to seek therapy (which is always an option too).

When you are in a moment of meditation or extreme relaxation you will very clearly see that the anxiety and stress you feel has absolutely no real power of you whatsoever.

I have found it's a bit like clearing out all of the junk that's in my brain - not all the good, useful stuff, but all the crumbs and fluff that serve no purpose other than to irritate me. I still care deeply (if not more so) about the work that I do but I have less stress / anger / anxiety so my feelings are less bound by negative things.
posted by mleigh at 4:27 PM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Man, I know exactly how you feel, especially regarding the "extreme" reactions to criticism. It's hard when you've somehow (doesn't really matter how) internalized that external signs of success and/or failure are the only factors that determine your worth and mental well-being. I, too, have struggled with finding therapeutic techniques/approaches/whatever that seem to "fit" me and my problem - not sure if you're an overthinker, but that really kills mindfulness for me.

One thing that has really helped me reevaluate myself and my place in life is starting to focus on my own successes that we/our society often tends to overlook. We all have some sort of success that we can celebrate and focus on - like being able to afford to live independently, being able to cook a complex recipe, being able to teach a kid how to ride a bike etc... (I hesitate to call them the "little things", since pretty much everything takes some sort of effort, especially when you're feeling down.) When I feel shitty because I've failed a project or forgot someone's food at work, I try to redirect my thoughts away from what other people see and towards how I feel. I try and replace "oh, god, I am such a fucking failure" with "wow, despite how I have fucked up in life and how bad I sometimes feel, I have managed to live on my own and pay my bills on time!". No matter how dumb it feels or how irrelevant to our concerns (others' opinions of us), shifting focus to ourselves and working on altering our self-perceptions can and does help us feel more confident and secure. It's also, pragmatically, much easier to learn to control how we feel and perceive ourselves than it is to change how that dick down the hallway thinks about us.

The sort of transformation towards self-appreciation is always a process, but remember that you are worth something and you can be strong! You are never alone in this fight; there are always people out there (and here!) who can help encourage you to become more accepting of yourself. I would encourage you to check out support/self-help groups in your area of all kinds. There are many career counseling/support programs out there that can also help you cope with the stresses of a high-pressure, opinionated workplace from a less "mental health aaah I'm going crazy" approach. I wish you good luck.
posted by nigeline at 11:06 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


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