Who am I and why should I matter to a boss, a boyfriend, or a friend?
June 28, 2014 3:58 PM   Subscribe

What methods would you recommend to someone looking to develop a sense of self and a more accurate sense of their own value if they've spent most of their life defining themselves and their worth through their grades, their job, and their partner?

I am really struggling lately, and one of the biggest things that's come to light in the midst of this struggle is that while I inherently get that I have value and my life is worthwhile, I cannot identify the factors that make it all so, nor can I articulate those factors to the people who need to hear them. This is causing me problems in my job, in my relationships with men, and in my life in general. A serious lack of funds is compounding the issue.

How can I find myself and figure out who I am and why I am worthwhile?
posted by Hermione Granger to Human Relations (23 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Meditation might help you start to develop a sense of your inherent value (and everyone else's...).
posted by three_red_balloons at 4:00 PM on June 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There is a tendency these days in discussions of personhood (in social and ethical contexts) to evaluate it, in large part, through a lens of social contributions. To be blunt, this has been a horrible development and is really bad for society.

What we need to internalize, I think, is that inherent value starts despite our contributions. This does not mean that our contributions become meaningless, but that the properly basic thing to affirm is that we are valuable and inherently worthy simply by means of being alive, after which point we also start to create meaning and identity in community. When we struggle with this basic fact, it does affect our relationships, because it makes us feel unlovable if we aren't doing something specific. That "something specific" is often pressed on us through arbitrary developments in our lives up to that point, and which should not be definers of our identity. Sometimes educating ourselves on our family origins history can be a light-bulb moment in why we feel that we need to find external validations of our worth in certain ways.

This of course is much different than what you might do as a job description that you find meaningful. But my best advice (take it for what it's worth) is to start asking how to find the properly basic internalization of your value, through which the other questions start to flow more naturally. Things that have been helpful for me have been counseling, but also my religious tradition, and much of the narrative surrounding it that emphasizes regularly that we are loved before we live up to obligations and social expectations. The latter is important and becomes a secondary discussion, but it ought to properly flow from the first. If you are around a community that has a narrative that emphasizes individual worth regardless of whatever, you really do start to internalize this about yourself, and it can be very liberating.

I encourage you to find people and friends and communities who can remind you (explicitly or implicitly) that although they find you awesome for doing certain things, they would also find you immensely lovable, even if you weren't doing those things.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:13 PM on June 28, 2014 [29 favorites]

It might help if you could tell us a bit about why you need to be able to articulate this stuff.

With a boyfriend or a platonic friend in particular, it honestly sounds pretty fucked up that you need to make an explicit case for why you're worth having around. If they like you and they're decent people, they should be acknowledging your worth without needing you to make any arguments, right? But maybe I'm missing something. Not trying to nitpick, just trying to understand where you're coming from and what you're asking for.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:22 PM on June 28, 2014

This is a hard thing about the human condition. In the larger, big picture sense, none of us really have any worth at all. But in the personal sense, we are each sensitive, intelligent, meaning-making creatures. It's because of the combination of those two unreconcilable things that the only viable way to treat each other -- and most importantly, ourselves -- is with kindness and love. Not because of any measurable "worth", but in spite of it.
posted by the jam at 4:22 PM on June 28, 2014 [12 favorites]

Well, people are complex and they aren't static. Attitudes, interests and values change over the years and even according to what mood you're in. I can understand why it's hard to boil everything about yourself down into a little nugget.

I can understand wanting to create a "short version" of yourself to advertise to potential employers-- but I question needing it for a boyfriend or friend. I don't think you should have to prove yourself worthy to hang out with people. Why are they so great?

But if you are looking for ways to describe yourself, it might be good to look at something quantifiable. You said you define yourself by your work, grades and partner. To me that infers:

- You are dedicated and persevering (caring about school and work)
- Considerate and willing to compromise (you have to put up with a lot in a relationship)
- You know how to manage yourself, and take responsibility for your affairs.

These are just guesses, but hopefully you get the idea. You demonstrate the virtues you possess and the things that you value through what you choose, attempt and desire from life.
posted by jumelle at 4:25 PM on June 28, 2014

Women commonly define themselves more through their relationships than men do. Female morality or judgment tends to be wrapped up more in emotion than it is for men. This has been studied some and written about (though no book title comes immediately to mind). So, for starters, realize that some of what you are experiencing is very normal for a woman. Also, you could look up some of those books and articles and read about the phenomenon.
posted by Michele in California at 4:25 PM on June 28, 2014

Response by poster: FWIW...

Career-wise I am in a job that I used to define myself by but now that the work environment is so toxic I feel really defeated and undervalued. In looking for a new job, however, I cannot articulate why I should be hired or what I'd bring to the table even though I know instinctively that I have a lot to offer.

From a partner perspective, I tend to date men who like me and are attracted to me, but do not value me, or who define my value by my body and my willingness to make their lives really easy. I don't know how to be myself in a relationship because I am so used to just changing completely for another person.

These two areas being totally empty have revealed to me how little I know about myself and how little I value myself, too.

Does that make sense?
posted by Hermione Granger at 4:34 PM on June 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

I can identify with that. One thing that defines me is that, in some sense, I am pretty plastic -- I am pretty flexible in adapting to the needs of people around me. That is an actual strength but it has been hard to figure out how to capture benefit from it for myself and I have often felt taken advantage of. My ex husband certainly did not appreciate my flexibility and both willingness and ability to accommodate his inflexible nature, demanding career, etc. But that chameleon-like quality is an actual attribute in itself and has value for a lot of things.

Your issue with men sounds pretty stereotypical of heterosexual relationships. I have read a lot on the topic and a high percentage of men just seriously take a lot of "male privilege" for granted and are terrible about treating their intimate partners as mere sex objects. So I would suggest you start with reframing that as a situational challenge and not somehow your fault.

For your issue with your career, maybe a skills-based resume would help you figure out what you have to bring to the table in a way that would start separating this emotionally from the toxicity.
posted by Michele in California at 4:39 PM on June 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

In looking for a new job, however, I cannot articulate why I should be hired or what I'd bring to the table even though I know instinctively that I have a lot to offer.
If you can go to a resume writing center, or some kind of career center, they might be able to help you with this as it regards to work. Even google maybe. I think this is a pretty common issue. Try considering your objective accomplishments, duties, skills and training.

Even after your elaboration, I'm not totally sure I understand how knowing yourself necessarily ties into valuing yourself. One is not a prerequisite for the other. If you want to feel more valuable, do things you think are valuable. Doing something tangible can serve as a solid reminder.
posted by jumelle at 4:46 PM on June 28, 2014

You are valuable because you are a unique person in this world. Doesn't matter what you do or what you don't do. You are valuable just because you walk this earth. Start from there.

Brené Brown: 'There Are No Prerequisites For Worthiness'
posted by dawkins_7 at 5:14 PM on June 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think it's about developing a true sense of self. If your boyfriend loves rockclimbing but you'd prefer knitting, you don't have to become a rockclimber. You can support his hobby and still not participate. You can have seperate friends and he doesn't always need to be there when you hang out with your friends. When you know who you are, you don't need to mold yourself into your partner's image.

You develop that inner self by finding your passions. Maybe your work environment isn't so great so you're not using skill xyz there, so find another outlet for it - volunteering, freelancing, or just for leisure. Don't let your circumstances define you.

And a lot of it is just life experience. I'm not totally there but I know things about myself, and what I need that I didn't know five and ten years ago.
posted by Aranquis at 5:57 PM on June 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

I have developed an interest in natural life sciences:

- Took the Master Gardener course and got a certificate;
- Collect rocks and minerals and study them on an ongoing basis
- Eating and cooking, we all have to do that! I am always doing 2-3 projects a week;
- Trees and herbs and plants, I have studied those for years;
- Soap making, I have done that a lot, I make it in my crockpot, as well as lip balms and aromatherapy and salves;
- History, I read a lot about history;
- Psychology, I have read a lot about that, I did a thesis on Freud's interpretation of dreams once, ha!

I have also studied theater and women's issues... labor issues... I read about 2-5 books a week, depending on the subject matter, I am so interested in history. Sometimes things that are lighthearted, to be sure, but right now I have 10 books checked out from the library. I read. That is my hobby. I read before bedtime and I read when I wake up in the morning. I read on the toilet. I read and I read and I read. Because there is always something to learn in this world and I am gobbling it up every day. So the best thing I can say to you is: read.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:25 PM on June 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

Notice there is no man or job included that list.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:45 PM on June 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

First I want to ask: What makes your life valuable to you? Because there's no universal standard for the value of a life, and at the end you're the one who needs to be satisfied with the way you've spent your time - I cringe, writing this at the end of a long day of internet browsing - but it's true. If your mom/boyfriend/boss/friend/anyone else thinks being an accountant/wife/mom/PTA president/musician is valuable, but you don't find value in it ... do you see what I'm saying?

Another way to look at this is to consider someone who maybe didn't get a good education, is unemployed or works an unpleasant minimum wage job and maybe doesn't have good social skills and has few romantic prospects. Does that life have value? I'm guessing you'll say yes, and the next question is: then how can your life not have value as well?

Secondly, you say: Career-wise I am in a job that I used to define myself by but now that the work environment is so toxic I feel really defeated and undervalued. In looking for a new job, however, I cannot articulate why I should be hired or what I'd bring to the table even though I know instinctively that I have a lot to offer.

Toxic jobs can mess with your whole worldview. It may help to think back on earlier accomplishments - times when you was in a role where you were happy with your work and confident.

I was in a similar situation last year, where I was so demoralized that I felt dishonest about suggesting to anyone that they might should hire me. However I had a couple of good interviews and talking to someone professional and friendly about what I know and what I've done reminded me that there was a great deal more to me than my last job. After that it became a lot easier to move forward with confidence.

Good luck. I've been there. It will get better, I promise ... just keep moving.
posted by bunderful at 8:14 PM on June 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

This may be a tough transition moment for you....or it may be depression. If you're struggling to think of anything positive about yourself - skills you're proud of, interests you enjoy pursuing - it may be because of your brain chemistry. Obviously impossible to know from a short q, but consider checking with a therapist to find out whether this challenge is harder than it needs to be.
posted by equipoise at 11:58 PM on June 28, 2014

Firstly, struggling with these questions is what it means to be human. Everyone goes through it, and it's an age-old question with no single answer. Figuring out who you are is a life-long process, not a one-off - it is part of being alive.

It may help to think about it in terms of 'understanding yourself' rather than 'defining yourself'. So for example, rather than defining yourself by your job title ("I am a ___________") it might help to try to understand what you enjoy about work and working - this will help you find jobs that you will enjoy and also articulate to others why they should hire you.

Another thing that might help is starting to get to grips with your own values. What do you stand for? What are the intrinsic parts of Hermione Granger that, if missing, would mean you didn't feel like yourself? Often feeling uncomfortable in a job or a relationship can happen because something about that job or relationship is pushing you to act against your values. There are lots of vaules quizzes online that might give you a starting point.

Lastly, understanding yourself involves reflecting. Not fretting, not stressing,not beating yourself up, not falling down a spiral of feeling worthless, but observing yourself as dispassionately as you can as a way of gaining deeper understanding of why you do the things you do and how you can go about shaping and building your life the way you want it. Journalling works for some people, therapy works for others, meditation or mindfulness can help.

Good luck. And welcome to being human.
posted by girlgenius at 12:37 AM on June 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Carefully decide where you stand on important philosophies and values through readings/recordings, discussions, and analysis. Think about what you do or could do that is most fulfilling and/or fun in your free time (and if it's a could do, make it into something you actually do). Consider how you contribute as a citizen of your country and as a citizen of the world. If you don't feel you are contributing at all, perhaps try to improve (volunteer time/expertise, join your local political party of choice, participate in a chosen community, travel respectfully, etc).
posted by vegartanipla at 2:38 AM on June 29, 2014

Take up yoga ... I learned from a book, so there are options if you cannot afford a class.

Take up weightlifting when you can.

These helped me a lot.
posted by jgirl at 6:23 AM on June 29, 2014

I personally believe that we all have intrinsic "worth" simply by virtue of being human, by virtue of being given the capacity to create, inspire, love, forgive, hope.

What helped me develop a sense of self was recognizing my life as an unearned gift, granted to me for reasons beyond my understanding. Accepting that, I began to approach my life with gratitude.

My main focus became my personal commitment to each day (1) expressing gratitude for this gift by doing my best to live with compassion, courage, and purpose and (2) keeping an open heart to possibilities in the people I meet and the roads I take.

Somehow, this commitment to focus on the fullness of life instead of just myself continues to give me clarity and a sense of purpose.

Best wishes on your journey to self-discovery.
posted by tackypink at 11:42 AM on June 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I think for me knowing who I am really IS the key to knowing my worth and my value, because I have spent so much time losing myself completely in the desires of other people that I am only now realizing how miserable I am and how out of touch I've become with what makes me, me!

Perhaps a better question for me to ask is how have you gotten to know yourself as an adult, and what experiences and resources made that possible for you?
posted by Hermione Granger at 4:20 PM on June 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

...how have you gotten to know yourself as an adult, and what experiences and resources made that possible for you?

Varied experiences. Trial and error. Consciously challenging my perceptions of who I am through "de-programming" and such.

After being left with no choice but to walk out of a Dream Job that I once thought was my one chance at the Dream Life I envisioned for myself and then feeling deeply and painfully lost for a while, I made a decision to challenge myself to constantly try new things as a means to self-discovery. "Who I am" is still a work in progress anyway, so why not expand and enrich the entire process?

Some stuff I did:

Always thought of myself as someone who's not athletic and not a morning person so I experimented with keeping up a routine where I wake up at 5AM on Saturdays to learn tennis. Turns out I don't dislike sports and I find waking up early refreshing.

Always thought I could never last more than a few days without eating meat, so I decided to give it up for Lent (45 days straight). It was challenging but I learned that my ideas of myself shouldn't be so rigid -- I might end up being surprised!

Learning a recipe from every country.

Exposing myself to people with different personalities/philosophies/points of view through eclectic volunteer experiences -- researcher for a political campaign, data entry slave at a cat clinic, phone surveyor for a women's microenterprise nonprofit. I'm an extremely sensitive introvert who tries extra hard to never offend anyone so being forced to interact with people of wildly different personalities (strong, aggressive) was initially maddening, but over time I learned something valuable in that people are the way they are for a reason, and I shouldn't be personally offended just because someone has a different communication style.

So I suggest exposing yourself to a variety of experiences, literature, art, activities, people. And being introspective helps too.
posted by tackypink at 11:31 PM on June 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: It's been a while since I asked this question but I have made some discoveries that might be helpful if anyone else is struggling with this same issue. The biggest thing that has been holding back in finding myself is being fearful of how different I am than my parents and coworkers and partners and friends. I am working hard to be more authentic and not cower or hide or conform when I know my feelings are fundamentally different than other's, and I'm also working hard to not be defensive or threatened when asserting those parts of myself in regular conversation. This authenticity is making me so much stronger and healthier, and I am grateful that I have had this community to learn from as I find my voice instead of just letting others speak for me.
posted by Hermione Granger at 4:37 PM on May 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the update! Glad to hear that things are going well for you.

I am working hard to be more authentic and not cower or hide or conform when I know my feelings are fundamentally different than other's, and I'm also working hard to not be defensive or threatened when asserting those parts of myself in regular conversation.

This has been a recent life lesson for me, too. One thing that my therapist friend said to me that resonated is that emotional health requires us to get to the point where we can be emotionally honest with others in healthy ways, but also to be able to let go of the consequences of deciding to do that in healthy ways, as well. For example, I've often worried that being emotionally honest would make people upset with me or feel that I'm a burden, even if it was for legitimate things. Being able express myself in a good way, while also being okay with it if people don't like that I did that, is part of "leaving childish things behind me." I often use that quote, because I'm pretty stunned these days how often long-engrained patterns of emotional behavior have their roots in experiences of my childhood, and I never learned how to take off that emotional jacket and put on a more appropriate one. It just all felt normal to interact in ways that were less than ideal, because it was simply all I knew. Sometimes a new frame of reference, or simply explicit permission from someone else (like a counselor) can create a whole new paradigm that takes off the moral compulsion to keep quiet, when it's actually much healthier to speak what we are feeling and trust others to be able to hold our emotions. It's an imperfect process (we have to learn wisdom on how to regulate ourselves and figure out who safe people are), and people will disappoint us in their responses at times. But I've become convinced that it's the better path, and what I often fear will happen at times for being honest doesn't even remotely come close to fruition.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:35 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

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