I think I'm worth it, but I don't feel that way
May 14, 2017 8:57 PM   Subscribe

I feel like somehow I'm not a fundamentally worthy person. I can cognitively recognize this as being a result of the household I grew up in and the things my parents said to me as a child. That's not news to me anymore. But: how can I shake the feeling that I'm, at the core, not really worth it?

There's so much literature on narcissistic parents and gaslighting and abusive households-- breaking down all the patterns and the how and why. There's a lot on self-forgiveness, self-compassion, self-care tips... all that. Maybe it's just my internalized gaslighting parent speaking, but that feels like a lot of fluff, and it hasn't helped me address the fact that I feel like my soul/existence/core being/etc is kind of defective and useless.

How do you get to a point where you truly believe and feel, in your core, that you are worth it, and that your thoughts, feelings, wants and needs are legitimate? I can tell myself this and recognize it on an intellectual level, and sometimes even act on those thoughts-- but day in day out, I feel like something fundamental has kind of been taken away from me, or that I am this defective, unwanted, ugly person who is overly demanding and silly for having needs. Cognitively, I know this isn't true. But the feeling is still there. The feeling borders on an existential crisis, sometimes. It keeps me from making the best choices and advocating for myself and living a more fulfilling life basically all the time.

I don't believe there's a true substitute for a mother or parent's affirmation, but I also don't think I should have to live my entire life feeling like this.

If you really think that CBT is the answer, that's fine, but I'm also looking for answers and perspectives beyond therapy. Personal anecdotes would be helpful.
posted by fernweh to Human Relations (15 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
There's a reason that childhood experiences like this are tremendously damaging. If your body were seriously injured, and you regained full mobility but carried an obvious scar, that wouldn't surprise you, would it? Those feelings are scars, too. They're not indications that you aren't worthwhile as a person, they're indications that you were terribly injured as a child.

But, people scar in different ways. I feel a lot of anger and always want to "fight" these internal messages and argue with them. (Also not a great loop to keep going over.) Yours make you disbelieve counter-messages that oppose your parents' messages.

I've found that the mindfulness app Headspace (which, granted, I've only started using with regularity) has already been helpful in *noticing* loops like that, and teaching me to think, "There's that loop again!" And in seeing it, being able to step out of it more easily. The app makes a point of saying that it's not about "stop feeling these feelings" but more about observing them objectively for what they are, holdovers from terrible parenting. You might find it helpful as well.
posted by Autumnheart at 9:10 PM on May 14, 2017 [31 favorites]

I think non-CBT therapy, with a focus on psychodynamic or other family-of-origin issues, would be helpful. One role of the therapist is helping re-parent the client, until the client internalizes that and can re-parent themselves. That's an emotional process, not a cognitive process.
posted by lazuli at 9:16 PM on May 14, 2017 [14 favorites]

Hmm, but it's taken three years for me to have two days in succession to feel happy with myself and not get knocked off by guilt or doubt. I have weekly therapy, great friends, some very helpful family and am comparatively financially and physically I compared to the rest of my life. But it is 48 hours as a max stretch after three years of hard hard work because the childhood and following stuff is termites-on-fire in your insides, and you have to live there while you rebuild!

It's not fast. It's a zig zag polka dance. But there are hours, afternoons, days now, where I don't think I'm a failure or the reason things go wrong, or deserve punishment. There are days I trust myself to be kind to myself. It can happen, I promise.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:41 PM on May 14, 2017 [7 favorites]

Oh and sleep helped a lot. The more good regular deep sleep I got, the better I felt after years of hyper vigilant insomnia sleep around other people's needs. But that was specific to sleep deprivation and abuse.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:44 PM on May 14, 2017 [7 favorites]

The main problem you outline here is the gap between what you intellectually know and what you actually *feel* in the emotional part of your brain. The good news is that you intellectually know that you don't deserve to feel this way, which is fantastic because you can use that knowledge to drive change. The bad news is that no amount of intellectualising on its own will change how you feel; you need to get under your emotional hood and fix that. But how?

I've spent the last few months absorbing lots of Tony Robbins. If someone had told me ten years ago that I would get into all this 'personal development' stuff I would have assumed it would be the result of me having a stroke or something, because only a neurological catastrophe could get me meditating and whooping around and being grateful. But heck, I wish I had discovered it ten years ago. It has more than changed my life; it has made my life worth living.

There are many techniques I've been using, but one of the most powerful is called the Dickens pattern. It's based on A Christmas Carol: Scrooge had a limiting belief that being horrible to people was how he made and maintained his money. Then he meets three ghosts who reveal to him the pain that his nastiness has caused, and because he FEELS the pain that his behaviour has caused, he changes literally overnight. He has what no amount of people complaining about his behaviour could achieve: emotional leverage. (Incidentally, this technique - dissociating a person from the patterns that cause them pain - is one of the most effective ways of quitting smoking.)

The key to making a Dickens pattern effective is to associate as much pain as possible with your limiting belief (in this case, the belief that you aren't good enough). This sounds counter-intuitive, because usually we do everything we can to avoid pain. But this pain is directed at your false belief, not you; and the pain will help to give you the leverage you need to change how you *feel*, not just what you *think*.

One reason we hold onto limiting beliefs, even when they are damaging, is because they meet our emotional needs (this realisation was a massive breakthrough that helped me kick depression once and for all). Your belief that you aren't good enough, for example, might provide you with certainty because it keeps you from meeting new people or applying for more ambitious jobs; it might provide you with connection to other people as you talk to them about how sad you are. Your subconscious wants to hold onto that belief because it believes that it will keep you safe by not growing or changing. But remember that our brains are wired for survival, not happiness. The Dickens process is about training your subconscious that your limiting belief causes pain, not certainty or connection. Here is Tony Robbins talking you through a Dickens pattern.

Next, create a compelling future. One of the problems I have experienced with therapy (apart from my own therapy, my dad is a psychologist who practices CBT so I have therapy coming out of every pore) is that it can very very past-oriented. To get to a beautiful future, you need to know what that future will be. It's all very well saying you want to feel different, but what does that look like? What does it smell, taste, feel and sound like? Do another Dickens process about what your life will look like in five, ten, twenty years' time ONCE YOU HAVE DITCHED THE LIMITING BELIEF THAT YOU AREN'T GOOD ENOUGH. Who will be in your life? What will you earn? Who will respect you for the journey you've been on? How will you view yourself? How will you walk into a room? Make it vivid, make it glorious. Feel it in your bones. Treat yourself, indulge in yourself. (Maybe it could even include writing an answer to someone on Metafilter about how you changed your mindset once and for all!) Train yourself to FEEL that incredible future.

Your intellectual realisation that this belief is false is a major step forward: WELL DONE! This belief has taken your brain to the brain doctor, but now it is time to administer the antibiotics, and those need to go directly into the part of your brain that *feels*. There is a lot more Tony Robbins' stuff online, and if you can see past the big grin and the infomercials and the 'Wealthy beyond your wildest dreams!' stuff, I promise you that it is utterly revolutionary.

Good luck. You CAN change; and you WILL change. You've got this.
posted by matthew.alexander at 1:01 AM on May 15, 2017 [39 favorites]

So I struggle with similar issues and I relate heavily to knowing logically it's not true but somehow still feeling as though I'm fundamentally 'difficult' and essentially a terrible human being (thanks mum).

I think for me; talking about the instances where I was younger/an adult where I was repeatedly told I suck helps. Sometimes I will talk with my partner again and again about the same memory/event but it's quite cathartic for me to process that it wasn't my fault and it aids that logical part to undermine the legitimacy of the negativity I sometimes direct inwardly. I cry. A lot. Despite hating doing it I honestly often feel a lot better afterwards because it's like me going through the process of mourning what was taken from/done to me. In my case; my parents will never acknowledge the part they played and so it's up to me to find a way to overcome what they've done/said. I am convinced (from my own experiences) that the reason it feels bad is because as a child you rely on feeling as though your parents love you unconditionally - and when it's apparent or appears as though that isn't the case it results in feeling like you're obviously not worth loving/bad/deserving of the punishment they are giving you and that's hard to shake off as an adult because that impression is established and reinforced over the course of years and years in their company.

If you're still having a decent amount of contact with your parents, I would say that's the first thing I would alter. I moved (well, I went traveling and when I go back I will not live in that area again) in order to establish boundaries and physical distance that ensured they couldn't comment on my life. I don't know what your situation with them is though and how much you're involved with them. Chances are if you still spend time with them, they aren't likely to have changed the way they treat you - it will just have evolved with your age into whatever behaviour you haven't forced them to alter. I'm speculating here based on my own experience, obviously. If you do still have contact with them and it is still problematic, think about how to set boundaries with them and how to be assertive about what is acceptable - they will kick up a fuss at first because they'll be used to pushing you around - but if they want to spend time with you they will eventually get used to things having to change.

I have been wading through my baggage for the last two and half years. I haven't gone to counseling and I don't take medication (I am constantly traveling so it isn't possible) but I have found physical distance and regularly talking about the reasons things hurt and why they continue to has been helpful. I personally think that meaningful relationships with people other than your parents can be massively helpful - my partner and my sister have been fundamental in (going some way to) restoring that feeling of deserving love and obtaining a sense of being valued for who I am - just as I am. I still have an inferiority complex and things like this resonate massively but I honestly think it is possible to get much better at processing the concept that you're not actually a jerk that doesn't deserve love.

I think it's a mistake not to let yourself not be okay. I personally had an epiphany the moment I learned that if I need to be a mess for a few hours, it's okay. And that actually if I feel really upset - it's okay to be angry and sad and frustrated. I was worse when I tried to suppress any negativity because it would build and I would push people who care about me away on the basis that I was surely doing them a favour by leaving them.
I also do a lot of creative writing. If I have something that's painful to think about - often I'll write it creatively whether that be short stories, prose or a (terrible) poem because it feels quite productive to make something visual and lasting. Almost as though because it physically exists outside of my head it can't be denied and no one can tell me it doesn't exist or didn't happen.

I would also advocate doing things that will give you a sense of achievement. Perhaps a hobby, sport, whatever - something low pressure but where you work toward a goal. I found when I was succeeding - I felt so much better about myself because it is hard to think super negatively about yourself if you've just done something cool after a period of practice etc.

So my advice is get it out as much as you are able. Talk about how you feel and why in any way you can because it's probably not going anywhere if you hold it inside. And try to find ways to win - for you, to demonstrate to yourself that you have merit and the ability to be awesome. I don't know a lot about therapy or CBT - maybe it would help you? I don't know. Regardless I am sorry you feel like this; I empathise and hope you find a way to get rid of the feelings of unworthiness.
posted by TheGarden at 1:04 AM on May 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

Inner child work and reparenting have helped me more than any intellectual level grown up level stuff.

There's a wounded child in there that needs to be lifted up and supported.

Talking to the child, being the parent you didn't have, these have helped me.

Also, yoga teacher training led to more psychological growth than I experienced in years of therapy so maybe look into that too?
posted by crunchy potato at 5:44 AM on May 15, 2017 [8 favorites]

Just as repetition and conditioning instilled the negative self talk, you'll need a whole lot of repetition and conditioning to get it out of there, but you can get rid of it and turn things around. It's just going to take time and effort.

Some things I have found helpful include: distancing myself as much as possible from abusive people who are reinforcing the negative self talk; committing to a daily meditation practice (at least five minutes) to help develop some space between myself and the thoughts and de-identify with them; and pursuing talks and teachings from people who understand how to turn this stuff around. And I don't just listen to the talks or teachings once. I listen to them repeatedly and really think about it. That has helped me to make subtle shifts away from identifying with the negative self talk to a healthier way of thinking.

The meditation practice that I'm currently doing is Mindfulness Coach's mindful breathing exercise, but there are a lot of apps, podcasts, etc. for you to try and find one (or more) that resonate with you. WRT talks, I have gotten a lot out of Tara Brach's podcasts. She also has podcasts of meditations that you might want to check out.
posted by jazzbaby at 6:49 AM on May 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm right there with you, though on the surface I've had a happy childhood and I am a fairly successful adult. Perhaps you'll recognize the unique frustration of knowing on an intellectual level that there's no need to feel this way, but feel that way anyway? I know it drives me crazy.
Things that have helped me:
(1) Taking good care of my health
(2) The moment this sort of negative thoughts come, immediately distract myself with something - I dance for pleasure, I have a good strong cup of coffee, I watch a rerun of a sitcom, anything that doesn't allow me to focus and obsess over feeling unworthy
(3) Re-framing my life - I've managed to become functional, empathetic, kind, well-liked, successful and a reasonable human being IN SPITE of the challenges I've faced. It makes it seem like a triumph, and helps me like myself more.
(4) Talk to a couple of friends who are always willing to let me know that I'm awesome :)
It's not easy, but over the years it's gotten a little easier. I hope the same for you.
posted by Nieshka at 6:56 AM on May 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

I second matthew.alexander about Tony Robbins. Yes, I too had to get past the giant grin and my distrust of motivational speakers in general. But a friend of mine gave me his book "Awaken the Giant Within" and much of it really did help me move away from that sort of "you don't deserve love" thinking. The most helpful thing was the idea of focusing on how to change the problem, rather than ruminating endlessly over past events. Not that understanding one's past and the whys and wherefores isn't important, but the trick is to analyze what happened, grasp it - and, then, using that awareness, move on towards changing your thinking and behavior in a way that is positive and beneficial to you. I know all about ruminating endlessly over past events, which is why I suggest limiting how much you do it.

Also, train yourself to cut off negative repetitive thoughts when they start. I grew up around very critical, negative, pessimistic people who really saw absolutely no good in anything that was outside of their comfort zone. I went to college conditioned to think the same way, and it did me zero favors. I still struggle with being overly serious and critical myself. But I now stop negative thoughts or cut them off before they go too far. I am trying to change my thinking so that it is naturally more positive. Some days are better than others. The trick is not to give up.

I am a firm believer in the idea that our thoughts influence our feelings - not the other way around. This one idea changed everything about what I had previously considered uncontrollable.
posted by Crystal Fox at 9:34 AM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm going to put in a big plug for mindfulness meditation -- and retreat practice specifically. I did years of therapy, which no doubt had all kinds of positive benefits, and maybe it's true that the meditation wouldn't have been so beneficial without the years of therapy that came before. Who knows? But for me, meditation -- and specifically, multi-day vipassana meditation retreats -- have gone deeper and been more healing than anything I've ever done. During my first 9-day meditation retreat in 2010 something profoundly shifted. And when it was over I felt I'd let go of something. It sounds, even to me, sort of unbelievable, but it's true. Since then I've done about a dozen retreats ranging from 7 to 14 days. Daily meditation is great, but my daily practice would never have caught fire without the the profound benefits of retreat.
posted by swheatie at 1:25 PM on May 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I was in a similar space for many decades. Following frequent recs here, I read Bessel van der Kolk's The Body Keeps the Score. From that I learned those absent gut feelings can be created, with a somatic therapy that's the opposite of CBT. Instead of thinking about my cognitions, I learned to feel my emotions.

I let go of more childhood traumas and feel happier now after one year of EMDR therapy than 20 years of CBT-flavored therapy.
posted by Jesse the K at 1:26 PM on May 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

Also, just want to add that on retreat you become deeply settled in your body, just being at peace and at home in your body. I don't know the mechanics of why this is healing, but it is.
posted by swheatie at 1:28 PM on May 15, 2017

You have depression. Even if there was a logical path through this? Your brain is currently wired to make it damn hard to see. Which sucks, but is.

1. Keep on keepin' on, and don't give up. If you slip some? That happens to almost all of us, so don't let it get to you.

2. Humans have needs. That's not a failing. That's part of being human. Humans are not robots, as much as that would be more convenient for us at times (and for our parents, good or bad!)

3. Only half joking, your spelling and grammar are on-point, which means you've likely got more going for you than most of the folks leaving comments on the internet.

4. Not at all joking: mindfulness based stress reduction programs - meditation - are pretty damn good for steadily breaking people out of depression, which is something you've gotta do, one way or another, to get where you want to go.

The Headspace app is pretty good for this, as it's free for the first ten sessions, the sessions are only ten minutes, and if you do one a day for ten days, you'll have a good idea if it's going to work or not, for you. https://www.headspace.com/

For the longer course, Jon Kabat-Zinn's work is both PhD researched, MD-approved, and taught in hundreds of different hospitals and clinics. It's 45 minutes a session, which is harder to get started with, from my experience. That said, it's solid, and (ahem) you can find the MP3s if the downloads are outta your price range. https://www.mindfulnesscds.com/

CBT didn't work for me. Mindfulness - regular old meditation - did, after I wrote it off for a decade or more for being hokey. (Some of it certainly is, but the two above are non-religious, non-spiritual, and work.)
posted by talldean at 9:15 PM on May 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

I found this ted ed article! Maybe try practising these tips and see if they help!
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 9:33 PM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

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