Self-worth is stored in the [illegible scrawl]

Content warnings: This issue is not directly about the current pandemic, but the pandemic is the framework. I also reference some self-talk that could be linked to suicide ideation.

‘Essence’ is a beautiful word.

The beauty industry agrees. They peddle everything from essences to serums to potions… every word chosen to taste just a little like magic. (Metaphorically. Don’t break out the spoon and jojoba body butter yet. Even I haven’t hit that level of lockdown desperation-snacking).

The English language has Latin to thank for the word ‘essence’ – an adaption of the word essentia. Literally; ‘being’. Essentia are the basic building blocks that form the whole. If something is lacking its essence, it is incomplete on a fundamental level.

If this sounds a little like the opening of a first year university oral presentation: yeah. This is what I’m like.

You get used to it. I hope.


In the last couple months, I’ve heard the word ‘essential’ so frequently it feels like I’m trapped in an aromatherapy discussion so dense that it formed a singularity. I mean, if we’re being real (and I’m pretty sure that I am) the last two months have felt like we all slipped right through that singularity into an alternate universe. And this is coming from someone who already worked from home, and whose favourite social activities all pretty much involved being at home. Sometimes other people’s homes, but, still. I’m much less disrupted by what has been happening than some folks.

I’m in a fortunate position in other ways, too. While almost all my freelancing work has vanished (as clients understandably tighten their budgets to weather the pandemic) I have the savings to wait it out. I’m also lucky enough to live in Australia, a country whose population density and geography are a form of protection in themselves.

And yet, despite knowing all this, my brain has been stuck in a continual lockdown-anxiety-haze.

How do you experience fear? Is it a feeling in your chest? Do you actively think ‘I’m scared’? I’m genuinely curious. Because for me, both fear and stress seem like they’re stored in an external server somewhere, only able to communicate with my brain via a 1990s quality dial-up connection. The feelings are real, but by the time they reach me, dropping packets of data all the way, they’re incomprehensible.

So instead of directly experiencing fear, it resides in my body, infecting my cells and altering my chemistry in ways I don’t notice until the symptoms become impossible to ignore. The event that set it all in motion could far off in the past before I realise that I’m afflicted with a creeping, deathly paralysis.

I know I’m not the only one feeling like this.

As children, all of us develop coping methods to survive stress and negative situations. Those coping methods and resulting behaviours are so deeply rooted in our developing brains that, just like my fear, we often only live consciously with their outcomes, not their message. Our brains look for patterns, find solutions, and turn those into patterns, too.

This isn’t the world we knew in 2019. But our patterns are doing their best to keep us afloat.

I can see that messages like the one above are comforting. I get it. I do. But I realised this week that I’m totally unable to take comfort from them. I can’t step back from the pattern in my brain that says: productivity is the only way I can measure my self-worth. If I’m not making things, what use am I to society?

If I am not productive, I am unessential.

I don’t need to be here.

Thoughts like these only make the paralysis worse, unsurprisingly. So I thought for my benefit, and hopefully yours, I’d do some reading into how psychologists work with their clients on self-worth.

I started out by creating a list of activities and ideas that underpin how I think about my own value. If you’ve been struggling like me, maybe give making a list like this a try too, before you go any further. We can’t work out what our brain’s patterns are without collecting their outputs.

Sassa’s Self-Worth Essentials – things to do to increase my worthiness.

  • Making, and finishing, pieces of work, creative or otherwise.

  • Improving skills, or increasing the depth of my knowledge.

  • Using my best skills to ‘give back’ to other people.

  • Paying attention to my personal grooming and choosing flattering outfits.

  • Having other people (especially peers) acknowledge my skills and finished works.

  • Achieving the goals I set for myself. (…No matter how unrealistic.)

It all sounded pretty reasonable to me. Okay, I’m aware that I often set myself goals that are totally outrageous in their number and demands, and, yaknow, maybe setting myself up to be constantly disappointed in what I actually achieve is a bad idea. But there’s a pattern in my head that says I must always aim higher than I’m capable of reaching, or I’ll never improve.

Now that I had this baseline of my own beliefs, I began researching what actual, qualified psychologists had to say about self-worth.

It turns out, it wasn’t just my unrealistic goals dot point that was missing the mark. The common consensus is that putting your self-worth in the hands of external factors, even ones you have some control over, is a recipe for disaster.

The things I listed above are not, obviously, bad in and of themselves. Doing them will generally help build better self-esteem. Which is a great thing to have! (Unless you’re already a narcissist, maybe, but that’s… a whole other topic).

Self-worth is different. It is the foundation that must come before self-esteem. It is (I can’t help myself, here’s that word again) essential.  

It’s so easy for people, especially people suffering from a mental illness, to think “I can be happy/love myself, once I have done this thing”. Maybe they received conditional love as children, teaching them that their self-worth must be earned. Maybe they didn’t get opportunities to experience success. Whatever the reason, they feel like they don’t deserve to take up space in the world until they publish that piece of work, receive that reward, or sculpt that ideal body.

I do this. I’m sure many of you do, too.

The problem is, along with making your victories so much more of a struggle to win, they also feel so hollow. You achieve the thing, still don’t feel whole, and so raise the bar for yourself again.

Maybe you think “If I was able to achieve this, it can’t have been that hard.”

You aim higher. And higher.

Yeah, I’m leaning into my own issues pretty hard right now, I know. But that’s part of what I want Neurotopical to be. I want to talk about (and give a platform for other people to talk about) real, lived experiences with how their brains work. Combining these individual experiences with the science, we have a living reference point for why we are the way we are, and how we can build on it.

Hm. You’re looking at me with that very specific expression that says: “Okay, Sassa, sure, so my value isn’t determined by the things in your list. I need self-worth first. But, and I can’t emphasise this enough, how the hell am I meant to build self-worth out of nowhere?”

That’s a pretty specific expression you have there, buddy. You should be proud of yourself for being such a good communicator!

But yeah. I feel you.

Like a lot of things in the field of Brainology™, I don’t believe there is a single correct answer for this. I can only give you my answer, which I arrived at after staying up way too late reading other people’s research and thought processes. But hey, again; maybe my take can help you.

The answers to the question of ‘How do I build self-worth?’ that resonated with me the most came down to this: the underlying theme of the choices you make when you interact with the world around you.

Those choices can be tiny, everyday things like:

  • The assumptions you make about other people.

  • How you react to a co-worker asking personal questions while you’re just trying to heat your lunch.

  • How you put out your trash. No, really.

Even these little things are ultimately influenced by your values. And for what we’re talking about right now, the outcome of your choices is not the important thing. It is all about what you valued in that moment. For example, sorting your trash (in countries where this is a thing, naturally) could be a choice influenced by your value of respect - respect for other people’s time, respect for rules, and respect for the environment. Or, in the co-worker example, making an excuse and escaping from the conversation is likely a result of your value of privacy being much more important to you than, say, someone who grits their teeth and answers the questions in the hope that it will facilitate their value of teamwork/team bonding.

Neither choice is inherently right or wrong, and the same choice can lead to different outcomes. What matters is that you are living in accordance with your values.

(If you need help defining your top values, I found a list of 230 values here ) (Just so you know, I do not make any money from this link, or have any connection to this guy’s blog.)

Give it a go. Picking 3 – 7 values and centring all your choices and actions around them seems like one of the most powerful ways to build your own self-worth.

As for me, I feel my central value (and this is so much harder than it sounds) is kindness. Up there with kindness, are things like compassion, playfulness, imagination, insight and independence. But it all hinges on kindness. To others, to animals, to the environment. To ourselves.

…Why is it that answers to some of the most complex psychological questions always feel so distressingly simple?

Is this twee? I really don’t want to be twee.

But that’s it. That’s the answer I have for you. Self-worth is developed by living true to your own values. This is how we can feel whole, no matter what external factors exist around us. We may currently be unable to achieve what we would normally achieve. We may not be able to maintain all our friendships the way we normally would. We may not be receiving the reinforcement from external things we normally rely on to feel needed in this world.

Self-worth is something we can still develop and maintain, no matter what is going on outside our heads.

…In other news, I’m still very much working Neurotopical out, if that wasn’t clear already. I have so many projects and ideas in the works, and some of them take this project in very different directions. But I’m excited to try them all out, and see what fits best for me, and what is most interesting to you.

Thanks for coming along for the ride. Let’s keep on working out shit together.

- Sassa

January 2020 - Managing negativity spirals with music

Welcome to 2020. We have newsletters for you.

Can music help you to break out from a negativity loop?

When I talk about negativity spirals, I’m referring to those times when you feel yourself slowly descending into increasingly catastrophic or negative thoughts. For me, once the spiral begins, it’s like setting a ball rolling down a hill. Unless I actively do something to stop it, I’m eventually going to hit the bottom.

Earlier this month, I asked Neurodivergent Twitter how they handle spirals like these.

The feedback I got was mostly around distraction, or replacing the thoughts with another form of input.

For example (I’ve paraphrased the tips below):

  • Playing games that require concentration and strategy (particularly Town of Salem) - @anarki4ever

  • Putting on instrumental tracks (possibly with rainy ambience laid underneath) - @ka9ayaiteiru

I’ll look at games and mental health in another issue, but when it comes to using audio to help with negativity spirals, I have a few things to recommend.

First of all, I’m squarely in the rainy ambience camp - I recommend for continuous, calming sounds you can access from any internet-enabled device with a modern web browser. I also switch this up with two Android apps, Ambience and Relax Melodies, which allow you to customise the kinds of relaxing sounds you want to hear (for example: purring cats, a campfire, or air conditioners). You can also mix these sounds with your own music. There are similarly named apps out there for Apple products, too.

I also find isochronic tones helpful, both with negativity spirals, and when I’m struggling with executive dysfunction. My two favourite isochronic tones YouTube videos are Montana Cellist’s “Isochronic Beats Cello Alpha waves 10 hz - Natural tones to boost serotonin” and Jason Stephenson’s “Music to help with sleeping issues, anxiety relief and pain with isochronic tones”.

Send me your tunes

Do you have a favourite combo of relaxing noises? (Mine is the sound of a creaky wooden ship, mixed with distant thunder, and audio of rain hitting a tin roof or pavement). Alternatively, do you have a favourite relaxation app or piece of music that works for you? I want to hear about it! You can send in your recommendations by hitting reply to this email, and I’ll either tweet them, or include them in the next newsletter, depending on the volume.

Please note: only subscribers are able to reply this way, you can’t reply if you are reading this on the Substack newsletter archive. Please consider becoming a subscriber! It’s free, and as Neurotopical grows, I’ll be offering additional subscribers-only material.

Links of interest

Every month I compile a handful of links related to Neurotopical’s areas of interest. This includes both current and older (but still-relevant) discussions, news and resources.

In progress

Multiple neurodiverse traits assessment

While they in no way replace a professional diagnosis, online assessments can be a useful way to see if you fit the bill for a particular diagnosis before seeking a referral. At the moment, most online assessments only look at a single condition at a time. However, it’s not uncommon for an individual to have more than one potential diagnosis.

@zwriterthinker has been thinking about this, and recently started looking into what it might take to create a general online assessment that examines overall neurodiverse trait indicators. While it’s of course possible to discuss these things with your GP, it can be more economical and less intimidating for some people to do their initial research online before seeking professional assistance.

If you’re interested in this project, bookmark  this Google Doc as it is where the first draft of traits and considerations will be collected. And if you have thoughts on how an assessment like this could be done online, and what should be included, I’ve offered to collect responses from subscribers here and pass them on – just hit reply to this email to let me know your thoughts.

That’s all for this month - see you in February!


Issue 1: It begins!

So I guess this makes December 5th Neurotopical's birthday.

Hey! It’s really happening! It’s the Neurotopical launch! While I roll around on the ground shrieking into my hands about this, here’s some info on what we’re all about:

There’s a lot of information online around understanding ourselves and how our minds work. But brains are tricky things, and when it comes to individual ones, there’s so much variety that many mainstream articles wind up giving pretty generic advice: ‘Eat balanced meals! Get enough sleep! Exercise! Drink water!’

Which, look. Those are all sound pieces of advice. But they’re the ‘make sure your car doesn’t run out of fuel, and don’t drive it underwater’ level of assistance when it comes to the mechanics of our minds.

What I’ve wanted to know, is ‘why is my brain’s engine always making that weird clicking noise, and while we’re here, it’s kind of run out of juice… how do I jump-start it?’

In order to find my own answers, I made myself into a test subject. I nicknamed the test “Unstable Process” and started investigating my own mental mechanics.

Over time my experiments showed me ways I could personally manage my executive dysfunction and anxiety issues a little better, but there was something else that gave me a boost nothing else could – hearing other people’s personal experiences with their own mental health.

In my case, it was this comic about autism in women that opened my eyes to a lot of things about myself that conventional wisdom never had.

There are so many useful stories like these, that let us as a community pass on our experiences to help other people struggling with similar issues. When it comes to brains and mental health, it’s impossible to find one-size-fits-all answers. By sharing stories of our own experiences along with traditional sources of info, I feel we all have a much better shot at finding the answers that work for us.

Okay, so there’s the background, now for the nitty-gritty. I guess I can stop rolling around on the floor to go through the basics:

  • Neurotopical is predominantly a newsletter/website. The website will share all the main articles publicly, but the newsletter will sometimes contain extra things just for our subscribers.

  • We won’t send more than three emails a month, generally only two.

  • Eventually Neurotopical may expand to other things – podcasts and videos being near the top of the list.

  • I have a couple interviews and other articles lined up to share with you, but in early 2020 I’ll also be reaching out to the community in general for people’s personal stories around specific topics.

  • We have a code of ethics to protect both our contributors and the community, and some more information about Neurotopical in general.

If there’s subjects linked with mental health, psychology or neuroscience that you would love me to collect stories about, you’re welcome to reply directly to this email – I’ll read every response! You can also @ me with suggestions at the Neurotopical twitter account.

Time to swallow my anxiety at finally making this thing A Thing and press send,


Neurotopical, who dis

Here's the lowdown

Hi! Neurotopical is a place to collect personal stories about mental health, along with sharing tools and resources to help you learn more about yourself.

We’re launching on December 5th, 2019, so sign up before then if you want to receive a copy of the first article in your inbox! Read more about us here.

You can also:

In the meantime, tell your friends!

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