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.

Anyway.

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 https://scottjeffrey.com/core-values-list/ ) (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