Someone very close to me, an inspiring and affable man who has loved me unconditionally my entire life, lost his job recently. To me, this is an utterly absurd miscalculation by his employer. For him, it isn’t simply a loss of income, but a loss of identity that has completely sapped his self-worth. His reaction has provided me with an important realization — I don’t want to derive my self-worth from my career. In fact, I don’t want to derive my self-worth from anything external to my own being.
I have struggled with depression on and off since I was a teenager. I know what it means to feel hollow and worthless. For most of my life, my self-worth came from academic success. The main problem was that, despite my general intellectual prowess, I would descend into a deep depression whenever I failed to meet my own expectations or — more specifically — the expectations I thought other people had for me.
Like my friend, my confidence and happiness hinged on this one aspect of myself. This is not a healthy way to live, nor is it a particularly uncommon issue. Learning to diversify our sense of self and cultivating an internal appreciation for one’s existence isn’t easy, but I’ve found it is possible.
Introspection is key. The process must begin with some serious time spent just noticing yourself. What is it that you have deemed worthy about yourself? Your job? Your looks? Your smarts? Your relationship? Is it one thing or a multitude of aspects of yourself that instills you with a sense of worth? If one fails (you receive a poor grade or get let go from your job or you gain the weight back) do you still recognize that you have worth?
Are the reasons you deem yourself worthy of existing disproportionately linked to externalities? Or can you trace your self-worth to some internal certainties?
Take stock of your assets. I always did well in a traditional school setting. I was quiet in class, raised my hand to speak and was superb at taking tests. I received praise from my teachers throughout school and went on to graduate from a prestigious university after which I earned a place at an international graduate school. Up until recently, I thought school was the only thing I was good at. I relied on the praise of others and validation from external institutions to maintain my self-worth. I had only invested in one stock and when it dipped, I crashed.
Just three months before I was set to get on a plane to move across the world for graduate school, I had the courage to finally ask myself “Is this really what I want to do?” I realized then that I did not want to go. I had spent the year since graduating from college cultivating my self-worth almost by default because it was the first time since I was a toddler that I wasn’t in school. I realized I was good at and kind of liked my "placeholder" job. I can make new friends and maintain relationships. I can make damn good kale chips and have managed to achieve a level of flexibility in six months of yoga I would have thought impossible just one year ago. I can do more than school and I am more than a GPA.
Diversify. My hiatus from school started out a little shaky — I relapsed into depression as I didn’t have school to provide me with a sense of worth. Still, I managed to come out of it long enough to apply for a job and try yoga for the first time. These two decisions, made in the midst of the oppressive fog of depression, have drastically altered my life for the better. Through my work, I have built friendships, gained responsibility and leadership skills, while being in a place where my schooling matters very little. Yoga has helped me to strengthen my relationship with myself and provided the quiet time necessary to live a more mindful life. It also provided the space I needed to reacquaint myself with my feelings about who I am and what kind of life I want to lead.
Develop a sense of self-worth that originates within yourself. This is not easy and was difficult for me to even imagine a year ago. It comes from recognizing your worth without seeking validation from others. I know I am smart, but not just because I got good grades in school. I know I am a good friend and a pretty good cook and an excellent employee. Of course, validation and praise are always nice — but I can still be secure in my own worth even when I don’t get good feedback.