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Self-Worth and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

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For a while, I’ve been thinking about the It Gets Better Project (an international movement centered around messages and videos of hope, particularly for the LGBT community and those who are bullied), its mantra, and the touring It Gets Better musical. I’ve been sifting through stories to share—of the celebrities who were interviewed on the red carpet at the Los Angeles premiere of the musical; of the Gay Men’s Chorus who used their own experiences to bring depth to the performance; of Leisel Reinhart, the writer and director, who dedicated the musical to her friends who lost their lives to discrimination and hopelessness. Then I’ve had my own stories coming into play, and I’ve been working out how to weave all these threads and moments into something tangible I can share.

I’ve also been reading New Beliefs, New Brain: Free Yourself from Stress & Fear by Lisa Wimberger. I’m not even into the second chapter and already my mind is approaching life through a different lens, reevaluating the stories I’ve often told myself that I accepted as the gospel truth… but are they?

This ties in with an article I recently edited at work by our Vice President, Ivan Obolensky (“Why Language?”), which tells the story of how language may have come to be necessary. Through this fascinating look at our human history, I realized that many survival instincts from long ago may be ingrained in our DNA as necessary for survival then, regardless of actual circumstances now (much as our hormones demand procreation even when the need to pass on the family line is not as critical as it was a hundred years ago).

So if our bodies have not necessarily caught up with the times, do we have a visceral need to be part of a pack? If we are cast out, do we instinctually know that our death sentence has just been signed? Perhaps our need for independence is at war with our certainty that if we don’t have a large posse to blend in with, we are nothing. There is no in-between in the animal kingdom: you are either part of the pack, a predator, or you are Other, discarded—not just homeless, but bereft of all connection to any identity.

Then the book New Beliefs, New Brain comes into play: if we experience these instincts and feelings but can’t articulate them, does our justification-happy left brain come up with a narrative to make sense of it all—even if the Reasons Why are untrue? Like “I’m useless,” “I’m stupid,” “I’ll never be good enough,” etc. Is there a point when those reasons why become unquestioned reality, and the fight is on to change them, to Fix them, to arrive at that hopeful future when one is of use, smart or good enough, or at least good at something that will permit acceptance into a pack, somewhere, anywhere?

Last year, I had my first introduction to the power of the stories we tell ourselves. Upon being welcomed into Blogcritics I, much to my bewilderment, exclaimed: “I’m a real person now!”

Chasing this ridiculous assertion down, I discovered that there was a little girl inside me who had never let go of being the last one picked at sports teams; who had ferociously promised herself that one day she would “be somebody”; and who had never let herself forget that, despite any achievements, she was essentially worthless. And now, because her writings had been deemed valuable by an organization of sufficient stature, she had considered herself at that happy place of Being Somebody.

So now, while percolating over these subjects of It Gets Better, the stories we tell ourselves, and our human history, I reevaluated that moment when I decided I had finally become “a real person.”

There was something more to that experience. I wasn’t just acknowledging that my existence was now valid; I was celebrating that, for seemingly the first time, I had achieved something on my own merit without any previous attachment secured by din of my family, my birth, or because I was somewhere at the right time and no one was going to turn away volunteers.

I had thought that as I grew up, I had squashed that little girl and her insecurities and desperate need to be liked into a tiny box, relegated to that dungeon that holds all my bittersweet yesterdays. But instead I had developed an anxious desire to prove, beyond any doubt, that I was necessary; that I mattered; that even if I wasn’t special or Someone or A Good Person, particularly, I could still be valuable to the team. I could be worth “their” (read: everybody else’s) time, attention, acceptance.

(I had never once checked in on myself to let that little girl know that I, at least, knew she was worth it. That she had nothing to prove to me, and nothing she needed to do to earn my love.)

For about 11 years, this tug-of-war in my world resulted in my recurrent sense that I could never be enough, that at any moment everything would be stripped from me and I would be cast out, and if that was going to potentially ruin my family, shouldn’t I just take myself out of the equation? Wasn’t living with me causing enough pain and trouble to everyone? Wouldn’t it be better if I was just gone—if I left, if I died, whatever? Anything had to be better than this Waiting-To-Be-Kicked-Out feeling that tainted my existence.

I couldn’t even believe my own mother loved me unconditionally, though she proved it over and beyond what any ordinary mother would have. If I couldn’t find a way to love myself, or if I sincerely debated whether or not I deserved my own life, then how could I truly accept love, kindness, or tenderness from anyone else? I felt it around me, but like oil and water sometimes it couldn’t quite reach me.

Slowly I arrived at the certainty that I was, at the very least, a decent person, and that I could bring probably as much good to the world as I appeared to be causing problems, and that maybe I wasn’t a burden. No one disliked someone who was helpful, so that became my defining characteristic.

Yet since every activity or relationship was tainted with my self-truth that I didn’t actually belong wherever I appeared to be accepted, that at any moment my essential worthlessness would be revealed and everything would be stripped away, I was unhappy at a visceral level. (At my heart, however, I find joy in many things and am easily grateful to be alive; it was that connection with myself, however tenous, and my deep connection with my mother and with Grace, that ultimately got me through.)

Between my experiences with the stories of the It Gets Better Tour, the concepts in New Beliefs, New Brain, and the myriad of moments and inspiration that has led me to right now, I discovered that the little girl inside me has believed the wrong story.

There is no need to “be somebody” because we each are, the moment we take our first breath. There is no need to be “worth accepting” because we have something that is ours, and something that we have to give, and even if it takes two decades to figure out what those things are (as it did for me), they are unique to each person and the acceptance for them will be found in its own time.

The anxiety to be part of the pack will likely continue to hold its death grip over us so long as our bodies and minds (and perhaps culture?) are programmed to the certainty that to be outcast is to be worthless, dead, but that story is not as true as it was once. We can foster our own tribe, our own pack, amongst people, our guardian angels, and our own creations.

Was all that I went through ultimately worth it? Yes. I would live it again, if it meant that I could arrive here, with the appreciation of what it is to know one is worthless, and what it means to discover one’s innate and unquenchable worth.

I’m lucky because someone was always “with me” during those moments when I sincerely wondered if it was worth it to try to “fix myself” one more time; if the hope for a better future was just too painful; and, when I reached the point that I knew hoping was futile, the question of whether being marooned in my own existence was even living anyway. Whether this presence came from an actual person or through Grace, via a myriad of artists and inspirations, the message to me was always the same at heart (and often accompanied by a deep sense of love or reaching-out-and-embracing):

You are not alone. You belong on my side, even if you don’t know your place yet. Don’t give up; now is not your time.

I think I understand what that intuition meant. I have to use my life, my experiences, to reach out to others and remind them that they are not alone. The idea they are worthless, or inadequate in some way, is just a story, told to them long ago, but not true.

And together, we will discover our true worth, our true stories, and we go forth into the world to share them.

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About Joanna Celeste

Joanna Celeste is at heart a storyteller, writing reviews, short stories, poems, articles and the occasional novel-in-progress, as well as interviewing others to discover their point of view, in the celebration of story. She welcomes emails from her readers at joanna_celeste [at] ymail.com, though she is currently booked for reviews through to January 2014. Visit her at http://joannaceleste.com
  • Beautifully expressed. Thank you, Harleena!

  • Hi Joanna,

    A very inspiring and motivating story. It’s important to believe and love yourself – everyone should know that they have great hidden potential and they’re worth every thing.

    Thanks for your intentions and efforts to help others. 🙂