Crumpling Our Lists: Reframing Self-Worth
I have classic low self-worth, to the point that talking badly about myself comes as second nature. Mixing a low opinion of oneself with anxiety means I constantly find myself doubting whether my closest friends, family, and even my husband could or really should like me. My husband has to assure me I am worthy of love several times a week on average. And if something goes wrong in life I am usually the first person I blame. The instinct is so strong, I don’t even realize I’m self-blaming until well down a spiraling staircase of shame.
This negative view of myself has made an appearance in about every therapy session I’ve sat through. So my therapist gave me some homework: to write down what is good about myself before our next session. Instantly, I hated that assignment and avoided it like the plague. If she had asked me to make a list of my bad qualities, I could have done it immediately and quite thoroughly. But to write down what is good about me, this makes my mind instantly go blank and my insides squirm as if she had asked to know my deepest and darkest secret.
Understanding why I have such a visceral negative reaction to such a request has taken some emotional digging. It isn’t that I don’t believe I have good qualities. I know that I can be intelligent, kind, hardworking, empathetic, creative, generous, and many other generally well thought of things.
But, to be honest, those things have never been enough.
In fact, whenever I notice myself going down a shame spiral of self-degradation, my natural tendency is to try listing my good qualities to reassure myself that I have value. But here’s the thing about lists, a good list of qualities implies a bad list. And when your self-worth comes from your “good list”, you must take very great care that it always outshines the “bad list”. And since you are your own highly subjective judge, it is difficult or impossible to know when you have succeeded.
Not only must your “good list” outshine the bad, but you constantly find yourself glancing sideways at the “good list” of others. To boost your ego, you will need to assure yourself that your “good list” is at least as full or even greater than the people around you. At best this makes for a highly unstable foundation for your self-worth that is always in flux based on how your actions compare with your peers. At its worst, this system can lead you down the dark path of tearing down others for your own gain.
My negative reaction to my homework assignment was not that I had trouble listing my good qualities.
I realized that I have been listing out my good qualities my entire life, desperately, over and over again like it was oxygen.
But while my “good list” may be a great temporary boost for the ego, it does nothing for my actual self-worth. In reality, my lists have brought nothing but harm to me.
So I decided to reframe the assignment. If it is not about a list of good qualities, what is actually good about me? And I have come to the conclusion that what is good about me, is that I am me. I am alive, breathing in and out, heart pumping. Here this day. And that is enough.
Self-worth that is based on our qualities, our accomplishments, our attitudes, or even our personality will constantly be shifting.
But a self-worth that is based on our mere existence, that can never be called into question. It is the same worth that a mother gives her newborn child the second she or he enters the world. It is the same worth that causes us to protect against and take seriously the los of any human life.
Where does this worth come from? Personally, I believe it has much to do with a baby placed in a manger two thousand years ago. It has much to do with a young rabbi in a Roman province who touched leapers, associated with prostitutes, and ate with traitorous tax collectors. And it has much to do with a man that was betrayed, tortured, and murdered by humanity and yet still chose to return in resurrected form as a human being. There is a great and beautiful mystery to the incarnation, life, and resurrection of Christ, of God choosing to intertwine his existence so irrevocably with ours.
It was no mere coincidence that in the Creation story, God spoke the universe into existence. What God speaks becomes in the truest sense of the word. The apostle John wrote of the Christ as word becoming flesh.
There is no greater message of God’s declared worth, love, and acceptance of humanity than Jesus, the infinite Word become man. In this mystery, we find our value and it is unshakeable.
Of course, none of this erases our lists. Our reality is still very much caught up in the good and bad of daily life. And our bad is still devastatingly real. The same spirit that murdered Jesus still lives in us. We see it every day in children shot down in schools, nonsensical hatred between political parties, and refugees desperately seeking asylum only to be turned away. But yet, God chose to walk among us, to do the work of resurrection in the midst of us.
If our good was never enough, neither it seems was our bad. The one has not bought us Christ, nor has the other driven him away.
But here’s the thing about accepting my worth as an essence of my mere existence. It means I must extend it to every other person, even the shooter who murders children, even the person whose politics you vehemently disagree with, even the violent tyrants who create refugees. Such grace is scandalous, uncomfortable, even anger-inducing. This grace was polarizing enough to cause the religious leaders of Jesus’ day to be moved to murder. Yet this is the good news. And when we can accept it for ourselves, we begin to be able to accept it for the people around us as well.
What does all this have to do with my therapist’s assignment? I saw her question of what is good about me as a request for a list of qualities that would help boost my self-esteem. Ironically, this assumption revealed to me a view of myself that needed to be reframed if I am ever to have a healthy and whole view of my self.
If our ultimate worth comes from a list of good qualities, we will always find ourselves wanting. Not that our good and bad lists are unimportant. They are essential to how we show up in our lives and with the people we come in contact with. Yet our lists have absolutely nothing to do with our self-worth. Rather this good in me is both given to me and inherent in me. Given, because it comes from God, and inherent, because it was spoken into my very existence as a human being. And when we remember this, it is irrevocably stable footing for us to walk out from and actually do something about changing our bad list for the good of ourselves, our neighbors, and our world.