My cat has a keen sense of his self-worth. In fact, I suspect he is marginally narcissistic. He takes great pride in his appearance, fearlessly greets all who come to the house, and exudes a self-confidence that I have rarely observed in human beings. Criticism not only doesn’t faze him, but his attitude suggests that if you don’t like what he is doing, it is because you are an idiot. Likewise, if you don’t like him, it is because you and not he is the problem. Any reproach is met with an impervious stare that appears to question the speaker’s sanity.
While it is difficult to match this level of contentment with oneself, I have learned a lot from Baxter. He models what it looks like to be comfortable in one’s own skin.
Proving our worth
Friends of mine just attended a training to become certified in Brene Brown’s Daring Way (http://thedaringway.com) . They came back with a wonderful phrase that she used to describe the approval process we humans indulge in -“jockeying for worthiness.”
Jockeying for worthiness is when in response to someone else’s dislike, criticism or disapproval of us, we expend futile energy attempting to prove our worth, our value, our “rightness.” It is exhausting because not only is it an outward-oriented activity, but we are doing it with the wrong audience.
The people who would express disapproval, disappointment and criticism, or hold themselves out as better than you aren’t your tribe. Winning their approval is an empty exercise.
Feelings of shame
Yet when navigating difficult life transitions such as death, divorce or loss of employment, we are particularly vulnerable to feelings of shame and anxiety. These discomfiting feelings may lead us to question our self-worth. We are more likely to fall into the trap of seeking outside validation to make us feel OK.
When I first broke the news to acquaintances that my former husband and I had gotten divorced, I was met with quizzical looks. At least in my mind, there seemed a pregnant pause as if people were waiting for an explanation as to how the most important relationship in my life could have fallen apart.
It took me a few times to be able to look them in the eye, hold their gaze and just say, “things didn’t work out” and then quit talking.
And I was lucky.
I know other divorced people who have tossed themselves into a pit of shame due to the disapproval from their family of origin, their spiritual faith or their children who blamed them for not holding the family together.
What happens to us is not who we are
Any life transition can be particularly perilous to our feelings of self-worth if, early in our lives, we receive the message that our worthiness is a function of what we do, how we behave or what we accomplish. We are then more likely to experience losing a relationship, or a job, or any other disappointment as evidence of falling short which may feel like a public humiliation.
We need to be mindful that what happens to us is not the story of who we are. We are changed by it; we evolve from it; we develop new relationships to ourselves and others because of it; but the experience is not who we are.
We tell ourselves into being
Being vigilant about your self-talk is critical to how you process your life experiences.
Does any of it sound like this?
“My partner wouldn’t have cheated on my if I were thinner.”
“My partner wouldn’t have died if I weren’t a bad person being punished by God.”
“If I had a better personality, I would get promoted.”
“If I had finished my degree, I would be more successful.”
If statements like these are allowed to stay with you undisputed, they become your reality and a form of self-sabotage. When you reverse these statements, you reclaim your personal power.
“My partner had character flaws which caused him or her to cheat.”
“My partner’s death was part of his or her life path.”
“If I spent time building my network, I would increase my chances for success at work.”
“If I targeted my efforts effectively, I would accomplish what I want.”
These statements disown what isn’t yours and claim responsibility for what is within your control – your own actions and behavior.
In changing our language, we change our reality. We tell ourselves into being.
Accept as is
As I gaze at Baxter asleep in the chair next to me, I notice his tummy is rotund. He can be very demanding, and he will take the occasional swipe with his claws out if he is hungry or irritated. But he is just fine with his whole package as is.
And while we humans are rarely content with our condition as is for the inherent flaws it connotes, we need to challenge ourselves to embrace our imperfections. It is only when we free ourselves from the tight shackles of perfection, that we create the space we need in our lives to try new things, to invent, to fail, to get back up and keep learning.
Ask yourself, what will it take for me to be willing to be a work in progress?