“You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anyone.” ~Maya Angelou
How do you measure your self-worth? By the salary you make each year? By the number of lines on your resume? By the amount of people who follow you on social media?
Now what if you never had to measure your self-worth again? That is what I want to do.
I grew up as a gifted kid with high expectations to boot, always pushing myself to meet them. I earned the best grades I could, secured a full-ride scholarship to a local university, and soon enough ended up at one of the top law schools in the country.
Thanks to all the achievements, my self-worth was high. I believed I was outshining my peers, boosting my ego. I felt safe in this comfort zone I’d created.
Law school drastically changed my perspective of the world. My peer group became some of the smartest and most talented people in the country. I tried competing against them to prove myself, but I struggled more than ever to stand out and feel accomplished.
In just a few months, my ego began crumbling apart taking my once lofty feelings of worth down with it. I was out of my comfort zone and felt invisible.
I turned to strangers online in an attempt to put the pieces back together and resurrect my worth. I relied heavily on social media to put myself out there for superficial likes and comments. I turned lifelong hobbies into side hustles, trading content I cared about for bits of validation here and there.
I was desperate to find some new measure of success on which I could rely. But I never noticed the damage that desperation was doing to my psyche until it had already taken its toll.
My ego had protected me for so long from doubt that as soon as it was gone, I never felt good enough. Once I believed I was a failure, I only kept confirming my demoralizing feelings by pushing myself to excel immediately in new areas. I compared myself to the best of the best and treated myself like the worst of the worst.
I was trapped in a downward spiral leading to worthlessness. It was only when I slowed down to reflect on my mental health that I realized my life looked like an endless rat race to find some proverbial cheese. I strained to earn my worth and ended up empty handed.
If you always chase after self-worth, you never stop to see if you have found any.
How is it so many of us believe our worth is conditional? I believe it is a long, grueling process.
Many of us learned growing up to associate self-worth with achievement of some kind. As we discovered authority figures gave us the most positive feedback and attention when we were doing a great job, we linked our worth to excelling. Without that encouragement, we were lost.
The world around us exploits this correlation on a daily basis. To some extent, it makes the world go round.
Western culture, in particular, thrives on permanently tying worth to achievement: the more people pursue success in what they do, the more productive they are and the more money that flows. Accordingly, society constantly tries to push the idea that hard work is sacred and will ultimately lead us to a life of achievement, ergo worth.
Western culture does not reward those happy to just be. Instead, we are expected to keep laboring away until we can do something well. Even then, some types of work are highly valued over others, so we have to find the right work to do just to get by.
So, if you do not feel happy and fulfilled, do you not just have to work harder?
Yet, not all hard workers reap the benefits. After all, achievement requires meeting a certain standard, inevitably doing better than someone else. Only significant time and effort may lead to a worthy triumph.
There will inevitably be haves and have-nots because the system at play rewards a limited number of people who play the system best, who achieve the most success. The more limited the rewards, the more everyone forces themselves to try harder day in and day out.
Unfortunately for us, the reward is merely the validation we apparently need to go about our lives. If our worth is dependent solely on our achievements, we have no choice but to compete with one another over a limited, essential resource. Achievements are only as valuable as they are rare.
But this competition cannot be won. There will always be more to do. And someone will always do more.
External validation never makes you content. It only keeps you hungry for more.
In my struggles, I have had a difficult time understanding how to view my worth.
How much worth do I have? How does it compare to other people’s worth? Does it go up and down?
When am I finally worthy once and for all?
To answer these questions, I vehemently tried to attach a number to my worth whenever possible. After all, a number is a concrete, self-explanatory concept. I could tell when I had more or less than someone.
Thus, using numbers allowed me to measure my worth and other people’s worth with ease. This gave me a way to understand my place in the world.
Using numbers also allowed me to gauge how my worth was changing. For example, if I received more likes than usual, I was happier than usual since I must have been doing something right. If I received less, I was in need of quick improvement.
Except numbers are hollow. They have no value unless we agree to give them value, but our obsessive nature often gives extraordinary value to the benign.
We use shortcuts like numbers to explain concepts we have a hard time comprehending. Self-worth certainly seems to be one of those trying concepts, always just out of reach like an elusive fruit hanging above us or a receding pool of water.
Breaking away from society’s expectations provided me the room to realize self-worth is only as complicated as I make it.
If self-worth need not exist conditionally, it can exist inherently. In fact, it exists now without exception.
Your worth cannot be assigned a value. It simply is.
By virtue of the fact that you are alive, you are just as worthy as anyone else who has lived before, lives now, or will live after.
We all come into the world the same, and we all leave the same way. Our lives may differ widely in content, but not in value. Nothing separates us at the most fundamental level.
And none of us start out deficient in worth. We need not go on a lifelong journey to earn our worth by moving up in the world. Our worth remains steadfast regardless of how our lives take shape.
Work does not shape our worth. No matter how you decide to share your skills and talents, the world will be better off, even if you alone trust the value in what you do and who you are.
Society may try to tell us how we should view and feel about ourselves, but we are not obligated to listen. Fighting those ingrained ideas of what others think we should do is never an easy battle, but it is worth the independence.
No matter how one does or does not measure worth, it does not vary and it does waver.
We are all enough as is, right now.
There exist millions of ways to compare ourselves to others, but we owe it to ourselves to make light of differences and revel in our shared humanity.
So how do we move forward knowing that we cannot improve or reduce our worth?
Well, the possibilities are endless. The doors open up to a life where you can be you unabashedly. And more importantly, you can be a part of something bigger than yourself without feeling small.
Waiting for others to prove you are worthy is time better spent sharing your true self.
After spending the last few years of my life trying to prove myself without ever reaching the level of success I wanted, I realized my definition of success kept changing until I made it impossible to feel fulfilled. I stopped myself from being happy unless I was universally revered.
I lived thoughtlessly, spending what free time I had attempting to make myself look accomplished rather than enjoying the time. I conformed to what I thought people would like rather than let myself flourish.
My true self was suffocated. Receiving even the most primitive criticism felt like being stabbed in the chest. I was more distanced from others than ever before because I did not feel like I deserved to be liked anymore.
But I do deserve to be me, to take up space, to contribute to the world in my own way. And you do too.
Knowing that what you do cannot change who you are promotes freedom in how you want to live, freedom not just from others, but also from expectations and doubt.
Knowing you always have worth allows yourself to connect with the people around you more deeply, empathize with them, and support their journeys through life.
It is with this knowledge you can find and share true joy.
You can pursue what you love instead of what you feel you ought to do. You can work at your pace to be the person you want to be. You can stay present knowing neither praise nor disapproval affect your worth.
Many will struggle to agree with you, though, that you can exist in peace without having to fight to prove your value. Even I still struggle to keep not just naysayers, but also my inner, learned uncertainties at bay in regard to whether I offer anything worthwhile.
Learning more about your inherent worth means unlearning those harsh, ingrained principles of life as we have known it. These principles will never fade away completely, but we can make a choice every day to drown them out.
Take it from me, your life will not immediately change in discovering your own worth, but it can improve a little day after day the more you take your discovery to heart. As is the case with any transition, there will be ups and downs. I still have doubts creeping in when I least expect them.
But the more you live openly and share yourself with others, the more those principles will take hold and the stronger you will be in challenging what life throws your way. Instead of seeking achievement and improvement, you will be content, one with the universe.
You will be free.
About Joey Knofczynski
Joey Knofczynski is a fiscal analyst living in South Dakota who wants to help people through his writing. He does not specialize in coaching or blogging but hopes that sharing his experiences can provide support to others on their journey through life.