One of the most common themes that I have observed working with people is the negative attitude they hold toward themselves. So often I hear the words, “I’m worthless,” or “I’m bad,” or “I don’t deserve….” What is striking about those words is they just don’t seem to fit the people who are saying them. In every case that I can recall these are people who care about others, have a lot to offer the world and are just nice. One thing they each have in common is some form of trauma.
So, how does an intelligent, sensitive and caring person come to believe these negative things? That is a question I often pose to the people I work with and the answer is so often very similar. For the vast majority, the answer is that something traumatic occurred in their life, usually when they were young, and they asked the question, “Why did this happen to me?”
Now, most of us would ask that question. It is natural to wonder what is behind some of the more difficult things we face. But what seems to be consistent in those who struggle with valuing themselves is the answer they imagine to be true. For the girl who was bullied the answer isn’t “sometimes children are mean.” For them, the answer is, “I must have done something wrong and that makes me less important than my peers.” For the person whose parent verbally abused them the answer isn’t, “Because my parent doesn’t know how to interact with children responsibly and they need some parenting classes,” it’s “I must have been really bad for my parent to act this way toward me.”
When we answer the question of “Why” with one of these self-judgmental statements, it can set off a cycle of thinking about ourselves in these negative ways that begins to feel very true to us. So much so that we can’t escape the cycle and believe wholeheartedly that it is true.
Once that becomes our core belief system, it becomes harder and harder over the lifetime to break free from it. We find it difficult to see the objective truth that we all have intrinsic value and that most of the things that happened to us when we were young were out of our control.
Believing the negative impacts how I see myself and how I see others. If I don’t value myself then, when someone else values me and shows me they value me, it doesn’t make sense. I can become very good at dismissing those expressions of value by assuming the other person has a duty or obligation to say those things because of the type of relationship we are in (friends, family, therapist, pastor, etc.), or by believing the other person just doesn’t know who I am on the inside, or by believing the other person is trying to manipulate me.
Sadly, what we are doing is rejecting the messages of value that are coming our way. As a result, the people in our lives often feel our rejection and respond accordingly by withdrawing or getting frustrated. Of course, that gives us another reason to believe we don’t have value because when we observe people withdrawing from us or getting upset with us, it tends to reinforce our belief that we have no value.
Overcoming this insidious cycle of thinking is challenging. The first step is to debunk the original judgments we made against ourselves. One of the questions I so often ask is this, “If what happened to you as a child happened to a child you know today, would you believe about that child the same things you believe about yourself?” Of course, the answer is “no.”
Once we can admit to ourselves that we passed a wrong judgment on ourselves, then we can begin the work of going back and re-narrating those past events. A big part of that re-narration, especially if there is attachment trauma (abuse by a parent or other who is not a random stranger), is to begin to see and accept those who hurt us from an adult perspective. In other words, “My parent is just a flawed human being and was capable of doing what they did.” Once that sinks in, we can begin the process of rewiring our brain to collect the positives that come our way and seeing ourselves as objectively valuable.
This process is never easy, but always worth it. Once we can see ourselves as both flawed and valuable, we can begin to accept ourselves and receive with gratitude the value others place on us.
Remember, you are an unrepeatable miracle!