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  • Writer's pictureMim Kempson

Self-worth isn’t an inside job: how a narrative therapist tackles feeling worthless

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-worth lately because, here’s a confession: I haven’t had much of it. Now, you might be anticipating a nice little story about how I rediscovered my self-worth. You might expect it to end with a cute listicle of my tips on how to cultivate your own. Sorry to disappoint. You won’t find that here.

If there’s one trend I want to disrupt on social media, it’s this: the habit we have of sharing hardships publicly only when they’ve drawn to an end and we’ve learnt some kind of sweet lesson. I’m not going into hiding to wait for this to pass. Instead, I invite you to join me. Do you have issues with self-worth? Are you craving new perspectives because it feels like you’re on a stuck record? Read on. Note: language warning — this isn’t for kids.

What is self-worth?

Let’s start at the start. Self worth — what is it? From my observations flicking through mainstream media, self-help books and dictionary definitions, self-worth is:

  • A kind of rating we give ourself (against whose standards? That’s for later)

  • A currency — something we must collect or earn more of

  • Something we must work on, or work hard at

  • Something that has an influence on what others think of us (if we see our own worth, others will too — much like the self-love narrative: only when we love ourselves, others will too)

  • A reflection of how functioning and apt you are as a member of society — have a healthy dose of self-worth and that’s a sign of your good values, competencies and work ethic

Self-worth has been marketed as an ‘inside job’. Reading the list above, it doesn’t sound like one to me… Sounds more like capitalism. Think about it. The word ‘worth’ alone says it all. Low self-worth isn’t an ‘issue’ in itself. The way it’s socially constructed is the issue. Therefore, this isn’t going to be a story of how I fixed myself, how I fixed my broken self-worth. Nope, let’s flip this shit. Strap yourself in for a critique of the self-help world.

How my worth went for the worse

Last year, within four months, my job was made redundant, I went through my first break up, finished a two-year Masters, moved apartment and flew to my hometown to attend my dad’s second wedding. Neither of my parents have a room for me to stay, let alone even a couch to offer me long-term. Basically, I don’t have a default nest to land in when life knocks me down. So, I’ve found myself renting a room in the ‘burbs til I work out my next steps. As I draft this, I’m sitting at Perth airport waiting for my flight to Sydney. I booked it only three days ago after being thrown another curveball. I’m now on the flight back to Perth as I continue editing this (time warp).

Each of these things work wonders on self-worth. I’m freshly single, out of 9–5 work and living from a suitcase. Everything that was once grounding and made me feel safe — my reliable income; my relationship, my home, my family as I knew it — changed in an instant.

To be real, though, finishing up at the aforementioned job was a definite blessing. It was a part-time admin gig. Sounds simple, but shortly after starting there, my mental health took a steep decline. I won’t get into it, but somehow, I managed to stay there two and a half years (?!). I was committed to financially supporting myself through my Masters. Working in admin after having clocked six years of tertiary education and racked up tens of thousands of dollars education debt — wowee, what a self-worth goldmine (sarcasm intended).

It’s not about our ‘self’, it’s about stories

That’s a story by the way — the idea that we *have* to use our education and training in a particular way in order for it to be worthwhile, otherwise it was all wasted. Fact is, life isn’t linear. Nothing ever neatly lines up or goes according to plan, and if we hold onto that expectation, expect to be disappointed.

Let’s simplify self-worth — all we’re dealing with here is a series of narratives. Stories around what it means to be ‘successful’. They’re dominant ideas about how to win at life. If we don’t live up to the standards these stories set, well then, we’re a failure.

Just a heads up — I may be a narrative therapist but I’m certainly not a purist. I believe that different psychologies, modalities and perspectives work in different contexts. On top of this, one approach may be helpful to us one day, but the next it may frustrate us. Journaling, gratitude lists and meditation may soothe us one day, but another, we may want to throw the bloody book out the window.

How about this. Rather than seeing low self-worth as a flaw or incompetency of the SELF, let’s look at what’s going on in the WORTH side of things. Who or what determines worth? Certainly not us, because if we did we would feel on top of the world — ‘self-worth’ wouldn’t even be a CONCEPT, it would just be a matter-of-fact: “Self is self. You’re a self. I’m a self. So what?”

There are forces outside of us that make us believe we’re worthless. From this perspective, it’s not an ‘inside job’ like we’re led to believe. Here are some factors to consider when you feel like a worthless piece of shit. It’s not because you haven’t accomplished enough. It’s not because you’re too old. It’s not because you’re a regular person and not an influencer. It’s not because you’re single. It’s not because of the size of your income or the size of anything else you possess. Which brings me to the biggest mother fucker:


That old nugget. Putting it better than I ever could in their Twitter post, @_r0sewater wrote: “How to know you’ve internalized capitalism: you determine your self worth based on your productivity; you feel guilty for resting; your primary concern is to make yourself profitable; you neglect your health; you think ‘hard work’ is what brings happiness”.

Capitalism sees that our worthiness is determined by our ability to make money and by the contributions we make to the economy to help it tick over (through being a functioning member of society as per its rules). Since stepping from ‘stable’ and ‘safe’ 9–5 employment (pfft, HULLO redundancy) to an income generated purely by self-employment sooner than I anticipated, I’ve had so many days where I feel like a failure. Why? Because of the ‘enough’ stuff — not being enough, not earning enough, not having enough work, not having enough of a reputation, not having enough of a portfolio. I don’t even have enough height — yes, I’m a 5” adult. Get over it.

Honestly, the words ‘pathetic loser’ pound in my head some days. I may have spent the last two years of my Masters deconstructing the living daylight out of everything including my morning toast but I still haven’t mastered blocking out the psychological influences of capitalism. It’s a huge feat. It begins even before we’re born when our parents and guests to the baby shower start thinking about what items to buy the newborn. It’s not something we can overcome overnight. Becoming better at not letting capitalism convince us we’re worthless is a daily, arduous task, and it requires team spirit — we cannot do it 100% alone by going ‘within’. This is why I write so openly.

Part of disabling the power that a dominant narrative or problem has over us is to call it out.

What low self worth looks like

I’ve had days where I’ll cry in bed until midday or, instead, cry at the gym during my 6am treadmill sprint to Ludovico Einaudi’s classical piano tunes. I also cried at my desk job in the open plan office and no one noticed. Crying is clearly my favourite passtime. Jokes aside, good news is that I’ve started to step into this new chapter of my life with the same enthusiasm, adaptability and curiosity I had in my early twenties, which I lost when I started that office job.

I’ve flipped things around. Living out of a suitcase means I can live anywhere, move to any city wherever work arises. With no ‘home’ to retreat to when life gets hard, no safe haven my parents can provide me with when the world seems scary, I’ve had to grow up fast.

I’ve learnt to dodge life’s punches only through first getting hit by them. Hard. I’m not a master boxer yet though. The point of life is that the swings will keep coming; I just have to trust that I’ll get better at dodging them.

Other realisations: I can live simply — I’m less attached to material things. I’ve been able to see more clearly who is important to me. I’ve noticed those who have stood by my side as I would for them. I’ve seen others disappear. It’s been a very telling few months. BUT, disclaimer: we strike another danger here. Please don’t interpret this as positive reframing. This is me looking around at the world and accepting that everything is pretty fucked, so — what can I do? Act. Shock horror: positive psychology can also be another trap in the self-worth department.

Positive psychology

Like I said, different psychologies work for different people, different contexts and different problems. However, for a refreshing change of perspective — let’s look at how positive psychology isn’t helpful in the case of self-worth. Number one: it doesn’t look at the social, cultural, political and environmental factors at play influencing mental health. It doesn’t look at the narratives circulating around us that determine standards and modes of measuring success. Here are some narratives around ‘success’ that have crippled me:

  • If you’re unemployed (even more, if your job was made redundant) you’re clearly a failure

  • Gone through a break up? There must be something wrong with you

  • Started your business and it hasn’t taken off yet? Mustn’t be very good.

  • You’re not a writer unless you’re published, you’re not an artist unless you have a gallery, you’re not a musician unless you perform regularly. As Seth Godin says in Leap First, when it comes to creative professions or business, the world around us leads us to think: “my art isn’t worth anything if I don’t get paid for it. If I get paid a lot for my art, it’s good.”

Seth also says the following about narratives: “Once you realise that [the narrative] is fake, everything looks different. You notice it’s not real. You see the world as it is.” We don’t defeat self-destroying narratives by going ‘within’. We overcome them by seeing the world for what it is — a collection of narratives.

Positive psychology and practices like CBT focus on the individual. They encourage us to look at ourselves and make change introspectively. The danger here is that we can end up feeling blamed for our problems… It’s true that in order to make change we must own up and take responsibility for our own lives. However, seeing the problem as originating from inside of us does more harm than good. Observing who and what outside of us has defined, constructed and shaped a problem helps us to disarm its power over us.

Quick idea: when we hear the word ‘problem’, replace it in your head with ‘problem narrative’ — problems don’t exist, there are only *ways of seeing things in life as problems*, as shaped by the narratives around us.

Having said all of this, I do sometimes appreciate the sentiments of ‘mindset training’. Generally, I prefer a collectivist approach when it comes to personal and social change. We live in a social world — we don’t sit in corners staring at walls talking to ourselves. Life is made of relationships. We’re social creatures. However, as much as I like to look at the world around me in order to make sense of my own life… Sometimes, all I find is disappointment in the world. When we find ourselves unable to control or change anything, well then, all we have left is our mind.

I’m currently reading David Goggins’ book Can’t Hurt Me. It opens with: “Life isn’t fair, it’s not supposed to be. Life is not biased to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, gay or lesbian, rich or poor — life doesn’t discriminate. Once you accept that life is going to fuck you up in one way or another you can start preparing for it.”

Sometimes, our mindset is the only thing we have the power to change in this crazy, chaotic world. However, social change does not come through changing our mindset — it comes through what follows: action.

The two need to be addressed and valued equally for the self AND the collective to thrive. Relationships are life. They’re our everyday. Johan Hari goes as far as to say that human connection is the remedy to depression.

Therefore, let’s treat self-worth not as a deficiency in character, behaviour, accomplishments or whatever — but as a disconnection from things that matter.

Three ways to address the ‘low self-worth’ narrative

And so I ended up writing a little listicle after all:

1. Use ‘self-worth’ more like a verb than a noun

When we hear ‘self-worth’ think of it as an act or process, not as something we possess in varying amounts. Picture a question mark permanently attached to the end: self-worth? Pronounce it like you’re asking a question. Like, “self… according to whose definition of worth?” Encourage yourself and others to think about what forces outside yourself set the standards, expectations and measurements of success that led you to believe you were worth-less.

2. Separate ‘self’ and ‘worth’

When the term arises, use it as an opportunity to observe how the world around us has shaped the lens through which we see ourselves. That lens may tell us we’re fat, unsuccessful, unlovable, unemployable, lazy, whatever. That’s not US — those things are socially and culturally constructed. It also differs over time. It was once a sign of wealth to sit and sip tea all day, and have very few tasks to do. Now it’s a sign of apparent success to reply “busy” to “how are you?”

3. Think about what’s worth most to you in life (outside of yourself)

To come full circle, yes, mindset training has benefits. However, the purpose of my blog was to shift us away from individualism and into approaching ‘self’ in a more collectivist spirit. The former will lead us to blame ourselves for being unable to like or love ourselves, being unable to see our own worth. The latter will bring us to turn to each other and say “well, this is fucked — how can we change things?”

Finally, I’ll leave you with some questions to ponder:

  • What stories and frameworks are defining the standards and measurements of my worth?

  • Am I okay with how they’re shaping how I see myself?

  • Do I want to be a part of those stories?

  • If not, how can I distance myself from them?

  • If I don’t agree with the narratives but I’m inextricably a part of them, how can I observe them in a new light to cope with their effects on me?

  • Who could I team with so I don’t have to do this alone?

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