Learning and Teaching Self-Worth

Last week, I realized that I sound like a jerk when someone asks me about my classes. Friends have been supportive and encouraging about my decision to go back to school. When asked, I usually say, “Okay,” with a pained expression on my face that says that maybe it’s not going okay.

This is because I know it is socially-unacceptable for me to say the rest of the sentence outloud. “School is okay, but not great because my A’s aren’t very high percentages.”

As the semester has continued, I struggle to keep up, those A’s are dropping, and I started to feel bad…maybe I had made a mistake in going back to school, maybe I just can’t do this anymore, maybe I’m not smart enough to be able to handle this.

Immediately, I realized that I have always relied on my grades to measure my self-worth; a twenty-year absence from academia didn’t change that.

If one has the talent needed for classroom skills (and going back to school has reminded me that, indeed, there are a set of skills to be good at school, and frankly, many of them don’t translate so well to the outside world), school is relatively simple. Because of this talent, grades became, for me, a simple, easy, external indicator to measure my worthiness. For so many years, I didn’t have to work on my internal sense of self worth because the black-and-white measurement seen in a GPA, was, I believed, telling me that I was smart.

When I was more active in Church, I was hungry for these external measurements from authority figures to tell me that I was good enough. My “checklist” (scripture study, tithing, Word of Wisdom, attending the temple, accepting and fulfilling callings, etc.) was always on my mind. I went the extra mile in my callings. I counted how many people could call me and rely on me in a pinch. I made extravagant gestures of service, like making a fancy dinner for a family in the ward all afternoon, but I would also yell at my family not to touch the dinner for a ward family because I hadn’t made enough. Our family would be having hot dogs.

I was desperate to prove that I was enough. I needed my communities to praise me, to wonder how I “did it all.” I offered advice when people didn’t ask. I fixed problems that not everyone saw as problems. I was in perpetual motion because I was terrified of sitting still.

This way of life would work pretty well for me until I started dropping balls I was juggling, like if it had been a while since I had been to the temple or I was given a new calling without a lot of responsibility. I saw that my checklist of being a “good Mormon” wasn’t complete; I felt like I had failed. Blank spots on my checklist told me that I wasn’t enough.

Like my less than 100%  A’s, I wouldn’t have told anyone back then that I felt like a failure. After all, the culture in the Church told me not to focus on perfection, that callings aren’t a measure of one’s worthiness, and that as children of God, we keep trying and that our effort is enough.

But, somewhere in my brain, I knew that I wasn’t worth much if I wasn’t constantly achieving, if I couldn’t use objective, external, measurable standards…even as I was making these standards up or exaggerating their importance.

My parents and leaders told me all the right things; they worked hard to make me feel loved by them, by God, and by Jesus Christ. So, why has it taken 42 years to fully understand that I have inherent worth just as I am, an imperfect, broken human and a child of God?

There are different ways we all measure our worthiness. While there are basic facets that will bring happiness found in the Gospel, our individual life situations are so different. Just as I have struggled with an over-reliance on external measurements to tell me my self-worth, there is someone who struggles with knowing and feeling connected to God or someone who believes they are not enough by virtue of their birth into a gender, culture, or socio-economic status.

I have been thinking about this a lot as my children head into the Children and Youth Initiative unveiled a couple weeks ago. The freedom in this program for our youth is a radical and beautiful act. The components of being youth-led, having lots of categories for development, and providing a framework which allows easy adaptability to the resources available to a ward or branch youth program, are truly inspired.

With this initiative, our leaders have shown explicit trust in this rising generation. The youth will lead this program because they know what they need for their internal sense of self-worth. We, as teachers and parents, need to be prepared to listen, learn, and adapt when our ideas of what these “Zennials” need doesn’t fit what they see that they need.

As a members of the Church, I know this internal sense of self worth is an important aspect of spiritual development; we often call this other things. We see it in our two (former) Young Women values of Divine Nature and Individual Worth. It is why we have male Church leaders praising women excessively to the point of putting us on pedestals, working to drive this point home. And, without that sense of self worth, I have doubted these male leaders’ sincerity because I didn’t feel like that praise applies to me–it couldn’t, I told myself, if they *really knew* what I was like.

Over the past couple years, I have realized that I had, practically speaking, no internal sense of my Individual Worth. It felt easier to get keep busy helping others because I didn’t like my own company. I was scared to sit in silence with myself.

It’s still a work in progress; it always will be, but for me, meditation and mindfulness have given me the space in my brain to see myself in a less judgemental way, these tools show me that I am neither “good” or “bad.” I am a complex and Divine being with ways to connect with my God, with nature, with my fellow humans. It is through these connections and stillness that I see how on my own, I am enough. Perhaps it is the still, small voice, but as I continue on this journey of seeing what I need, believing in my internal sense of worth, and feeling connected to all things, I see the words of our Church leaders in a new light; I see their sincerity when they praise women, in particular. I see their search for their internal sense of worth as well.

This is a long-winded way to say why I see so much potential in the new program for the rising generation. It will provide them (and us) with the time, space and support for a growing sense of their internal sense of self-worth, to find ways that we as individual divine children of God will learn ways progress in this life and the next. I can’t wait to see what happens in January 2020.

How do you feel and know your sense of self-worth or your Individual Worth? How do you see the two as different? How can we teach these skills to the next generation of women folx in our Church and community?

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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6 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    I relate very much to what you said about needing to have external measures of all you’re accomplishing to feel self-worth.

    I’m fascinated, also, to see how different some of our church experience has been. You said that in church, you learned about how you didn’t need to be perfect, and how everyone was a work in progress. I feel like I learned the opposite, that I needed to be perfect *now*, and that I was falling short in a million ways and disappointing God. I definitely heard the messages about not being a perfectionist too, but I guess they always felt like lip service to me. It would be interesting to try to tease out how we reached such different conclusions when the messages were (probably) very similar.

    • Jessica says:

      I got stopped up on the same passage too! I also learned the opposite. After reading the same lines in the post over and over again and trying to relate, I snuck in the word “verbal” before culture – the “verbal culture in the church told me not to focus…” – and that is how I reconciled my experience with that of EmilyCC. (Lip service is definitely an accurate descriptor to me.) Since her next paragraph says that “somewhere in my brain, I knew that I wasn’t worth much if…” I wonder if we are all talking about and experiencing the same thing, but looking at/describing different layers of culture. One layer being the words we say in the culture and another being the messages we pick up in spite of those words. I hope EmilyCC will chime in here.

    • Anna says:

      I agree. My experience in the church was that doing my best was never quite good enough, because one can always do better. Sure, there was lip service to the idea that all you have to do is your best. But there was the unspoken message that no matter how much you did, you could do more if you just tried. There was no exception if something was harder, say getting to church when your parents were inactive, or difficulty with the prescribed underwear.

      • EmilyCC says:

        Oooh, I think you all hit the nail on the head here. People were saying we have all the time to become better, but as I think about the adults in my life, I feel like there weren’t many who truly had a sense of their own self-worth. As a kid, I saw so many of them as the most extraordinary people; as an adult, I see how many of those teachers couldn’t see that in themselves.

        Maybe it is truly something we have to master before we can teach it. Thank you all for helping me delve deeper here.

  2. violadiva says:

    Such a heartfelt post, Emily, thank you. It can be so difficult to shift our view of ourselves and our own worthiness from “I am worthy because of what I do” to “I am worthy because of who I am”
    The black and white checklist makes it seem like we’re either worthy or we’re not, but it can’t actually touch the innate worthiness we always possess, no matter what we do.

  3. April says:

    Brene Brown speaks too the dangers of equating productivity with worthiness. And I too love external measures and found enormous validation for perfectionist thinking in my religious community. Breaking free of this is such hard work! When I went back to school I started to really notice how much joy I got from an A+ versus an A- and how long the feelings lasted. I found I got about a minute of joy for every hour invested and an A+ was quickly forgotten with little difference in the duration of good feels compared to an A or A-. Now I set slacker goals and set intentions to fail at something. I am getting better, but it is hard. Thanks for continuing to share your vulnerable truths!

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