The difficult, daily work of detaching my self-worth from my accomplishments marches on and on. Reminding myself that achievement matters less than connection with others and peace with myself is an ongoing practice. Recognizing that I am worthy and I am good even if I don’t have a productive day or get some kind of external approval for something I did or said is the mark of a healthy mind in this new life.
Two of my favorite astonishing and accomplished women explain the idea of self-worth apart from accomplishment in different but equally resonant ways.
In the latest issue of The Magnolia Journal (I know, I know, I’m just going to own it, seriously, they are rock stars, how do they do it), Joanna Gaines writes:
I used to want to do everything, be everything….But whatever the reason, I no longer feel the need to do it all. I couldn’t see it until recently, but this wasn’t just about the work being done “right.” There was something more sinister hiding in my best laid plans. I realize now that I found my self-worth neatly packaged together with all that I did. In fact, the two really couldn’t be separated. I wouldn’t have admitted this back then, but I think I was scared of what I would be left with if I stopped doing. I was terrified of what I might hear if I paused long enough to listen.
Similarly, Joan Didion, in her brilliant essay, “On Self-Respect”, writes that when she found out she had not been elected to Phi Beta Kappa (“I simply did not have the grades”), she was “unnerved” and “lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for [her]”, as well as “a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale.” Then, my favorite line of all: “To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned…”
Didion writes that to be “driven back upon oneself” is “the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect.” Because when the tricks we use on others – “winning smiles” and “prettily drawn lists of good intentions” – fail to deceive ourselves, we realize that self-respect “has nothing to do with the approval of others.”
We have to face our various versions of “kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed.” No one knows how deep under the facade you are buried except you, and can you face this real version with stark honesty and still like yourself?
Before I found my intrinsic self-worth, I couldn’t say no to anyone or make a mistake “without drowning in self-reproach.” I was wholly tied to the expectations of others and, thus, alienated from myself.
But, as Gaines writes of taking the time to be still and find self-worth within after being driven back upon herself: “I received clarity on the things I am most passionate about. I received encouragement on the portions of my work that are the most life-giving and bring me the most joy. I had been holding on to so much for so long that I didn’t have the energy to savor the parts of my life that I truly love.” She also writes, “once I let go of the things I was never meant to hold on to, I gained more capacity to do the things I was meant to do….it became really clear what my strength and passion is.”
Nothing has given me more peace in my life than letting go of what I thought I was supposed to be, an ideal that I attached my self-worth to, so when it wasn’t reached, I drowned in my own ocean of self-reproach. I really thought the only way I could be happy and gain self-respect was by being infallible, a grad student who always knew the right questions to ask and always had an earth-shattering, original insight to offer. I thought productivity was the path to fulfillment.
But I’m not infallible, nor am I always productive.
When I got quiet, when I sat in stillness and quieted the ever-present narrative of my inner critic, when I faced myself with brutal and stark honesty, I found that I was just me. But “just me” was actually this strong, confident, interesting person underneath all the striving. I found that I could be anything I wanted to be because at heart, I was me and I found myself quite likeable, even in all my mistakes and failures and flaws. If I could just take responsibility for who I was, then I would be able to let go of all the things I wasn’t and create space for all the things I wanted to be, deep down, buried under the need for awards and degrees and publications and grades.
In this quiet place, apart from imagined expectations and perceptions, I found that I don’t need to be The Best at anything. I can still work hard. But whatever I do is good enough because it turns out I don’t need applause to feel good about myself. I just can. Even on my bad days.
If you’re reading this, I hope you’ve already learned how to find your intrinsic self-worth, that you don’t measure your worth by your accomplishments. If you haven’t yet, I hope you can soon. It’s like knocking on the door of your own psyche and finding a good friend. I have to keep knocking every day, and some days she’s slower to come to the door, but I keep faith.