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What To Do To Stop Feeling That You're Not "Worthy"

A client, whom I’ll call Randall, shared in a therapy session the feelings he had for an attractive woman who recently joined his team at work.


“She’s gorgeous, warm, friendly, smart, and hugely popular. Totally out of my league,” he said.


He shared his feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness in considering her a dating partner.


“Where did you get this idea of a ‘league’?” I asked.


“Well, you know, when someone is that beautiful, she can have anyone she wants. Why would she want me? I’m not at the same level.”


“So, you believe there is a level, a ranking, and you can only date someone in the same rank as you?” I asked.


“Well, there’s not a real ranking, but it’s obvious that some people belong together and others don’t,” he replied.


I asked him who decided on this ranking system and what qualities put someone in a rank. It became harder and harder for Randall to answer my questions about this ranking system.


“No, it’s not a real system. It’s just something people talk about,” he said.


“So, there’s no big referee in the sky who slots people into immutable categories of worthiness?” I asked.


“No, there’s not," he replied.


“Perhaps you don’t need to rank yourself and others and instead can try to find out if you have values, interests, and goals in common,” I suggested.



Worthiness and Self-Esteem


Feelings of unworthiness can stem from childhood trauma, previous rejection, or shame. Feeling unworthy, at its extreme, is a symptom of depression, a potentially life-threatening illness. Many people with a history of trauma can suffer from low self-worth stemming from the experience of abuse, rejection, and pain (Jeon, H. J. et al. 2016). If you feel unworthy much of the time, psychotherapy with a caring provider can help.


Healthy self-esteem in adulthood occurs when you have a clear sense of what you value. Then you can regulate your behavior to align with what you esteem. You feel good about yourself when your behavior aligns with what you truly value, and things get messy when you don’t know what you find important or meaningful, or your behavior is out of alignment with your values.


For example, a client I’ll call Lisa said that she deeply valued honesty in relationships. Yet she shared with me the many times she pretended to like the same activities as the men she dated. If a man liked baseball, she pretended to like baseball, and so on. Lisa felt that she had to please the men she dated to keep their attention. With wounded self-esteem, she acted as if her interests did not matter in relationships, and as if she was unworthy of love.


Lisa eventually learned that the more she tried to pretend to enjoy things she did not enjoy, the more she violated her value of honesty. She told me that she dated to find a long-term relationship and marriage.


I told her that her strategy of pretending would not be sustainable for a lifetime.


I recommended that Lisa express her true self on dates because the only way to find love is to risk rejection. If someone rejects your true self, it does not mean you are unworthy of love. It merely means a particular person does not love you. If someone does not return your affection, that person is simply not a match for you.



How to Know What You Value


If you don’t know what you value, here are a few questions to ask yourself:


  • Make a list of the people you most admire. What specific qualities do you find admirable about them? Why do you find these qualities important?

  • What goals do you wish to achieve? What makes those goals important to you?

  • What would you like people to think or say about you at your funeral?

  • If you had no worries or anxiety about what others might think, what would you do with your time?


When my client Randall did this values clarification exercise, he discovered that he most admired his father for his humility.


“My dad is highly skilled at a lot of things but never brags about it,” he said.


Randall felt that humility made someone trustworthy—another quality he admires. He wanted to continue to excel in his technical career, find a partner, and raise a family.


“I want to raise children in a loving home like I was raised in,” he said.


At his funeral, Randall wanted people to say he was a loyal, trustworthy, talented guy with a great sense of humor. If he had no worries or anxiety about the opinions of others, he would like to spend a lot of time inventing solutions to everyday problems.


From this exercise, Randall identified his core values as humility, trustworthiness, loving and being loved, humor, and inventiveness. I recommended that he have conversations with women he found attractive to look for common values.


Someone gorgeous might be the right match or she might not be. You will never know if a date is a compatible match until you know their goals, values, and interests.



Where Feelings Come From


Our feelings of worthiness or unworthiness are something we make up. As psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett writes, “An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, with what is going on around you in the world,” (Barrett, L. 2017). In other words, when you feel unworthy, your brain creates a story to explain the unpleasant tightness in the gut and other uncomfortable sensations.


If our brain makes up feelings of unworthiness, we can change those emotions. Rather than elevating others and diminishing ourselves, we can acknowledge our common humanity. All humans feel pain, loneliness, shame, sadness, joy, etc. Studies show that cultivating an appreciation for our common humanity fosters compassion for ourselves and others. Everyone you meet suffers and faces the same risk of getting hurt as you (Ling, D. 2018).


The next time you feel unworthy, remind yourself that feeling different or less than others makes you human. Everyone will experience pain, loneliness, and rejection at some point. Be kind to yourself and others. Life is difficult for us all. If you keep looking, you will find your community. When you do, you will appreciate it even more, having gone through the suffering.


Note: The names of clients have been changed to protect their identity.

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