I will never forget the excitement and pride that I felt that day. It was a spring day in my fourth grade math class, and we were reviewing for the upcoming exam. The review consisted of a competition amongst all the students, battling it out to see who could answer the most math equations. I won the competition, and it felt amazing. It affirmed for me that I was smart, and not just that, I was smarter than everyone else! At least, so I thought. And so began a long pattern of basing my worth and esteem on how I compared to others. Since I was not the most athletic or popular person at my school, academic achievement is how I defined a lot of my identity.
Of course, it’s healthy to feel good and proud of our achievements. What is not healthy is needing to be better than others in order to feel good about who we are, or worthy as a person. Because achievement is attached to so many positive outcomes in our society, the negative effects of attaching our worth to achievement can often go unnoticed. A few signs to look out for that you may be attaching your worth too strongly to your external achievements include:
- Speaking to yourself harshly or critically when you do not perform at a high standard. We all feel happy when we receive positive feedback, and it is natural to feel disappointed when you do not get the feedback you wished for. However, if you find yourself insulting yourself, putting yourself down, or questioning your overall abilities when you receive any negative feedback, you are likely allowing your performance to define your worth and esteem.
- Perfectionism. Constantly striving for perfection leads to unrealistically high expectations of yourself. Often times, perfectionism is rooted in the fear of making mistakes, and, consequently, the fear that people will not care or value us unless we are perfect. That’s a lot of pressure! In contrast, when we have a healthy sense of self-worth, we know we are worthy of love and respect, regardless of our mistakes, flaws, and failures.
- Overworking and ignoring signs of stress and exhaustion. Have you been skipping out on meaningful activities in your life because you are so bogged down with work? Maybe it's been too long since you have spent time with friends, went to the gym, or even got a decent night’s worth of rest. When our worth is tied up in our work, it becomes the priority that trumps all. Thus, other areas of our lives will be lacking.
- Having trouble enjoying your time away from work/school. Do you have a feeling that you constantly should be working, even when you are trying to relax? It took a lot of time and reflection for me to let go of the guilt that I felt not working, and fully allow myself to honor my values of rest, leisure, family, and social life.
- Constant comparisons to others. Again, comparison is something we all find ourselves doing at times, especially with the prominence of social media in our lives. However, comparing your own achievements constantly to others can be draining, and lead you to be in a constant state of “not good enough.”
If you relate to one or more of the signs above, you may be wondering how to start developing a healthier relationship with achievement, and develop an overall healthier sense of worthiness. For me, it started with connecting to my own personal values, rather than internalizing general societal values of achievement, degrees, wealth, and job titles.
These values are different for everyone. For me, I value balance in my life with regard to work, family and friends, leisure, and spirituality. This balance may mean that I achieve less than others in my career, and I am okay with that. In my work, rather than focusing and judging myself based on external accolades, I choose to focus on my own intrinsic values, such as how present, attentive, and compassionate I am with my clients and colleagues. I have found this approach to be so rewarding and healing.
Growing up as a child of immigrants, achievement was and still is highly emphasized. As an Arab-American, Muslim woman, I continue to feel the need to prove myself as worthy in a white-supremecist and sexist society. It is a constant process and exercise for me to bring awareness to these challenges and ground myself back in my own values. It is also why I am especially passionate about being a therapist, and joining others on their own journeys to identify their own values, and find worthiness from within.
Dr. Imman Musa
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
CORE - Center of Relational Empowerment, PC