A Family Recipe for Feeling Worthless

A secret ingredient in many holiday dinners is a pinch of low self-esteem.

Even seemingly self-confident, accomplished professionals can experience feelings of worthlessness when surrounded by parents and siblings who really know how to pick at old wounds.

Though the person we were when we lived with these people may bear little outward resemblance to who we are today, there are a lot of ways parents can instill in us a lasting feeling of worthlessness.

They can praise every little thing we do, leaving us feeling worthless when others aren’t as impressed with us as they are.

They can praise us too little, leaving us to discount other people’s compliments as disingenuous or insincere.

They can scold us when we’re doing our best.

They can praise us when we know we ‘re not doing our best.

They can be erratic and alternately praise and scold us so that we have no idea what makes us worthy or unworthy.

If our parents screw up the recipe for self-esteem, we may be forced to experiment on our own.

One recipe for self-esteem is becoming an “overachiever.”

While this habit pattern of discipline and hard work inspired by our family tribe is also socially reinforced and rewarded by our competitive, market driven society, any measure of worthiness built upon outachieving others can be hazardous to one’s mental health.

In a 1975 Esquire magazine article entitled “The State of the Union,” Gore Vidal wrote, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

In order for us to overachieve, we are dependent on others achieving less. There are pitfalls to recipes that make self-worth conditional.

A most public example of this occurred at the 2017 Academy Awards when Faye Dunaway announced the winner of the Best Picture Oscar: La La Land.

As movies go, La La Land was an overachiever. It was nominated for 14 Oscars, tied with Titanic for the most any film has ever received. And, after three minutes of acceptance speeches and confusion, one of La La Land’s producers held up the contents of the correct envelope, stating that Moonlight had won best picture.


So, what do we do when others don’t cooperate in underachieving us?

In her book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Kristin Neff offers an alternate recipe.

“As I’ve defined it, self-compassion entails three core components. First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. Third, it requires mindfulness— that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it. We must achieve and combine these three essential elements in order to be truly self-compassionate.”

Five Minute Exercise

Whether you use these instructions, the version at the Greater Good Science Center Website, or this guided exercise on YouTube, here’s something to try when a sense of worthlessness comes over you.

1. When you experience a moment of harsh self-judgment, make a mental note of it or write it down. Schedule five minutes where you can be by yourself.
2. When those five minutes arrive, bring that moment of judgment to mind. Try to remember the feelings that came along with it, how they felt, where you held them in your body.
3. Take a moment to acknowledge the feeling by gently saying to yourself, “This feeling is stressful,” or “This feeling hurts,” or “It really sucks to feel this way.” Don’t be afraid to be with the pain.
4. Gently say to yourself something like, “Stress is a part of everyone’s life,” or “Everyone feels hurt sometimes,” or “Everyone feels sucky from time to time.” Whether others show this or not, this is something we all have in common.
5. Then put your hand on your chest, breathe slowly, and gently say, “I am worthy of kindness,” or “My parents are worthy of kindness,” or “May I be patient with myself and with others.”

When it comes to recovering from a feeling of worthlessness, Neff argues that self-compassion trumps self-esteem because, “Rather than pitting ourselves against other people in an endless comparison game, we embrace what we share with others and feel more connected and whole in the process. And the good feelings of self-compassion don’t go away when we mess up or things go wrong. In fact, self-compassion steps in precisely where self-esteem lets us down—whenever we fail or feel inadequate.”

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.