**The ideas contained in this post are the opinions of the writer and communicated without reference to supporting documentation. The writer also recognizes that BPD is a disorder that affects both males and females, and uses of “she” or “he” in the communication of ideas are not intended to covey sexual bias. Breakaway MHE Disclaimer
Culture consists of the shared ideas (usually non-factual) that we “buy into” from the point of early childhood onwards. It comes in many forms and from different sources (TV, advertising, movies, religion, school, work, friendships, partnerships, family relationships, etc.), and in different “doses” depending on the level of exposure and the power that sources hold for us. It plays a big role in shaping our thoughts and beliefs, and can, therefore, influence a great deal how we behave and what we choose. In many ways, it is “the world as we know it” depending on whatever place we come from and with whomever we experience our childhood development.
This being as it may, we often strongly “attach” to these early cultural inputs as though they were the ground beneath our feet, or the air in which we breathe – sometimes clinging indefinitely as though the ideas and symbols were determining factors of life and death. Our culture can be “the structure” that holds us together when we have looked no further than these ideas wherein we first placed our trust. Perhaps more interestingly, our culture can be used as a source of dealing with emotions that we would otherwise have no way of dealing with… “just follow the culture and then everything emotional becomes manageable.”
In the westernized world where I come from, the subtle but firm and consistent cultural message is that you must “find your worth” or “prove your worth” through, for instance, the things that you do, the things you achieve, the things that you learn, the amount of money you earn, and the things that you can purchase. It is as though you don’t really start out life having inherent worth, but rather must “find it out there somewhere” through your striving and desiring. Therefore for example, if you don’t want to achieve anything in particular, then your worth as a human remains questionable. Likewise, if you don’t prove to yourself (or to your peers) that you have done something “admirable” with your life and your time, then you haven’t proven your worth as a human.
Whether or not it is a rational connection to make, humans very often continue to think of themselves as “having worth” versus “having no worth” depending on if they can prove it or not, and in the ways deemed “acceptable” by the culture within which they reside. Ways to prove your worth that are considered acceptable in westernized culture include things like owning property (e.g., cars, houses, businesses), appearance of property, bank account balances, educational degrees, job titles, experiences, places traveled, talents demonstrated, awards won, tasks completed, body shape, body weight, quality of apparel, popularity, ratings, approvals, and intelligence.
If we perceive progress in the aforementioned “areas of worth,” then we believe that “I HAVE IT” or “I HAVE MADE IT,” and so feel “worthy.” If we do not perceive progress within the “areas of worth” in a manner similar and acceptable to our peers as life unfolds, then we believe that “I MUST NOT HAVE ANY REAL WORTH,” and so feel “worthless.” This low-worth feeling then spawns all kinds of other troublesome thoughts and feelings (hopelessness, powerlessness, shame, rejection, abandonment fear).
Depending on the person and how she perceives her worth must be proven to obtain it, she will invest significant time and effort (and money, no doubt!) into particular activities to get the necessary results (e.g., dieting to get thin). The problem is that the efforts made sometimes don’t “meet the mark of acceptability,” or the “bar of acceptability gets raised,” and so the cultural program fails to produce the desired emotional experience (or emotional relief). And when emotions are not worked through or resolved in some shape or form over periods of time, it very often means that symptoms of anxiety and depression will eventually be making an appearance as well.
Each one of “the ways to prove your worth” in a westernized culture can become a trap, meaning that the threat of worthlessness remains as a constant UNLESS you have done something to prove otherwise. As a therapist working with people who struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and other related conditions, I am informed about how common it is to struggle in these ways. I have also felt the same apparent threat of worthlessness in my own life, and sometimes instead of using practices that I know work to promote self-acceptance and realization of my inherent worth, I revert to “seeking proof” that I am “worthy.” I fall into the same cultural traps!
Being indoctrinated into a culture quite often means you remain a slave to the cultural concepts (emotionally dependent on them) until such time that you develop increased awareness of what has been happening all along: you have been brainwashed into believing you need to “find your worth” when in fact you have had it all along. If you are more emotionally sensitive and develop conditions like BPD, then it can be even harder to stop falling into the cultural traps that were set without your knowledge and at the most vulnerable stages of your development.
Feelings of worthlessness can be hard to tolerate, and cultural conditioning can be extremely powerful. The temptation to experience temporary emotional relief through conformity to a cultural program can, therefore, remain strong, and the skills to work through emotions independently and realize your inherent worth can take time to develop. It can be a challenging mental health journey being a citizen of the westernized world. Perhaps the most critical question we need to be asking ourselves is this: Would it be worth it to be free?
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