Low self-worth

Why Low Self-Worth is Such a Huge Problem

**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

If you were doing my job as a mental health therapist, you might start to appreciate the magnitude of low self-worth problems in the westernized world. It has been amazing to witness the recurrence of low self-worth feeling sensitivity (and related mental health issues) in almost every patient I have met with, both male and female, since starting my practice in 2012! That’s a lot of people!

Many people who come to therapy report a general awareness that something is wrong with their self-worth, for instance frequently doubting their value as a person or otherwise perceiving that other people attempt to use or mistreat them. They find themselves reacting (usually with anger) whenever low self-worth feelings arise, and then also investing lots of energy trying to avoid situations they believe may trigger these sorts of emotions in the future (e.g., avoiding criticism, avoiding relationships, avoiding exposure to groups, avoiding projects).

Many people recognize they have been making comparisons between themselves and others, or between themselves and “the standards of society.” After making these comparisons, there is often displeasure with what is perceived as happening, believing they are yet to “measure up” or be proven “worthy” as a person living in this world of status, achievement, net worth, and property. Even after some achievements have transpired, there is still a lingering doubt of being “good enough.”

I was baffled for some time about why this might be happening so commonly, but then it made more sense as I began discovering some of the similarities in the lives and histories of people affected.

Of course, there are a variety of factors that may be contributing to problems with low self-worth in people (cultural, social, relational, developmental, technological, economic, and political). I admit that there are no easy answers or explanations. Nonetheless, I believe that speaking openly about some of the possible ways low self-worth issues have become so pervasive might be helpful.

One of the things I notice over and over again while meeting with people seeking is that they have experienced poor quality attachments with parents and partners. What this means is that they didn’t experience a consistently warm and caring connection with someone they put their trust in and depended on early in life. One of the primary ingredients needed to experience this warm and caring connection, but which is very often lacking or absent in primary relationships (usually during moments of vulnerability) is empathy.

Empathy is felt when someone takes the time to focus on and be curious about the lived experience of another human being. When practiced correctly it is non-judgmental, meaning that the person doing the listening makes an effort to be patient and understand the essence of the other person’s perspective (however irrational or “wrong” it may seem). There is no recommending or suggesting, or otherwise being critical of decisions that were made by the person telling his or her story.

Empathy likewise includes emotional validation, meaning that the listener inquires (asks about, is curious about, shows interest in) the emotions that may be happening in the person doing the sharing; then after doing this waits for confirmation or correction about the accuracy of their emotional inquiry. To learn more about empathy/validation and how to practice this in communication with others, please review “The Importance of Validation in Borderline Personality Disorder” and “Beginners Guide for Helping Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder (Using Validation).”

In many cases, empathy does not happen spontaneously in relationships but instead seems to be more of a learned skill that is applied, applied very little, or not applied at all. Sometimes people confuse empathy with sympathy, meaning they might believe they are “empathic” when they are saying sympathetic things like “I feel so bad for you,” or “that is so sad,” or I’m so sorry you feel that way.” But sympathy can never be a substitute for empathy, as it is merely an expression of the thought and feeling sentiments of the listener, but missing the critical time and effort (the harder work) required to try and understand another person’s point of view.

Sometimes people believe they have been on the receiving end of high-quality warmth and caring (empathy) in their lives and relationships with significant others, but have given these others way too much credit or benefit of the doubt. The “caring” that many people have experienced, and very often believe to have been sufficient, was having basic physical needs met and hearing words of sympathy. In many instances, there is no sympathy or empathy whatsoever in relationships! In any case, experiencing sympathy is not enough to avoid developing low worth feeling sensitivities. To start developing immunity to low self-worth issues, a person needs to experience genuine empathy in the closest relationships, especially with attachment figures in childhood.

But something happens to get in the way of practicing empathy in relationships (parent/child relationships in particular) and so the likelihood of developing low self-worth feeling sensitivities increases. That “something” that tends to happen is a preoccupation with other activities (work, entertainment, technology, religion, substances, etc.).

When there is too much preoccupation with other things, people sense that they aren’t worth listening to, especially on the emotional level. Similarly, not even knowing what empathy is or what it sounds like in an interaction, or how to apply it to help others, is a big part of the problem. People remain busy learning about so many other things that have nothing to do with building real human worth, and otherwise having their priorities all messed up, it is no wonder there are confusion and ignorance about empathy!

In my view, the way people spend their time has a lot to do with culture and how culture assigns value. Unfortunately, it seems the highest priorities are given to acquiring things and money, pleasing the banks, satisfying God, obtaining status and power, rather than practicing empathy and nurturing healthy relationships. The common belief seems to be that as long as we are making enough money, acquiring enough things, or setting ourselves up for long-term material (and sometimes spiritual) security, then everything else will take care of itself.

I have been many times exposed to the histories and life experiences of those accessing mental health services, and there is no complete sense of security following the path mentioned above! Mental health does not take care of itself, nor can it be taken care of by other unrelated activities. All that seems to be produced from such patterns of living are masses of people who struggle to believe they have any inherent human worth at all.







photo credit: Seif Alaya Low battery via photopin (license)

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