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There was a long period of my life where I biked six miles, took a CrossFit class, ate dry protein powder straight from the scooper, and showered twice before walking into the office at 8 a.m.
For this punishing routine, at the end of each work day (who am I kidding, I went back to the gym for workout number two) I brought home the awe of my colleagues at the design agency where I was a creative director, external validation from my clients who commented on my biceps over Zoom while cooing over designs I’d spent my weekends on, and a raging eating disorder.
I was an energetically expensive cocktail for manufacturing self-worth. And yet, I still had none.
I wasn’t alone in that experience. In my last story I shared why so many people hunt for self-worth in their careers or businesses and end up at best burned out, and at worst in chronic emotional pain.
Urgency. Competition. Measure up. Improve. More.
We’ve been conditioned to believe that if we work hard enough and optimize ourselves, we’ll get “there” sooner.
There is no there.
We think we’re evolved human beings in charge of our destiny. In truth, we’ve been conditioned to work long, fast, and hard to earn the right to feel “good enough.”
There is nothing empowering about it.
Collective unworthiness is the fuel that feeds our society. Humans have turned self-worth into something we need to hunt for, and our careers are a powerful way to pump up our inner metrics. We’re desperate for someone or something to validate our existence.
Grinding to the bone has a glaring limitation: self-worth requires no work, is readily available, and free.
Not very catchy, but it’s true.
Reclaiming your self worth starts with understanding where you’ve created dependency models, or are hunting for your worth externally. Then it’s time to dismantle the systems of oppression.
Today, we’ll walk through six ways to help you transform from a “human doing” into a human being.
Don’t try to do all six. This isn’t a competition you can earn self-worth from, or win! Pick the path of least resistance by choosing two that look doable.
1. Why am I good?
Write “Why am I good?” at the top of a piece of lined paper. Write a reason why you are a good or worthwhile person on each line. Stop after ten minutes.
You might find this easy or very, very hard.
Now go through and highlight every reason you’re worthwhile that involves you being productive, achieving something, earning money, improving a skill, counting steps on your Fitbit, or optimizing yourself in some way.
Now go through with a different colour and highlight all the examples of innate worth: things that require zero action or external validation, or are simply traits or qualities you believe to be true about yourself.
Compare the lengths of the lists.
Ideally your second list should be far longer than your first. Sadly, that’s rarely the case. No wonder no one can take a vacation. Our identity is on the line!
2. Am I always “above and beyond?”
We’ve all worked with someone who always “goes the extra mile.” Often they like to talk about it. Loudly.
Perhaps you are that someone!
Offering to do something you weren’t asked to do is energy. Staying an extra hour is energy. Picking up someone’s slack is energy. Doing out-of-scope work is energy. Staying up late to slam-dunk a design for a client is energy.
Everything we do is an energetic exchange. What are we trading our energy for?
Two people can do the exact same thing but feel very differently about it.
One person is being generous.
The other person’s worth depends upon it.
When you find yourself going “above and beyond” here are two blunt but simple questions to ask yourself –
“Am I doing this because I get to?”
“Am I doing this because I want to feel something?”
If the answer is the latter, you’re in a worth-deficit and people can feel your desperation. Worse, you can feel it. No one wins here. You’re also increasing your chances of burnout.
3. Who taught me to work?
The morality tied to working hard is a product of nature and nurture. I’m the daughter of a kind and generous man who brought a suitcase of files home and slept for two hours a night. When I started a job at a large tech company in my early twenties my supervisor joked about sleeping over to make sure new leads didn’t fall out of my pipeline.
Except he wasn’t smiling when he mentioned sleeping bags.
Is it surprising we grow to believe work starts and ends when the sun is down?
We don’t only inherit questionable heirlooms from our parents, mentors, and supervisors. We inherit belief systems that, when left unchallenged, submerge our lives and sink us.
Get curious about the origins of your work ethic. Ask yourself these questions –
- Who taught me to work?
- How happy or healthy were they?
- Have I ever challenged these beliefs?
- What does work ethic even mean!?
4. Boundaries. Boundaries. Boundaries.
Even if we’re trying to address our self-worth we’re often unconsciously enrolled in a system of oppression. I recently started working with a client who works on two-week-long sprints that bring in $300,000 to the company she works for. In our first Zoom session I saw her eyes darting to where I knew she was getting bombarded with an endless barrage of Slack messages.
Why couldn’t she turn them off? Because she’s a wonderful woman who has no boundaries!
All good design needs constraints. All humans wanting to have innate worth need to be ready to set boundaries around when they are available, restate them relentlessly, and reinforce them ruthlessly.
I have a no weekend work policy in my business. You can email me, but I won’t answer until Monday. Sound terrifying? Try it and see if the world burns.
If it does, you’re in a toxic work environment.
If it doesn’t? See where else you can create artificial scarcity around your availability to work. You might be surprised how the quality of your work, and self-worth improves when you channel yourself purposefully, rather than sprawling.
5. What’s “enough?”
More and enough; there’s a difference. You can always do more. You shouldn’t if you care about your mental health.
When you professionally define “enough” you cut off a self-worth sink-hole.
Light bulbs only last a long time if you turn them off at night. Make a list of what you need to do this week. Cut it in half. Stop working when you’re done, even if it’s Wednesday. Observe how uncomfortable Thursday and Friday are.
6. Am I on drugs?
When did you last sit and do nothing? I mean nothing at all. No working, checking emails, watching television, listening to a podcast, taking a call on a walk, or playing with your dog or kids. What do you feel when you do nothing?
If your answers are “never,” and “no idea,” you’re on drugs: working-for-worth drugs!
Being in constant motion numbs us. Most of us are scared of what we’ll feel if we stop.
So try it. Stop.
Block off two hours, send everyone away, turn your phone off, and sit with yourself. When you start feeling emotionally itchy, note the stories that start arising in the empty space around your worth as a human being.
Meditation and breathwork transformed my self awareness and worth. Both are key pillars that can support inner work and healing. Building a stillness practice is a powerful way to get to know yourself better. It is one hundred times more powerful than logging hours, dollars, and steps.
Wrapping it up
Still unsure if you’re trying to earn your self-worth? Ask yourself these questions –
Do you talk endlessly of rest or time-off, but feel completely unable to take it?
Do you feel compelled to talk about how hard you’re working?
Is the completion of a project met with the dread of, “How can I top this?”
If the answer is yes, you have your answer.
As long as you hunt for your worth in your work, you will be hungry, disempowered, and increasingly desperate. You’ll also never be able to retire!
You can increase your tolerance, appreciation, and even love for yourself by learning how to like yourself while doing nothing.
Treat it all as an experiment through the lens of curiosity.
Do less, be more. See what happens.