Updated: Dec 8, 2020
No, a cat did not sit on my keyboard. The title is indeed a real word and it means “the estimation that something has no value”. The 29-letter word includes four different Latin words, all meaning “of little or no value, trifling”. Humorously, most people feel the word itself is worthless. It is as difficult to spell as it is to pronounce. While its only distinguishing value may be trivia related (it is the longest non-technical word in the English language) its meaning is quite relevant.
During my work as a clinician, I have encountered many kinds of people, with varied and complex issues. However, the most predominant theme I have seen are feelings of worthlessness. It would be simple to cross reference that trait with the list of depression symptoms, check a box and pat my clinician self on the back for making the correlation between feelings of worthlessness and depression. But, as anyone forced to take a statistics course knows, correlation does not imply causation.
Often, feeling worthless contributes to depression (as well as anxiety, substance use, etc.), not the other way around.
Self-worth, self-esteem, and self-confidence
I know, the social sciences like to get a little tedious around all these words. Indeed, they are similar, but with relevant distinctions.
Self-confidence is generally related to feelings of confidence and competence in more specific areas. So, I might have high self-confidence with regards to public speaking and low self-confidence in my mathematical abilities. But my low self-confidence in math may have no impact on my self-esteem or self-worth. Rather it is a reasonable assessment and acknowledgement of my skills, or lack thereof. (Trust me, because 40% of the time, I am right 110% of the time.)
Self-esteem was touted for years as the thing kids needed more than anything else. While there are certainly benefits to a high self-esteem, self-esteem is often connected to achievement. Running the fastest, producing the highest sales numbers, being the prettiest. While a healthy self-esteem is crucial, when we go too far into the realms of achievement and perfection, we often become more self-involved, harsher toward others and harder on ourselves.
Self-worth is the idea that you have worth because you are a living, breathing human being. You have value for who you are, not necessarily what you do or accomplish. The risk of tying our worth to our job or are relationships, or any external source is this: what are you worth when the job is gone? Or the relationship ends? Or you are no longer the fastest or the prettiest, etc.? Worth is who you are, not what you do or what you have.
How self-critical are you?
While it is natural for all of us to engage in a little self-criticism on occasion, for many the self-critical voice never stops. It becomes the driver, and this is when people believe they are worthless. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard clients tell me, “I am a piece of shit” or believe they are “no good”. They believe they cannot show their true selves to the world. They think they are unworthy of their own accomplishments, of love, and believe they deserve to suffer as a result.
According to research, people who are highly self-critical tend to be more dissatisfied in their relationships with others, because they tend to assume that others are judging them as harshly as they judge themselves. Constant feelings of inadequacy and feeling “less than” tend to be associated with acts of self-harm, such as substance use.
Disconnection from yourself
Trying to present yourself as a certain way (successful, confident, etc.) while also feeling worthless can lead people to disconnect from their true emotions and lead to an emotional numbing, a shut down. Others may experience certain feelings and emotions as scary or confusing and rather than pay attention to them, they discredit them with statements, such as “I am crazy” or “I am too sensitive.” In either scenario, we become further detached from our true feelings, thus further away from finding our worth.
Acceptance is essential
For a long time, I berated myself about my mathematical short comings. I told myself I was stupid or always compared my (lack of) ability to other people. (Lest you think I am exaggerating about my math problems, I spent three years in summer school during high school and five semesters in remedial math in college). Turns out, all that self-punishment compounded the problem and began to creep into other areas of my life.
Part of self-worth is self-acceptance. I had to accept I was never going to be good at math; that I would always have to work harder and yield less impressive results. And that it is also fine. It does not have to mean I am not intelligent or that I cannot be successful. I do not have to be good at this thing to have worth.
I do not love that I am bad at math, but I do love that I can acknowledge it without feeling bad or embarrassed about it anymore. I still get math panic on occasion, but I ride it out and without even a hint of shame I will pull out my calculator to add 17+9. If you see me at a restaurant, odds are good I will be counting out the correct tip amount on my fingers. And its fine.
Whether it is suboptimal math skills, failure, poor choices or ways in which you have hurt others, you can learn to accept it and rediscover (or discover for the first time) your worth. It often begins with self-compassion.
According to Kristin Neff, self-compassion is comprised of three components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. We will explore all three, using my math struggle as an example.
1. Self-kindness: I stop disparaging myself about being bad at math. I seek to understand my failure, rather than judge it. I acknowledge struggling so much with math is stressful and difficult; I try to have some sympathy for myself about the situation. I am as understanding toward myself as I would be to a friend with a similar problem.
2. Common humanity: rather than feeling like I am the only loser who can study with a tutor for four hours and still fail an algebra test, I remind myself that everyone struggles with something. Rather than think “poor me”, I think that my struggle is part of what connects me to my fellow humans, not what separates me from them.
3. Mindfulness: I seek to hold my experience in balanced awareness. I do not ignore the fact that this is hard for me and causes me distress. However, I also do not exaggerate my pain. I see the situation for what it is; no more, no less. Ideally, mindfulness provides a greater perspective—we can make sure we attend to our pain, but also ensure we do not exaggerate it, thereby creating more pain the process.
You are not worthless
If you have trouble believing that statement, support is available. While drugs, alcohol, even anti-depressants can temporarily ease feelings of worthlessness, they will not resolve them. The word floccinaucinihilipilification may be worthless, but people are not.
If you need support, Substance Use Therapy is here. Whatever you are facing, you do not have to face it alone.
Neff. K. (2011). Self-Compassion. Harper Collins Publishers, New York.
Tatarsky, A. (2002). Harm Reduction Psychotherapy. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., New York.
About the Author:
Kimberly May, LPC-S, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, burn-out, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation. *Note: telephone and telehealth sessions are currently available.