There was a time in my teen years where I became convinced that if the ground was to open up in the form of a hole and I was to disappear into it, there would be very little notice or concern. I just didn’t matter that much to anyone. As I got older I had other experiences that seemed to build upon this sense. There were moments that I could imagine how people got to the place of taking their own live. It seemed that this sense of worthlessness was simply eating away at every fibre of my being. When good things happened to me it was easy to consider them simply random meaningless events. Yet when bad things happened it was some kind of proof of the worthlessness of my life. And then came the realisation as I began to speak to others that almost everyone I spoke to at a deep enough level reflected on similar feelings. Many were not as intense as the way I had experienced it but they were still very aware of pervasive feelings of inadequacy. Others, however, experienced such feelings at a level far deeper than my own.
I became increasingly aware that such feelings almost always were experienced as a reflection of the thoughts that exist with regard to how an individual is perceived by others. In other words this sense of worthlessness was related to how people believed they were received, or accepted by others. Many times people held doubts about the true level of which they were accepted. So someone that was apparently popular would often express the idea that people were simply pretending to like them, or if people found out what they were really like they would not be feel the same way. These thoughts are dominated by a distorted sense of what others expect or perceive from the person doing the thinking. Amazingly enough it is almost always true that individuals do not remotely relate that way to others, they are accepting, caring, understanding, usually forgiving and hopeful with regard to on-going relationships. But turn the thoughts around from how one relates to others to how one believes others relate to them and it is a very different story. It seems, however, that as life unfolds we develop ways of coping with such feelings and we can even find ways to overcome them. Perhaps we fall in love, or have a good career, or find something to do that is fulfilling, but whatever it is most people discover some way to displace those harmful thoughts – at least for the most part.
However, as I looked at these issues across the years I noticed the link between the feelings of worthlessness and it relationship to others, and the cure being found in experiences and people that cause a sense of worth. It seems that the answer to worthlessness is actually the discovery of worth – what a surprise. But it does not appear to be as a result of an innate trait that people see themselves as valuable – it is almost always the hard work of replacing native thoughts of worthlessness with the observable truth.
Perhaps we might suggest that not everyone struggles with such feelings some people seem overwhelmed by their own sense of how wonderful they are – there is even a word for it: “narcissist”. They lives out of a thought life dominated by their own needs. They present themselves as being completely disinterested in the lives of others and consider themselves as the only truly valuable individual. Or do they? To spend time with a genuinely narcissistic person, if you can cope with it, is to recognise worthlessness on a scale that almost beggars belief. All of the drives to emphasise their unique place in the world, and their state of perpetual privilege above the needs of others, are easily identified with thoughts that are the exact opposite just buried so deep as to be inaccessible.
In the midst of my own journey to find ways to unravel the mess in my own life I began to note the link between our sense of self, our self-identity, and our longing for love. We very clearly link the experience of love with our sense of worth. As my personal journey of faith began to mature I recognised a life changing truth: God is love and He loves me too, despite what my doubts may say. There is a verse in the epistle of John that says that God loves us even when our hearts condemn us because He is greater than our hearts. That seems pretty applicable.
It was around this time that I began to read about the emotion and experience called shame. Little by little it dawned on me that shame is what happens when one is in a broken relationship. The experiences and observations indicated earlier have a profound relational component. The fear of not being loved, or unlovable is directly linked to the experience of shame. When you read the story of the Fall in the garden you will note that the overwhelming emotion that resulted from the sin of the first couple was the experience of shame. They hid themselves, they tried to escape their vulnerability, and they wanted to protect themselves at all costs because they believed it was no longer possible for them to experience the love of God. When God found them He dealt with their immediate sense of vulnerability. Human history, from that point is the history of God attempting to restore humanity to a sense of worth. However the natural state of humanity is a state of broken relationship with God – and there is the reason for this pervasive sense of shame experienced as worthlessness.