I am important to me

“I am important to me”

How many of us can say that? In a culture that celebrates selflessness and sacrifice, it is likely that even if we said it, we would be met with criticism rather than appreciation. And yet, take a moment to think about the paradox: you demand that others value you for the low value that you place on yourself.

Why am I not important to me? If I’m not, then how can I think that I will be important for someone else? Where is the logic in thinking that I “should” take care of someone at my expense, so that person in turn “should” take care of me? If I don’t find myself loveable or even acceptable, how or why should anyone else? If my value or worth only lies in what I do for others, not in who I am, how can I ever be comfortable in my skin?

Each of these questions is a mental trap, at least one of which most of us would have been prey to at one time or the other. And some of us don’t manage to make it out of there. These traps all lead to a prison called ‘Insecurity/Inferiority’.

As an individual, if I am unsure of my value as a person (not counting what I do or am for others, whether personally or professionally), I could feel bad about my looks, abilities, talents, intelligence, job, partner, etc. I tend to run myself down (internally or in front of others) with a constant flow of negative criticism and pessimistic predictions for my future.

Suppose that things were going fairly well up to a point, but now they aren’t. Maybe someone important to me leaves, or I’m in danger of losing my job. This makes me even unhappier with myself. So maybe I’ll try to make myself feel better using time-tested methods. I throw myself into a relationship or into my work or a goal that I think will prove to me and everyone else that I am worth something.

What would happen then is something obvious to everyone (except me with my tunnel-vision). Let’s take the first case, where it’s a relationship I’m pouring myself into. Either my partner/child/parent/friend gets fed up of my overwhelming attention and tells me to back off, or I burn myself out doing everything for them (unasked, remember). Either way, I end up feeling unappreciated, taken for granted, even used and unwanted.

Where my energies are focused on something rather than someone, I may be able to sustain myself for some time, especially when it is a thing that society in general values – like studying hard or working long hours or winning medals. But at some point, there will be a switch: a feeling of utter meaninglessness in what I do; dissatisfaction with what I have achieved so far; fear that it will be taken away from me, and/or fear that I will not be able to sustain myself on this high peak and will thus fall to bottomless depths.

These, then, are the ways in which I give away my self-worth to the people around me, to the things I do, sometimes both. These are also the ways I give critics and circumstances the power to hurt me. When I say “I am good, because someone loves me” or “I am good, because my boss says so”, I’m saying that my life in itself is not important. Its importance, its value is defined by others. So if others go away or take away their approval or I stop being good at things, it means I don’t deserve anything, that I am unlovable or unacceptable. That is a horrible prison to be in, filled with abandonment, rejection, shame and ridicule.

But what we almost always fail to see is that this prison is of our own making. The foundation is my belief that I mean nothing to myself, by myself. The bars are my conditions – I should sacrifice, I should not complain, I should keep working. The padlock is made of others’ words, their demands and criticism and praise. And the chains that bind me are my own thoughts of not being good enough.

Let’s play this another way now. Suppose that things are still going wrong in my life, people leaving me and negative events academically or professionally, but I do believe that I am important – to me, if not anyone else at present.

I’m still going to be hurt if a loved one has criticized me or rejected me, still going to feel disheartened if my work is declared as not up to the mark. But I won’t be gathering all the negative things that happen into a net of misery that suffocates me. I won’t be desperate to make someone like me, just so I can find a reason to like myself. I will know where to draw the line with superiors so I don’t get taken advantage of. Most importantly, I will not lose hope that things can change, because I’m not thinking that the problem is me. I will feel moody, upset, angry, sad, but I’ll also be able to move beyond that and see where I need to change the way I do/see things, and where I need to be patient or accepting of the situation.

We all need love and respect as individuals – from the baby in her crib to the grandfather in his chair. But most of us don’t realize that love and respect – like charity – begin at home. With ourselves. I am important, not because of or despite anything. With all my flaws and my facets, I am important. To me.

Reading this article might have given you an introduction into the influence of thoughts on how we feel, especially about ourselves. It might also have made you aware of some aspects of your own ‘conditions of worth’. If you feel that the quality of your life is being affected by the way you treat yourself and are treated by others, you can contact us at TalkItOver for face-to-face counselling and further information.

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About Gayatri Swaminathan

Gayatri Swaminathan is a clinical psychologist with 7 years of practical experience in the field. She has worked as a trauma counsellor, a qualitative market researcher, lecturer and private practioner. She has an M. Phil in Clinical Psychology and M.A. in Applied Psychology from Delhi University and B.A. (Psychology, Sociology, English Literature) from Bangalore University. She is trained primarily in the cognitive-behavioural approach, but also incorporates other schools of therapy and techniques as and when needed. She works with individual adults, couples, children and adolescents and their families.