Some days back the father of one of my son’s classmates gave us a ride back home after a birthday party. As the two 8-year-olds chattered and played in the back seat, it was time for us adults to take those first conversational steps in transitioning from being total strangers to co-travellers. Inching along in the slow moving bangalore traffic we started with the standard questions of ‘what do you do?’ and ‘where do you work?’. ‘Where do you live’ had already been covered and that was the reason we had got a ride back. Soon came the question that I usually try to avoid or deflect, ‘Where did you study?’ With a triad of coveted degrees from very fine institutions, I have never been really sure why I cringe to answer this question.
I remember my mother once asking me, “Why do you hesitate and stumble so much when somebody asks you where you studied? Are you ashamed of your degrees or embarrassed by them?” I told her I was just trying to be humble, but I knew that this was not the whole truth. The truth was that I was embarrassed by my degrees in a strange way that I did not really understand. I never admitted it to anyone but I knew that there was clearly more behind the discontent I usually felt while mentioning my degrees. For some strange reason however, this time when the father of my son’s classmate asked me about my education I decided to tell him not just the names of my degrees but also how I was feeling about them. So I rattled off in one single breath, “Oh I am an overeducated IIT-IIM-LBS nerd, and I feel really embarrassed to talk about my degrees”. He turned to me with surprised eyes and asked, “why are you embarrassed, these are all such wonderful degrees”. Without thinking I replied, “I guess what I am really embarrassed about is not the degrees themselves but my motives for accumulating these degrees. My pursuit of these degrees came from a place of trying to ‘prove’ my self worth to myself and not from a place of fullness or ‘quest for knowledge’. I felt really light and relieved after I said this. I had known it inside of me all along but I had never articulated it so clearly before even to myself. I don’t know what brought it out on that afternoon. Perhaps I was in a particularly reflective mood, or perhaps I felt comfortable in the knowing that I was speaking to another parent who, like me, had chosen to send his child to a Krishnamurthy school (where competition and exams take a back seat to learning and exploration). Whatever the reason, this incident led me to introspect further on the notion of self worth and that is what I share in this essay.
When it comes to self worth there is a whole range of possible assumptions that we can construct in our heads. One of my key insights has been on how my actions as well as motivations have been coloured (if not driven) by my own assumption regarding self worth. From as far as I can remember I seem to have operated from an assumption that was, ‘I am unworthy unless I prove myself worthy’. My drive to prove myself led me to focus my energies and skills on trying to ace exams, win tournaments, and bag awards. If there ever was an award or competition in the offing, then I used to get a high just hearing about it. The high came from the knowing that here was yet another opportunity to ‘prove myself’. Here was yet another opportunity to convince myself (and sometimes others as well) that I am brilliant and talented (and therefore ‘worthy’). I operated quite skillfully but I operated out of the ‘unworthy unless proved worthy’ assumption that had rooted itself in my subconscious. I was never really aware of the presence of this assumption and so I never questioned it or examined it head-on. Had I done that I might have come up with sub-questions to like, ‘worthy of what?’, ‘worthy in what?’, ‘how much evidence is required to reject the null hypothesis of unworthiness?’ etc. However, because I was not explicitly aware of the assumption, what I failed to realize was that the imaginary bucket of ‘worthiness’ I was trying to fill, could never be filled (at least in the way I had constructed it). The more I achieved, the more the horizon filled up with medals, titles and accomplishments to strive towards. It was an exhausting and unending chase.
Let me clarify, I have nothing against challenges or goal setting. In fact I think that the thrill of healthy challenges and the focus that comes from pursuing meaningful goals can do wonders to bring the human spirit alive. However, I think that the benefits are more if these are done for the sheer joy of the activity, or for genuinely contributing towards welfare of oneself and others. My mixed feelings regarding my own strivings towards accumulating degrees comes from the fact that for me it had not been so much about the joy of exploration or possibility of contribution. For me, accumulating qualifications had been mostly about getting ‘proof’ to convince myself of my own ‘worthiness’.
It is interesting to note that the ‘trophies’ or ‘certificates’ I pursued to up my self-worth were not necessarily ‘trophies’ in a material sense. One prominent example is the pursuit of relationships. While there have been multiple facets to each of my relationships, I cannot deny that many of them have also been ‘certificates’ to affirm my worthiness to myself.
Like many others I also have had fears of loneliness, isolation, and exclusion. When I try to examine the basis of these fears what I realize is that I am not actually afraid of ‘being alone’. In fact there are aspects of me that completely relish (and even thrive) in solitude. Unlike some other people I know, I am not overly worried that I will be in danger if I am alone. On the contrary, I am rather brave when it comes to facing physical threats to survival and well-being. The real reason I did not want to ‘be alone’ is that I had started interpreting ‘being alone’ as a sign that nobody wanted to be with me. I had somehow coached myself to believe that if I was alone it meant that I was undesirable as company. Worse, I had been naively assuming that the converse was also true. For example, If I was surrounded by friends, or if I had a lover alongside me, then that was interpreted as proof of being special and worthy. I had got into the habit of reading the presence of a relationship in my life as an assurance that I was worthy enough. As a result, I had started chasing relationships as a means to try and fill up my bucket of ‘worthiness’. I had to prove to myself that I was worthy (given my fundamental assumption of ‘unworthy unless proved worthy’). I had discovered that the look of longing in a lover’s eyes, or invitations from friends to hang out with them can be convincing indicators of being worthy.
I want to clarify at this juncture that I am not claiming that this apparent affirmation of worthiness is all there is to relationships. There are as many aspects to love and human bonding as there are people themselves. In my own relationships I have savoured the simple bliss of connection, the sheer joy of giving and receiving, the sharing of passions and the birthing of ideas that come from the confluence of multiple perspectives. The list of what we can experience through relationships is endless. What I am acknowledging however in this essay is the unconscious need that drove me to seek out companion(s) – because their presence in my life was an affirmation of my own self’s worth. Unfortunately though, because of the bottomless nature of the ‘self-worth-bucket’, this also proved to be an endless pursuit.
Academic degrees and relationships are in fact just two examples of ‘trophies’ and ‘certifications’. There are several other disguised ‘trophies’ and ‘certificates’ like job titles, designations, travel destinations, facebook likes, physical appearance, fitness levels, and productivity, that seem to hold opportunities to get proof of one’s worthiness. Sadly however, no amount of validation in all these categories put together can silence that critic sitting inside – naively holding the assumption of being ‘unworthy unless proven worthy’.
What would happen if we just decided to adopt a new assumption that reads, ‘I am worthy’. Full stop. No proving, no testing, no justifying, no validating. If Nature decided that it was a good idea to have me as part of this existence then I probably am worthy of being part of existence. What if there is nothing to do or prove beyond who or what I already am? This alternate assumption on ‘being worthy just as I am’, is as non-testable as is the earlier assumption of ‘being unworthy’. However the lightness, bliss and energy I have experienced in operating out of the new assumption of being worthy is ‘evidence’ enough for me that it is likely to be closer in line with nature’s idea of life than the former assumption of unworthiness.
Have you ever felt exhausted by the need to prove your worthiness through what you do and accomplish? Have you felt trapped by your need to justify your worth to yourself, to your family, to your community, to this planet? I invite you to ask yourself what your fundamental assumptions of self worth are? I invite you to examine how these assumptions drive your choices and actions. Perhaps they are different in different areas of your life. Are you willing to experiment with a new assumption that you are worthy as you are ? No ifs and buts. You just are worthy. You are worthy in your naked essence and in your authentic state of being. What would you do if you didn’t have to do anything to prove your worth to anyone (including yourself)? How would you live? How would you engage with others? What would you create?