I'm learning that I shouldn't base my self-worth on professional success
It was just like any other morning in my seventh grade English class. The bell rang, and my white-haired teacher told the class that he graded our papers in his deep, booming voice. His tone implied that most of us didn’t earn the best scores. I held my breath as Mr. Scott walked up and down each aisle, handing back our assignments. When Mr. Scott reached me, his hand hovered over my paper as he laid it on my desk. He leaned down so I could hear him whisper, “Excellent job,” and then he told me I was the best writer in the class. I sucked in a breath and stared at my paper. In big red letters, it said A+. Mr. Scott smiled as he walked away.
Suddenly I felt light, like a balloon, like if my hands weren’t clutching the wooden desk in front of me, I might just float away; it was the first time in my 12 years that I truly felt special. Talented. Smart. Important.
After experiencing that high, I wanted more.
I learned to fill myself up on the praise of others, like fueling a car’s tank with gasoline.
I tried harder in school, especially on writing assignments. The thought of losing whatever writing skills I had made my chest tighten. Whenever I read a word I didn’t recognize, I looked it up in the dictionary and practiced using it.
Later on in the school year, social services took my siblings and me away from our dad.
I already craved love and attention because our home wasn’t a safe place for me, and I needed acceptance even more when I moved into a group home. I was one of up to 11 kids who cycled in and out, back to their families, to other foster homes, or to juvie. I was just a number.
I knew how to talk to adults, so I spoke up for myself when I was moved from home to home. Granted, that didn’t always help my situation — but when a social worker, court advocate, or judge would listen to me, I felt important, if even for just a moment.
I continued this process of seeking validation into adulthood.
During college, I cycled between doing well in school, partying too much, feeling immense shame when I didn’t earn good grades, and then hitting the books again with new fervor.
I worked hard, I achieved, I was noticed, and — like an addict getting a fix — I felt better.
I was accepted to prestigious internships that took me from my hometown in Northern Nevada to Washington, D.C. When I landed my first staff job as a features reporter for a newspaper in Southern California, I felt as though I had arrived. People read stories I wrote. Many even wanted me to write about them.
But I couldn’t stay at that job forever for many reasons, including the inability to move up in a dying industry at a flailing paper. I wanted to stay in the area so I could be near my boyfriend (now husband), and I couldn’t find any other reporter jobs. Although I wanted to become an author, my dream wouldn’t pay the bills — especially not until I sold my writing to a publishing house.
I wasn’t sure who I was anymore — I no longer had a teacher telling me I was a good student, and I didn’t have any new bylines. I wanted to matter again. I wanted to be special, important, worthy. Lovable.
In the years since then, I worked some event planning and public relations jobs before becoming a freelance writer full time.
Soon after, I caught myself trying to convince people I mattered through whatever I was working on, even though that’s now how I measure the worth of others. I thought about why I did this, tracing the roots back to my childhood.
I realized that my belief that I had to earn love has not only followed me throughout my life — it has propelled me to work tirelessly to achieve my goals. I saw the drive to succeed as a good thing, but accepted that part of it came from an unhealthy worldview. I even was (and am!) grateful for some of my qualities that are partially a result of my turbulent upbringing, but I recognized my feelings of being worthless weren’t healthy. At the time, I wasn’t convinced I was valuable without my achievements, but I understood that thinking this way kept me from being happy when I otherwise could be.
After this epiphany, it wasn’t immediately smooth sailing for me. I needed to act on what I learned.
I caught myself when I went into tailspins of negative thoughts, and I tried to be more self-accepting. Although I had already cut ties with my father, I realized there were other people who made me feel worse about myself. I set boundaries with the people I could — letting them know I would no longer accept being called names, yelled at, or otherwise disrespected — and ended relationships with those I couldn’t. Being treated poorly didn’t necessarily have to do with my career, but I recognized my feelings of self-worth were connected to the toxicity I allowed in my life.
Over the past few years, as I’ve developed healthy relationships, I’m trying to accept that I don’t have to earn love through success.
I recognize that I love others for who they are, not for what they can do. I love my husband, friends, and the family in my life because they are special people who are inherently worthy just for existing. I know that if they don’t have to earn love, I shouldn’t have to either. And yet sometimes, it’s still difficult for me to translate those feelings to myself — especially given that I’m a struggling writer.
It may be hard to believe, but I don’t merely write for the praise. I write because I love it. When I’m writing, I feel most like myself. But — even though I know it’s just part of the business — every editor rejection and ignored email brings me back to my middle school mindset of see me, like me, choose me. And every time I succeed in some way — my literary agent likes my manuscript revision, or one of my essays is picked up by a new publication — I feel the familiar shot of adrenaline again.
But those successes can no longer sustain me. I don’t think they ever truly did.
I’m ashamed when I see myself as a failure, but I try not to let the negative feelings consume me. Instead, I reach out to my loved ones when I’m feeling down. I worry that depending on the words of others can be a slippery slope, so I also try to reassure myself.
I know now that I am more than my accomplishments, more than my job.
I hope, in time, I won’t have to try so hard to feel this way. I’m no longer that seventh grade girl who was abandoned by her family. I’m the girl who stepped in and took care of herself when no one else would. I am, and always was, enough.