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Almost everyone will struggle with feelings of worthlessness sometimes.
Self-esteem rises and falls over the course of our lives and is often influenced by the circumstances we have to deal with.
As a result, we may go through periods where we feel like we aren’t giving enough, doing enough, or just aren’t enough of anything at all.
And that’s an awful thing that nobody should have to experience.
7 Reasons Why You May Feel Worthless
There are several different reasons why you may feel worthless, and many are based on trauma of some kind. That said, feeling that you lack value likely also stems from views and expectations that are thrust upon all of us by the society we live in.
Two of the main causes of feeling worthless are programming and not being recognized for one’s contributions. Let’s dive into the causes that fall under each umbrella so that we can determine why you feel worthless right now, and then we’ll touch upon what you can do to stop feeling so down about yourself.
Causes related to programming:
The following relate to how you have been raised and the impact this has had on your feelings of self-worth.
1. Expectations of perfection.
Many parents and teachers try to inspire or encourage kids to do their best, but the methods they use can be extremely counterproductive. They’ll reward a kid for getting an A on their test, and then berate and shame them for getting a C, rather than determining why the grade has fallen.
They’re far more concerned with outcome than process, and think that punishing or shaming someone to “do better” will somehow inspire them.
Are you familiar with the idiom about the carrot and the stick? It centers around what’s needed to encourage a beast of burden to move forward. The carrot is an appealing incentive to keep going, as it’s a tasty snack that they’ll get when they finally arrive at their destination. In contrast, the stick offers pain and suffering, which they’re keen on avoiding.
In many situations, emotional support such as demonstrations of love and care are withheld if the child doesn’t behave a certain way. This is common in dysfunctional families, especially if a parent has narcissistic tendencies. The parent’s love is conditional upon the child achieving certain things, as well as looking and acting the way the parent wants them to.
If the child doesn’t check all those boxes, or rebels against the expectations of them, then love is withheld. The child could be ignored, pushed away physically, even have their basic needs go unmet until they break down and behave the way they’re “supposed” to.
As you can imagine, this type of programming can carry well into adulthood. A person who has been raised in this kind of environment will think very poorly of themselves if they don’t attain a particular standard. This could range from achieving top marks at university, to getting a raise or promotion within a certain amount of time once they enter the workforce.
They’re often afraid that if they don’t meet—and surpass—the milestones laid out for them, then they’ll have to deal with other people’s disappointment and abuse toward them. They’re far more used to the stick than the carrot, here.
Unfortunately, that carrot is never attained either. It’s always suspended just out of the beast of burden’s reach so they continue plodding forward, but never get their reward.
The same is true when a person has expectations of perfection. One can never be “perfect,” and on the off chance that they get close to achieving said ideal, it won’t last long. Either circumstances will change, or they will, and then they’ll have a new goalpost to slave toward.
2. Being told they were worthless during childhood and/or adolescence.
For many people, feelings of worthlessness were ingrained from early childhood onward.
In some cases, a parent comes right out and tells their kid how worthless they are. They’ll make sure that their child knows that they were unwanted or a mistake. That they should have aborted them or given them up for adoption, and that they’re nothing but a burden.
This is especially common for children with disabilities or various health issues. A child could be a straight-A student, and maybe a gifted, promising young musician on top of that. They could be sweet and kind, with a wonderful personality, but their parents consider that child’s illness, allergies, physical differences, or neurodivergence to be inconvenient and irritating.
They’ll sigh and make a fuss any time the child’s real needs interfere with their own plans or personal wants. If the child is in pain or distress, they’ll often be dismissed as acting out for attention, being dramatic, or blowing things out of proportion. So the child grows up with the feeling that anything they do or achieve will be overshadowed by the shortcomings they have no control over.
3. Values and social expectations that just don’t fit you.
Every cultural society has its own range of values and expectations. Some of these may overlap, while others are very different.
For example, depending on where you’re located, there may be very specific expectations placed upon you to dress and behave a certain way. Men might be expected to have fancy cars and high-paying careers, while women may only be considered to have value if they’re meek and gentle and have as many children as their bodies are capable of producing.
In other societies, worth might be determined by the neighborhood in which you’ve purchased a house, the social circles in which you interact, how diligent you are at attending religious services, and what position(s) you may hold in local governance.
As you might imagine, people whose personal leanings and interests fall outside their society’s values and expectations might be seen to have less worth than their peers who fall in line and behave as others believe they “should.”
What happens if you’re born into an Orthodox Jewish or Mormon community, but you don’t believe in that religion and you don’t want to raise a dozen children? What if you’re in a very conservative environment that won’t support your gender identity, sexual preferences, or career choice?
In situations like these, there are really only two choices: do your best to pretend to be like others in order to make them happy (masquerading as best you can and losing part of your soul in the process), or find as much joy in living a life that’s true to your real nature, thus alienating and disappointing those around you.
Any choice you make will result in someone being upset. As a result, it can be excruciating to try to determine what may be the best course of action for you. If you feel that your worth is dependent upon the approval and respect you get from others, then you’re definitely stuck between a rock and a hard place here.
4. You’re in a position where you aren’t able to “pull your own weight.”
Most people have been raised with the idea that people who have value and worth as human beings are those who contribute to society. If someone can’t, due to disability or other circumstances, then many others will see them as “dead weight”: leeches who draw from the public good but don’t pour anything back into it.
This is a horrible type of conditioning that can do an extraordinary amount of damage to a person. Furthermore, it’s equally damaging whether a person was born with a disease or disability that causes them to be dependent, or if something happens to a person to make them unable to contribute as much as they’d like to.
Some people who feel like they’re worthless are those who previously had the ability to contribute to their family—financially or otherwise—but then circumstances shifted beyond their control. A sudden illness or injury might have lost them their job or rendered them incapable of caring for children or elders like they used to.
Suddenly, they’ve gone from a respected position of “breadwinner” or “capable parent” to someone who needs to be supported and cared for. Even if everyone around them is unconditionally loving and giving, and they don’t see them as “dead weight” by any stretch of the imagination, the person’s internal programming will say otherwise. They’ll be wracked with negative self-talk, and they might refer to themselves as a burden or a parasite, rather than someone who has anything worthy to contribute.
If this is a situation you’ve been struggling with, we’ll touch upon how to counteract these feelings a bit further down.
Causes related to a lack of acknowledgement:
In addition to the issues related to programming listed above, feelings of worthlessness can be inspired by other people’s small-mindedness and obliviousness about who you are and what you offer the world.
5. People in your life haven’t valued you or your contributions.
This goes beyond how your family members might have treated you as a child and ventures into realms where those you cared about and respected haven’t acknowledged or appreciated your worth.
Not all abuse or trauma happens during our early years. In fact, we can all experience abuse and trauma over the course of our lives. The experiences we have in high school and college, as well as in the workplace and in our romantic relationships, can also be formative and damaging.
When you were in school, did teachers gloss over very real contributions of yours in favor of those who were either louder or more popular? How about at work? Have you been ignored and talked over while other colleagues have been listened to and respected? Did your ideas get dismissed or your creations put in a back room in favor of others?
At home, does your partner place real value on both your physical and emotional labor? What about your children and extended family members? Do they tell you on a regular basis how much they appreciate you? Do they do things around the house so the burden isn’t entirely on your shoulders? Or do they take you for granted?
Examples of being taken for granted in a domestic situation can include:
- Being expected to prepare the majority of meals
- Having to be the default caregiver for children and elder parents
- Picking dirty laundry off the floor because other family members don’t have the decency to put soiled items in a basket (or do their own laundry)
- Being primarily responsible for household finances, errands, and appointments
Those are just a few examples, but regular day-to-day life responsibilities and needs add up if they aren’t attended to diligently. If the person who’s normally responsible for all of this can’t keep up for one reason or another, then either everything goes to hell, or insults about being incapable or dropping the ball start to fly. Few things can make a person feel more worthless than the implication that they are little more than an unpaid domestic servant.
While we might not remember exact words that people have said to us on various occasions, we can certainly remember how they made us feel. And if you aren’t being made to feel valued and appreciated by those around you, then you might want to reconsider your living situation.
6. You haven’t achieved things that are of value in other people’s eyes.
Our society places great value on certain things, while looking down on others. That doesn’t mean that the things—whether items or achievements—actually have more value, but rather there’s the perception that they have great worth. As a result, those who have attained or achieved them are in turn considered to have greater value than others.
For example, the amount of education a person has received, or what they do for a living will alter their supposed value in other people’s eyes. Many believe that someone who has a university degree, or holds a high-ranking professional position, has greater value as a human being than someone who’s self-taught or works with their hands.
Meanwhile, the autodidact might have far more knowledge than the degree holder, and the electrician or plumber might be making significantly more money than the college professor down the road. Those facts seem to be irrelevant, however, as it’s the perception of value and worth that seems to matter to most, rather than the reality.
The key here is once again a lack of acknowledgement. The self-taught polymath who can speak a dozen languages fluently won’t be acknowledged as a linguist because they don’t have a piece of paper from someone else saying so.
7. You’re negatively compared to others around you.
This expands upon the previous section about not having achieved things of value in other people’s eyes.
It’s one thing for the people in your life to not acknowledge your worth and achievements, but it’s even worse when they’re constantly comparing you to others. No matter what you do or how happy you are with your life, those close to you will ask why you aren’t more like someone else.
Oh, you just earned your bachelor’s degree? Well, your cousin just got a master’s. That car you just bought is nothing compared to your sibling’s luxury SUV. Your fashion sense is atrocious compared to your friend’s elegance, and your cousin is the same age as you but looks far fitter and years younger. Why can’t you be more like THEM?
Because you’re not them. You’re YOU, and you’re freaking amazing exactly as you are.
How You Can Challenge And Overcome Feelings Of Worthlessness
Now that we’ve touched upon the factors that may contribute to feelings of worthlessness, let’s work on undoing that mindset. Let’s focus on what you can do in order to change your personal narrative and work toward recognizing how amazing you really are.
It is a good idea to seek professional help from one of the therapists at BetterHelp.com as professional therapy can be highly effective in helping you to stop feeling worthless.
Change the program.
One great thing about programming is that it can be changed. Think of it like removing certain programs or apps from electronics you’ve purchased. Just because they came loaded with certain things, or other people are suggesting—even expecting—that you keep certain programs on there, that doesn’t mean you have to do so.
Do you share your parents’ idea that someone only has worth if they have as many children as possible? Or spend their every waking moment slaving away at their job to accrue great monetary wealth? Whatever it is that they place value upon, if it isn’t of high importance to you, then let that go.
The things that matter most to you, and have greatest worth in your own eyes, are the things that you should be focusing on.
Do you want to live your life in humble service to others? Train night and day to be the strongest, fastest version of yourself possible? Write and publish a book (or three)? Cultivate beautiful gardens that will be cherished for generations?
Then do that.
Don’t let other people’s limited biases keep you from doing the things you love to do. If something has worth to you, but not to anyone else, then it’s their loss. Not yours.
Walk your own path regardless of what others may think.
What are traits that you admire and respect the most in others? Which vocations resonate with you on a soul-deep level? Who are your personal heroes, and why do you adore them so much? Furthermore, what would it take for you to be more like them?
We’ve already touched upon the options that you’d need to choose between with regard to living an authentic life. When every fiber of your being is screaming for freedom from the societal constraints around you, please listen.
Whenever we feel anxiety or depression about a topic, that’s our body and soul screaming at us that this isn’t the right option for us. Quite often, we’ll block those screams out and opt for a path that other people suggest will be better for us. This might be a more lucrative or highly regarded career path or a wealthy partner with whom we feel no connection.
These options might look appealing from the outside but will end up being hollow and joyless. Rather like a pie crust without any filling, to quote Geralt of Rivia.
In contrast, doing what you love, and what your soul calls for, will give you an immense sense of happiness and achievement. There is no guarantee that following a different career path will be more lucrative for you, especially if the job market falls apart or unforeseen circumstances prevent you from working in that field.
In contrast, living an authentic life that brings you joy will enrich and fulfill your life regardless of circumstances. When your life comes to an end, you can look back on your journey and smile, rather than feeling regret for the road not taken.
It’s close to impossible to feel worthless when your life is filled with joy and light.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Proverbs 13:12)
In addition to self-fulfillment, remember that some of the greatest and most famous people from the past were mocked and reviled while they were alive—simply for being true to their path and their beliefs—but are now revered for the legacy they left behind.
Jesus wasn’t exactly appreciated by those in power, and Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for daring to stick to his beliefs about cosmology (which turned out to be right, big surprise). Have you heard of the enslaved man named Onesimus who stopped a smallpox epidemic a century before vaccination was “officially” accepted? Ignaz Semmelweis dared to imply that hand washing saved lives and was killed for it, and even the Buddha was disliked and made fun of by many.
Do what you can with what you have available to you.
If your feelings of worth are inextricably linked with achievement, then create scenarios in which you can achieve something fairly easily. Since I fall into this category, I’ll give you an example from my personal repertoire.
Years ago, I had to put both my academic pursuits and my career on hold because of a severe illness. I ended up bedridden for several months during my convalescence, and felt like I was a worthless failure because I was so dependent on my partner and extended family. Instead of contributing financially, cooking, or cleaning, I couldn’t do much other than lie like a lump on the couch watching TV.
But do you know what I could do? I could knit.
So I took yarn donations from my social circle and got to work making clothes and accessories for people in need. I filled boxes to send to orphanages overseas, and more boxes were given to local homeless and women’s shelters. In turn, I received photos of smiling children who wouldn’t be cold that winter and letters of appreciation from the shelters.
My point here is that although I was filled with self-loathing for not being able to do or achieve what I had previously felt was important, I still had two great things to offer: my time and my skills.
If you can achieve something small with the energy and abilities you have available, then do so. You’ll get that happy dopamine rush when you check that item off your to-do list, and know that you’ve been able to pour some good into the world.
Recognize your inherent value as an individual simply because you exist.
Even though the tips mentioned above center around “doing stuff,” that doesn’t mean that you have to do anything in order to have value as a person.
You don’t need to contribute to society financially, nor perform any roles in particular to have immeasurable worth as a human being. Your value isn’t dependent on how much money you make, what your achievements may be, how able-bodied or attractive you are, or what kind of legacy you’ll leave behind.
Who you are in this exact moment is a person of great worth. You have awareness and perception rolling around in that brilliant mind of yours, and ideas that others would love to hear about. Your experience of the world is completely unique, and you have the ability to experience great joy and curiosity.
Nobody else will experience the same life that you do. They won’t marvel at the same perception of exquisite sunsets or perfect cool breezes on hot summer days. Furthermore, they likely won’t feel the same levels of bliss you do when you eat your favorite foods, spend time with furry or feathery friends, or simply contemplate the wonders of the universe.
You aren’t a human “doing,” you’re a human “being.” And that is enough.
Remove people from your life who don’t enhance your life.
The values and ideals that other people hold are exactly that: theirs. They don’t have to be yours. If those around you will only consider you to have value as a person if you look, behave, or achieve the things that they think are important, then consider cutting off communication with these folks.
They’ll never see you for who you really are. They will never see your worth, your intellect, your creative abilities, or any of the other, countless traits that make you a rather spectacular person. All you’ll ever get from them will be criticism and condemnation about your supposed shortcomings and inability to achieve what they consider to be your potential.
Unless you really enjoy being on the receiving end of their cruelty, you might want to keep your distance from them. Or, if removing them from your life completely isn’t an option because of familial obligations, you can put the “gray rock” technique to good use and simply ice them out. Spend as little time with them as humanly possible, and always have a place where you can retreat to if and when they get to be too much.
When you feel like socializing with others, choose to spend time with those who make you feel amazing—not just about yourself, but happy and inspired in general.
Do you have friends and acquaintances who share several of your interests? After spending time with them, do you feel happy and energized? Or drained and depressed? If the answer is more of the former than the latter, then you know who you should be spending more time with.
Spend time with animals.
This expands upon the previous tip about prioritizing time with those who enhance your life and who make you feel great when you’re in their company.
Animals are some of life’s greatest friends and companions. Not only are they fun, cuddly, and inspiring on even the grayest days, but they have an ability that few humans will ever have: the ability to love unconditionally.
Furthermore, if you have an animal companion living with you, that little creature is entirely dependent upon you for its continued wellbeing. Actually, its very life depends on you. The time you spend with it and the care you give it may be part of your day-to-day routine, but to that animal, you are the cornerstone of their life.
Without you, they wouldn’t have food or water. They wouldn’t have love, physical affection, companionship, playtime, nothing. You will never feel worthless if you are the entire world to another living being.
In turn, you’ll receive the aforementioned unconditional love, as well as loyalty, affection, and the immeasurable joy that comes from spending time with a creature who lives completely in the present moment and takes indescribable pleasure from the tiniest toy or treat.
If you can’t have a pet, then head out to a local park or forest and get to know some of the critters there. Feed some squirrels or chipmunks, or scatter seeds or corn for wild birds. If there’s a petting zoo nearby, go hug some donkeys or play with a few goats. You’ll be astonished to see how much better you feel afterward.
Use your struggles to propel you toward things that are important to you.
A close friend of mine was once homeless for the better part of a year due to circumstances beyond his control. Although some of his acquaintances tried to help out when they could, his mental and physical health suffered from this experience.
He was emaciated from lack of food and could barely move his body from hunger and malnutrition. As a result, he was looked down upon by many, and often mistreated by others.
That said, being homeless allowed him a lot of time to think and to consider what was truly important in his life. Since he had access to public libraries, he spent a great amount of time reading. In fact, he delved into a couple of topics that have always intrigued him, and managed to educate himself on these subjects enough that he was able to find employment in a related field.
Said employment offered room and board, so he was able to get his health back on track since he had secure shelter and regular meals. In addition to the books he kept reading, he was also able to get firsthand instruction in new skills from the people he worked with, thus expanding his repertoire.
After just a few years, his hard work and diligence paid off and put him in a position where he was able to start his own business. He now spends his days doing what he loves. He’s a healthy, strong athlete whose work benefits disadvantaged communities. And best of all, he helps those who are struggling in situations similar to what he experienced.
Even when people were swearing at him and spitting at him on a daily basis, he never let their negativity get to him. Instead, he used their naysaying as fuel and determination to get himself out of his circumstances to achieve the potential he knew he had.
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Are you familiar with the phrase “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps?” It commonly refers to a person’s ability to sort themselves out unassisted, rather than relying upon others.
In truth, however, the phrase is meant to be sarcastic: it’s actually impossible to pull oneself up to a standing position by tugging on the straps at the backs of their boots.
The phrase is usually meant to try to encourage folks to sort themselves out on their own, but you know what? More often than not, we can’t dig ourselves out of the pits we’re in without help from others.
When you’re in the throes of depression and despair, or dealing with poverty, hunger, or trauma, you won’t be in any position to drag yourself up out of the muck and mire all on your own. Trying to do so will be next to impossible.
In my friend’s situation mentioned above, he had help from several different sources so he could leave his awful circumstances and start a new life:
- Friends who fed him when they were able to scrounge enough to share
- Shelter managers who helped to find him a bed when they could
- Librarians who assisted him in finding the books he was looking for and gave him access to the computer lab so he could apply for jobs online
- The business owner and skilled laborers who saw his potential, gave him a chance at employment, and taught him some new skills
There were a few others who helped him along the way as well, and there are undoubtedly people who are willing and eager to help you too.
If you’re in a difficult place right now, know that there are always resources for you to draw from. In fact, there are undoubtedly groups and organizations that have been specifically created to help people who are dealing with exactly the things you’re contending with now.
Therapists, social workers, outreach programs, and faith-based communities are just a few of the resources you have available to you.
If your feelings of worthlessness stem from the effects of long-term abuse, and you feel that they’re hindering you from achieving all manner of things, then please don’t hesitate to reach out to a therapist or counsellor. They can help you work through the damage that’s been done so you can rebuild your self-esteem and move beyond the pain that’s holding you back.
BetterHelp.com is a website where you can connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.
While you may try to work through this yourself, it may be a bigger issue than self-help can address. And if it is affecting your mental well-being, relationships, or life in general, it is a significant thing that needs to be resolved.
Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.
Click here if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.
Similarly, if your feelings of worthlessness stem from illness or disability, look into programs that can help you and your family.
You might also be surprised to discover that you have a wealth of abilities that you didn’t even consider to be assets, but that you can use to make a difference in the world around you. Your very existence has worth in and of itself, but if you feel that you would have more confidence in yourself if you were doing something that you perceive to be important, then there is undoubtedly something that’s ideal for you.
You’re here for a reason, even if that reason hasn’t been revealed to you yet. It might be as simple as the universe wanting to experience existence through you, or you may have a part to play in something amazing. Just know that you are an extraordinary being simply because you exist.
You are seen. You are valued. And you are enough.
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