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  • Writer's pictureHeather Cowie

Never Enough - tips for anyone struggling with self-worth

Updated: May 6

Man sat head in hands feeling worthless

It can be really tough when you don’t feel good enough. You strive so hard to get there, but it’s never enough. It’s always just tantalisingly out of reach.


If I could just get this promotion. If I could only be thinner, run faster or please people better. Then I would be ok. I would feel ok about myself. I would feel good enough. People would like me more. I’d be happier. But of course, we never get to the finish line. When we achieve the promotion, there’s another one to aim for. I can never be thin enough, fast enough and people are just never satisfied. Even if I reach my achievements there’s always more. And even then, I still don’t feel good enough.


As humans we are all imperfect, so achieving perfection is impossible.


But still we try. On and on, in the relentless delusion that if we just keep striving we will get there. I’m reminded of the Greek legend of the god Sisyphus, punished by Zeus, who forces him to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity. Every time he gets to the top of the hill the boulder rolls back down. In the same way, we keep toiling but our task is impossible.


The task is impossible because external validations will never make us feel good enough, because it’s not really about our qualifications or our weight or what others think of us. It’s about how we feel inside and how we feel inside is pretty rubbish. Feeling not good enough as a person is a horrible thing to feel. It brings great shame. And shame wants to be kept hidden. 


Our toil helps keep our worthless self hidden.


It keeps us busy so we don’t have to face it. Rather than pushing boulders up hills like Sisyphus, our toil might look like taking on a lot at work, being strong emotionally, coping on our own, pleasing people, helping others, earning accolades and qualifications. Sometimes the most seemingly high achievers are the most insecure of their worth. It is the fear of not being good enough that keeps them striving for excellence.


Just like Sisyphus, something always comes along to spoil our quest for perfection and get that ball rolling back down the hill again. We fail at something, get something wrong, mess up. We are late, drop the ball, get criticised. It can even be when we achieve something - when we get to the top of the hill but actually realise we don’t know where to go now. We have to go back and start again. 


All these situations can activate intense emotions as our shame risks being exposed; fear, panic, wretchedness, sadness, desperation, restlessness, despair, hopelessness. We feel our worthlessness so intensely in these moments it can be all consuming. At these times we feel so awful but unable to think clearly and rationalise due to the panic of our worthlessness being exposed.


How to overcome the feelings of worthlessness


What we need to do is look inside rather than outside. We need to go inside ourselves and find the hurt that has caused this feeling of “not good enough” and heal it. This is a process not an event. This can be a difficult and painful process, that counselling can help you work through. 


Each person is different, but here are 4 key things you can do to work through this process:


1. Develop self-awareness


Taking time to reflect and realise what is going on for you can make a big difference. Once you realise what is happening it is easier to step back from the feelings. You can lift your head up from the boulder and look around. Notice what you are doing and what is really going on. 


Sisyphus didn’t have a choice - he was forced to push this boulder by Zeus. But no one is forcing us to push boulders other than ourselves. You can make the decision to stop seeking perfection, and learn how to be imperfect. Examine your life and see where you toil is and what impossible tasks you are setting yourself that are perpetuating your feelings of worthlessness.


2. Examine past experiences


This can help you to see where your feelings may have come from. This allows you when triggered into an emotional response to have the awareness that this is really a past feeling coming up, rather than a present one.


Abusive relationships, for example, either in childhood or as adults can destroy self worth. The put downs and personal comments make you feel worthless and ashamed of who you are. Also, the abuser demands you put their needs first, so yours become less important. You become less important. Over time you forget what your needs are and you lose the ability to even know what you want anymore. 


You don’t have to have suffered in an abusive relationship, however, to have low self-esteem. Either intentionally or unintentionally our parents and society can send us messages that we need to be a certain way to be loved. We can then internalise this as not being a good enough person. 


In all these cases, examining the past allows you to find the wounded self and its origins.


3. Feel the feelings


In order to heal we need to feel the feelings. Our brains express emotions in order to maintain balance. This completes the events of the past and puts us into the present. Tears for example, release stressful chemicals that build up during upset. If we are not allowed to feel, however, the emotional energy is frozen and we can’t integrate the experience and get back to an equilibrium.


Unfortunately, repression and shaming of emotions, although perhaps shifting slightly now, has been the rule in the Western world for many years. Boys in particular have been told not to cry, that emotions are not to be felt or talked about. So, it can be really uncomfortable to feel emotions, such as sadness for example. We can often keep them in or deny them and so not heal the pain.


With the right counsellor, who you feel comfortable with, you can be encouraged to express these emotions and let them go, in a safe, non judgmental space.


4. Learn self compassion rather than self-esteem.


Self compassion is different to self-esteem in that self-esteem is about comparison, asking “am I special and above average?” and “how do I compare to others.” Whereas, self-compassion is more about saying, “life is difficult for everyone. Everyone's imperfect, but through recognizing my imperfections I can embrace my humanity and feel more connected to others.”


Research suggests that self-compassion provides greater emotional resilience and stability than self-esteem. You do not have to be successful or feel superior to others in order to experience positive feelings about yourself. In fact, self-compassion is relevant precisely when you feel inadequate.


It can be incredibly freeing to say I’m not perfect but that’s ok. I can admit my faults and still be loveable.


Counselling can help


Like most things, self compassion is something you learn over time rather than a quick fix. Working with a counsellor on how to develop this can be really helpful. The right counsellor can help you open up and reveal the painful truth of your feelings. To express the emotions that need to be expressed. Counselling can help you recover your self worth, to be able to say “I’m not perfect but I am good enough”.


I can’t remember where I found this quote, but I came across it the other day written in a journal and it is such a lovely thing to read in times of worthlessness. Please read it and try to be kind to yourself.


“Your worth is something inherent. You exist and therefore you matter. You’re allowed to voice your thoughts and feelings. You’re allowed to assert your needs and take up space. You’re allowed to hold on to the truth that who you are is exactly enough.”


This is a subject I help clients with, so if you’d like to learn more about how we can work together, get in touch. I work online throughout the UK, at the Dragonfly Well-being Centre in Plymouth and the Wellness Rooms in Tavistock.


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