I don’t know when it really happened that I started to put all of my worth into the hands of boys, except that I’d probably been primed and ready for it for years.
I was a lonely kid who often felt misunderstood. My parents moved us from house to house, renovation to renovation, thinking it’d fix their bumpy marriage. I was taught how to behave with fear, humiliation and threats. Put simply, growing up, my sense of worth was low. Like many of us, I didn’t know how to feel genuinely good about my accomplishments, but I did know how to feel ashamed of my faults and imperfections. This kicked off a long-running struggle for worthiness. And as I got older, the way that this struggle for worthiness manifested itself in me – and the way that shame kept the cycle going – was in how I looked to boys to give me my value.
Brené Brown, a vulnerability and shame researcher, has written that when we don’t believe in our self-worth, we start looking for it elsewhere. We beg those around us to give us our value; we seek approval outside of ourselves.
Brown calls it “hustling for our worthiness.” And when it came to boys, oh, did I hustle.
In college, if I met a group of guys and one of them didn’t look twice at me, he became the one I wanted, and I wasn’t going to stop until I got him. If a guy was intrigued by me at first, but then suddenly seemed to lose interest or run away, I was willing to chase him for months, everything else in my life be damned. He was making off with my self-worth and I was hell-bent on getting it back. The less interested they were, the more I was willing to hustle.
Here’s something that I believe to be true about hustling for your worthiness: you look for the greatest challenge in obtaining it. Since you yourself don’t believe that you are enough, you look to the most distant, most uninterested of contenders to give you that validation. If you can convince someone who doesn’t see you as worth their time to change their mind – to end up loving and respecting you more than anyone you’ve ever known – well, then you must be worthwhile. You’ve won the approval of the impossible to win over! The ones who have nothing to give! You’ve made them ABLE to give. Yes, you most certainly must be of value.
When I did end up “getting” what I wanted, it was always empty. I did generally “get” these guys, in the sense that after some ridiculous pursuit, I was in their bed. But by the time I ended up in their bed I was already so ashamed of myself that whether I’d slept with them or not, I wouldn’t have been happy. I was a joke to them, sometimes less than human – and I knew that my actions hadn’t asked for anything better than this.
Most of the time, I’d go home in the morning and for an hour, be thrilled at how “fine” I was. I could totally do this, just like other girls! I could sleep with someone repeatedly without strings attached and be fine; I could sleep with someone who intentionally wouldn’t look at me the next morning and be fine; I could sleep with someone long after he’d lost interest in me and be fine; I could go back to an ex years later for a single night and be fine. Within an hour or so was generally when the panic attack set in.
Throughout all of this, I clung to the small number of people I’d slept with as an indicator that I was Good, not Bad. If I could be single for years, make it well into my 20s and still somehow be able to count the number of people I’d been with on one hand, I had to be Good. I was Good because I always waited for sex to be with someone who I truly wanted. I was Good because I’d frequently go a year without even kissing someone new, because it was all so important to me, because it wasn’t something that I knew how to throw away to a drunk stranger in a bar. I was Good because every guy who I’d been with, regardless of how they’d felt about me, I’d really cared about.
So each time I did something Bad – and in searching for my worth outside of myself, my choices inevitably fell under that category – I felt a wave of self-loathing for having let myself down, then did the mental gymnastics that we all do when shame is involved to convince myself that I was in fact Good. I made choices in other areas of my life to give my Good column the few extra points that it so badly needed. Though they were certainly available to me and the people I knew were doing it, I was adamant about never trying cocaine or even a cigarette. I was scared of them in some sense, but also, I liked that I’d never done them. I liked that word: “never.” Something about it – about me, I was convinced – was retaining innocence. Something about it screamed, “Look at how good I am! Treat me that way!”
One of those boys from my past once called me an “angel” in comparison to all of the other girls out there. Oh man, did I like that. To him that night, I was a rescuer, I was a saver; I was Good. But of course I didn’t show that I liked that he’d said that, just laughed awkwardly and shook my head in denial; when you’re hustling for your worthiness – when you’re looking for approval outside of yourself – and you finally get the thing you most want to hear, you don’t believe it, because how could you? How could someone else know something to be true about you that you don’t believe to be true of yourself? And thus the cycle for searching for our worthiness outside of ourselves proves to be broken and futile and vicious.
When the boys I’d chased dated girls after me who were the opposite of me – dominant, loud and fun in comparison to my shy, sensitive nature – I gathered that I was Bad. That to be shy and sensitive was Bad. That to be dominant, loud and fun was Good. So I did what anyone hustling for their worthiness would do: I tried to be someone who I wasn’t.
When shame comes into play, authenticity tends to go out the window. Because shame tells us that what we do and who we are and what we think are not good. So we often then work to change what we do and who we are and what we think, until we’re a version of ourselves that aligns with what those who we see being perceived as Good are doing and being and thinking. And while we might try to convince ourselves that we’ve now become Good, secretly yet loudly, our Bad column – our shame – is starting to overflow.
What I ended up having to do at the end of college was cut the part of my life off that I used as a means to hustle for my worthiness. No more boys, at least until I could figure out how to approach it from a healthy place. At first, this was likely motivated by my desperation to fill my Good column back up; I had hit rock bottom and I so painfully needed to climb out of that place that I looked to the opposite extreme. Like a bank account that had been withdrawn well below zero, I needed to make some deposits before I even thought about taking anything more out. But over time it became something different, less about Good and Bad and more about growth and self-compassion: I was starting to do things for myself, be kind to myself and stand up for myself.
Would I say that I’m a fully healthy person now? Likely not. I recently told someone who isn’t speaking to me that I love him; that seems to merit some consideration. But whereas before, I would’ve let that knock a few points onto my Bad column, I’ve grown to understand that it doesn’t make me Good or Bad or anything in between to get one kind of response or another from someone. That to put my worth into the hands of anyone other than myself is setting myself up for a lot of unhappiness. That to take these things personally – to turn inward and make others’ actions a reflection of my worthiness – unfairly takes on an egocentric approach to the world, denying the existence of others’ realities and struggles as a motivator for their own choices.
It’s only been through spending a lot of time with myself – taking myself on dates, learning to genuinely enjoy time spent alone, figuring out and honouring what it is that I really like to do and be and think – that I’ve learned to understand my worth and embrace my authenticity. At the end of the day, the belief in one’s value has to come from within. As I learned through all the boys who I once looked to for my own sense of self, you can hustle until hell freezes over – and still no one but you will be able to give you your worth.