A developmental perspective
The issue of self-worth is so important to me. For years I understood it was my primary karma and the sole reason I came here to this lifetime. It took me a very long time to work that out because as a child I learned that I had absolutely no worth at all. I was told over and over again what a dreadful child I was. How my being born had ruined my mother’s life. How much she wished I had never been born. I was actively instructed to be seen and not heard, to speak only when spoken to. Transgressions were handled with physical punishment and emotional abuse. In order to keep myself safe, I learned to adopt a silent, invisible demeanour. My dad’s approach was anything for a quiet life. If that meant throwing the children under the bus to appease mother’s anger or righteous indignation then so be it. Many an afternoon I was put to bed in my nightgown as punishment for something I had done to displease her and as soon as my dad came home from work he was instructed to “go in and give her what for”. The smack had to be real and it had to leave marks, she would check. I grew up with no sense of self-worth at all.
To present a balanced picture of my upbringing it is important to tell you that my mother suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness and was plagued by auditory hallucinations coupled with a massive persecution complex. We only found out when she was in her eighties that she had a condition called paraphrenia. The symptoms had started the day I was born in dramatic fashion during an emergency situation. In her mind, my arrival signalled the end of life as she knew it and her hallucinations drove her to punish me as much as she could get away with, without attracting too much attention from outside the home. It took me decades of introspection and journey work to achieve that understanding and to chip away the scars and the damage that situation caused. I do believe she did the absolute best she could in her limited capacity and I have completely made my peace with her. It was necessary to do so to find my own sense of worth.
So, what is this self-worth and why is it so important? Quite simply self-worth is a sense of your own value. This is not to be confused with self-value which is more about how you act in accordance with that worth. There is also self-esteem, which is thinking well of yourself. Someone with a healthy self-worth will know without a doubt that they have value, that they are loveable, that they are a necessary part of life and, most importantly they do not need external validation to support that knowing.
How does one acquire a sense of self-worth? From our primary caretakers. If for some reason our primitive needs as an infant are not adequately or sufficiently met, we are left feeling vulnerable or perhaps fearful. Self-worth is decreased in the face of childhood trauma and fear, and this leads to a fundamental misunderstanding about who we are. Smothering love can have the same effect on a child who may feel like since they are never allowed to, they can do nothing for themselves. This leaves them feeling unworthy or unsure of their own value. All of this happens unconsciously at a time in life when we are developmentally unable to discern for ourselves what is what.
Let’s take a look at the development of the brain to understand this better. The most primitive aspect of our brain, the reptilian brain, is part of our subconcious mind. It controls the body’s vital autonomic such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. Our reptilian brain includes the brainstem and the cerebellum. It is reliable but tends to be somewhat rigid and compulsive. It will therefore imprint trauma with a permanence that will dominate its future. It understands images rather than language, which is why visualisation is such a useful tool for dealing with problems rooted in this area. This part of the brain dominates at birth.
The limbic brain is involved in learning, memory and emotion. Its records memories of behaviours that resulted in either agreeable or disagreeable experiences. This is why repetition is such a powerful tool when teaching children, or indeed any age group. A positive experience repeated often, will create a positive record. The same is true of a negative or disagreeable experience. The limbic brain is responsible for us feeling emotions such as excitement, pleasure, anger, fear, sadness, joy, disgust, shame and so on. The main structures of the limbic brain are the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus. The limbic brain is the seat of our values and exerts a strong influence on our behaviour.
The neocortex with its two large cerebral hemispheres, is where we process conscious thought and self-awareness. It is also where we develop language, abstract thought, imagination, and problem solving. It has an almost infinite learning ability. Logical thinking though, is not apparent until around the age of six or seven. This is why you will never win an argument with a toddler. They simply lack the cognitive ability to reason and they will hit you with a wall of emotion (limbic response) to make their position known to you.
If we experience an occasional trauma, our brain will trigger an emotional response that in essence releases or minimises the effects of the trauma. Tears are a good way of releasing trauma. Ongoing painful experiences though, can actually engrave new circuits in the brain. When this happens, we become primed to feel trauma in response to something that another person might not even notice. This hypersensitivity can be dangerous, but it does support the theory that once a core wound is set up in childhood, it creates an overly sensitive filter, shaping subsequent events. If we are harbouring a childhood wound and we experience something similar as an adult, both the new and the childhood responses are triggered, thus magnifying the experience. If we do not work with our original trauma, because we are either unaware it is there, or we have been taught to inhibit ourselves to be found acceptable to our caretakers or teachers, we learn to numb out or bury the response. This unresolved emotion that cannot be expressed as, for example, grief, might well lead to acting out or acting in, and the accompanying behavioural problems. We are set up for a lifetime of over-reacting to triggers that to an emotionally healthy person may in fact be totally insignificant. Since energy cannot be destroyed, and we have not allowed this energy (these emotions) to be transmuted to understanding, they are repressed and stored safely for us by our shadow self.
Symptoms of low self-worth can be anything from people pleasing to overt aggression; extreme shyness to excessively controlling behaviours; feeling numb to experiencing out of control emotions; anxiety, fearfulness, cutting, substance abuse, sexual deviance, bullying, avoidance behaviours… anything really that shows up as a struggle in your life. Anyone with a reduced sense of their own worth or value would be well advised to explore their relationship with their past to find out at what point they took on the thinking that they were not enough or were too much; that they were too big or too small for the life they were born into. We will discuss this in much greater detail in due course.
As always, I offer you my understanding of things. I encourage you at all times to question and decide for yourself what you want to accept and onboard. I’m always interested to hear your opinions and I encourage feedback. However, it is essential to understand this vital truth as we journey together:
“We don’t have to agree on a single thing to be kind to one another”.
So, disagree with me by all means, own your different perspective, but know that bullying or shaming are not acceptable in my world. I truly believe that only once we learn to celebrate our differences, can we fully embrace our similarities.
Listen with EMpathy,
and EMbolden yourself to dream.
As you EMerge from your learned way of being,
celebrate as you EMbrace your full potential.
As you EMancipate yourself from your limitations,
you EMpower yourself to live with greater clarity and joy!
Until next time when I shall introduce you to the shadow self, be kind to one another and honour yourself as the unique and incredibly special soul that you are
© Copyright 2020 – Janice Melmed