Chapter 1: What’s Really Going On
When Jeffrey came into my office, he appeared to be on a path to success. He was well-spoken, dressed impeccably in a coordinating dress shirt and tie, was well-organized, and projected an air of confidence. He had recently made a career change and had started working for a nonprofit. Fueled by a passion for serving others, Jeffrey threw himself into his work from the moment he started his job. He booked his days full with meetings and projects and stayed up late to answer emails, return phone calls, and plan for the next day. His dedication was admired by his coworkers and bosses.
To the outside observer, Jeffrey seemed to have his life under control. But under the put-together image was another story.
Jeffrey was frustrated by the nagging sense that he wasn’t doing enough. His work wasn’t bringing him the fulfillment he thought it would. Instead of experiencing a sense of peace in his work, where he was serving people in need, he felt like he could never do enough to meet his own expectations. He relentlessly pushed himself to become even more involved in his work, operating on very little sleep and feeling perpetually exhausted. “Why do I feel so inadequate if I am doing all of this good work to serve others?” he wondered. If you asked Jeffrey why he threw himself into his work to the point of burnout, he would tell you it was because he saw the great needs in the population he was serving. But deep down, something else was happening.
Over time, Jeffrey came to realize that underneath his hard work and put-together appearance, he didn’t really like himself. And it was easier for Jeffrey to ignore this uncomfortable reality by filling his days and nights with work (for a good cause, of course), rather than paying attention to his own needs. He hoped his work could prove to others that he was worth something even if he didn’t believe it himself. So he neglected himself and threw himself into his work. At his core, he didn’t believe he was worth taking care of.
This belief translated into dangerous habits of neglect. He ignored his own needs because he didn’t believe his well-being was a priority. He was not getting enough sleep, not eating properly, not exercising regularly (instead he would exercise intensely in short bursts, then go through long stretches of not exercising), and neglecting friendships and personal relationships. He suffered from depression and anxiety, and, without the protective buffer that self- care provides, his symptoms worsened. Jeffrey’s work had become a way for him to bury his deep-seated dislike of himself, and it came at a cost. His mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health suffered, as well as his relationships.
Like Jeffrey, my friend Anna also didn’t believe she was worth taking care of, though she expressed it in a different way. While Jeffrey was driven and motivated, Anna drifted from degree to degree and job to job, never really sure what she wanted to do. She switched her major in college many times and wound up pursuing a master’s degree in a field completely unrelated to her undergraduate major. She quickly grew tired of each new job she tried and expressed frustration when it didn’t bring her the sense of fulfillment and purpose she was looking for. She would be quick to embrace the latest trend but would also be just as quick to drop it for the next. She never felt confident in herself and her abilities.
Her feeling of being adrift also showed up in her relationships. She often took a very passive role, dating men with strong personalities who dictated the tone of the relationship. There were many times where her friends were concerned that she was compromising her values for the sake of the relationship. Anna, on the other hand, wasn’t concerned about the way she was living her life. She found it easier to ignore the feelings of inadequacy she experienced by constantly searching for something new and fulfilling with the hope that the new thing she threw herself into would provide her with the sense of worth she was so desperately seeking.
Both Jeffrey and Anna didn’t like themselves very much, though they expressed it in different ways. Neither believed in their own inherent worth, so they neglected to take care of themselves. Jeffrey buried his self-dislike beneath his busy schedule and skimped on sleep, exercise, and proper nutrition, while Anna hid from her low self-esteem by seeking affirmation in unhealthy relationships.
Worth the Effort
Believe it or not, their struggles are not unusual. While not everyone experiences feelings of low self-worth to the degree that Jeffrey and Anna did, many of us are constantly fighting to ignore a nagging voice in our heads that whispers this lie: “You aren’t enough.”
The busy mom who refuses to make time for herself … the overwhelmed college student who believes not earning straight A’s isn’t an option … the business professional who stays late at work and doesn’t make time for relationships … at their core, all share the same struggle: They have a difficult time embracing their own self-worth.
Like Jeffrey and Anna, most of us grapple at some level with the belief that we are unworthy. We deal with it in different ways, often trying to ignore it by burying ourselves in our work, our volunteering efforts, our relationships, etc. We operate under the belief that if we work hard enough and long enough, push ourselves enough, we’ll prove to others and ourselves that we are worth something.
Yet this relentless quest to prove our worth is unfulfilling — we never feel enough. All we feel is exhausted, overwhelmed, and inadequate. For many of us, in our fight to prove our worth, we forget to treat ourselves in a way that shows we are worthy of love. Though we are desperately trying to prove to others that we are worth something, the way we treat ourselves betrays what we really think of ourselves. While we might think we’re being heroic or virtuous (or we’re just too busy), when we neglect basic habits of self-care, the message we’re really enforcing for ourselves is, “I’m not worth the effort.”
The truth is, you will never be able to “prove” to yourself or to anyone else that you are enough. And that’s because you don’t have to. Yes, really, it’s true. It’s paradoxical, but the harder you try to prove you are worth something — whether or not you realize that’s what you’re doing — the worse you’ll feel. Your work, your ministry, even your vocation cannot and will not give you meaning and worth, no matter how much you throw yourself into them. Why? Because the simple fact is, you are looking in all the wrong places. You are enough. The very fact that you exist means that you are worthy of love.
To dig ourselves out of the lie that we have to prove our worth, we need to start living like we believe we are worthy. That means learning to live by the discipline (because yes, it’s a real discipline) of self-care. It’s okay to love yourself. In fact, you should!
And before you object, saying, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” or “Taking care of yourself is self-indulgent and a waste of time,” hear me out: As Christians we believe that God has a purpose for us. He calls us to something greater and more meaningful. He calls us to be stewards not only of the other people he’s put in our lives, but also of ourselves — of the body, mind, and talents he’s given us, that make us who we are. And that’s where self-care comes in. Only when we take care of ourselves can we offer our best selves when we go out into the world to serve others in whatever way God has called us to.
Self-care is anything but self-indulgent. In fact, it can be hard work to take care of ourselves. It’s hard to go to bed on time when you’re binge-watching your favorite TV series, and even harder to drag yourself to the gym when you’d rather sleep in. But it’s worth the effort. You are worth the effort.
Taking better care of yourself starts with baby steps, simple adjustments in your daily patterns of acting, speaking, and even thinking. It won’t happen overnight, but as you begin to build these habits, over time I can promise you will experience the sense of peace and fulfillment you’ve been missing from your life.
Remember, you are worth it!