A Quest to Stabilize My Self Worth
A year ago, I went through a period of depression and it was the most difficult time in my life. After I gathered enough courage to “come out” in public that I, someone who “always” has her sh*t together, was depressed, I received so many heart-warming messages. Friends I haven’t talked to for ages and even strangers opened up to me about their struggles with mental health. One of them even joked that everyone they know is clinically depressed.
Crawling out of Depression
In this Mental Health Awareness Month, I dedicate this essay, which I gathered so much vulnerability to write, to not…
Behind the exaggeration, there is some sobering truth to that statement. 15% of those in their late teens and early 20s in the US have experienced major depression (source). If we scope the data to coastal cities, based on personal experience, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number is closer to 50%. The number is just trending upward by the year. There is clearly something wrong here.
Motivated by the desire never to experience depression again, I am looking inward to find out the root cause of my depression. What I found that my struggles over the past years come from confusing the egoistic self, which is external-based and unstable, as my real self, which ought to be internal and stable. Since my sense of self is not stable, I am constantly frightened of losing control of what’s most intimate to me — my self.
This essay is my quest to stabilize my self worth. What I realized is that I have to shift from deriving self worth from external validation to internal validation. In Aristotle’s words, it means to “live in accordance with your values”. I need to stop chasing results and start faithfully follow the process to be good, to myself and to the world.
I secretly hope this realization can point a way out for this collective depressive episode society is experiencing. You can let me know if I am on the right track.
Your coastal 20-something archetype
- Middle class
- Graduated from a well-known university
- On a prestigious track: big company (tech, consulting, finance), VC, hot startup, starting a company etc
- Constantly working, hustling, socializing, networking: there is no time to waste, sleep is for dead people.
- Their social media profile is the one in which they were “giving a talk”. Their Facebook wall is full of “congratulations” messages.
- Those in big companies want to make directors in 5 years and retire early; those in VC want to make it to HBS then partner someday; those in hot startups aspire to cash out on some big bucks and run their own company someday; those already starting a company want a successful exit and become billionaires. If not exactly these, then some combination. They are ambitious kids, wanting to make it before turning 30.
Am I “Old and Unaccomplished”?
This essay explores this modern day anxiety, the fear of being “old and unaccomplished”. I have fallen victim to it…
Ask them “what’s your biggest fear”, this is what you would hear:
- I won’t make enough “impact” in the world
- I am not good enough, I don’t measure up
- I am just ordinary
- I’m running out of time
- I’ve become jaded
- I won’t be successful enough, I am nobody
We are self-important, self-absorbed. We believe we are special. We are going to single-handedly change the world.
The ego is screaming for attention: feed me more, feed me more…
Tame the ego
The biggest dissonance every human faces is between “you are special” and “you are totally average”. Growing up, my parents told me how special I was. I collected social validation: becoming valedictorian, attending top universities, getting desirable jobs. Success after success confirms that I am indeed extraordinary. Along the way, these external events became internalized as something about me. There is something about me that makes me a successful individual.
It boosted my self-confidence, which allowed me to thrive in a society that rewards confident individuals, only inflating the ego as a side effect. Who cares?! Well, I didn’t care until the “low” bites. When things aren’t going well, following the same logic, it’s also because of me. There is something wrong with me. I am not enough. I am trash.
Pause. Is it really me all along? Not really. Any occurrence, success or failure, is the result of my interaction with the world. As much as I want to control the outcome, I simply cannot control it fully. Then why do I fully credit success to myself?
In a culture of “self-made billionaires”, can we credit any success fully to an individual? Looking inward, what truly belongs to me seems to be my personality, my values, and my knowledge. I can perhaps credit myself for having moderate social intelligence, acceptable cognitive abilities, an open mind, and positive values like hard work. Some of these are personality traits that I inherited from my parents’ genes. I am predisposed to a lot of things, maybe even depression. I won’t know until decades of scientific research later.
But genetic predispositions don’t singularly determine anything; there is the gene’s interaction with the environment. I certainly got lucky here. I come from a middle-class household in China. I have educated parents who believe in education and poured tons of resources in me. They supported my wild ideas and allowed me to leave China, run a startup in Mexico, and travel around India. I had altruistic donors supporting me financially so that I could study at top institutions in the world. From a bag of genes, I have grown to be the person I am after collecting so many character-shaping experiences. None of this is just my own doing. I am a lucky individual.
For anyone who has achieved any bit of success in their lives, we are fundamentally ordinary people who have gotten lucky with our genes, upbringing, education, social relations, even country of origin. There is nothing extraordinary about us.
It’s good to sober up.
Where does my self worth come from?
While thinking about it, I was struck by how strange of a concept “self worth” is. As an individual, should I be assigned a value like a piece of clothing? What currency am I evaluated on?
I know today my self worth comes from external outcomes. I am what happens to me. I evaluate my worth based on other people’s approval and the conventional standard of success. As a result, my self worth is off the roof today, non-existent tomorrow. The rollercoaster rolls on.
To break the cycle, I know I need to start evaluating myself based on my own approval. Would I feel proud of myself, regardless of what happens to me?
Internalize self worth
I realized I can only begin to take genuine pride in myself if I can stand for what I believe in, after I have examined what I choose to believe in to my best ability. In other words, virtual theory dating back to Aristotle: live in accordance with your values.
How is internalized self worth more stable? I think the stability comes from “following the process, not the outcome”. I have full control over whether I follow a process, but never full control over the outcome. As long as I continue to examine my values and act on these values, I will know that I am on the right track: I will be living my life the way I want to, without dissonance.
What’s the process?
1. Figure out my core values. What do I believe in?
Find my top 5 values from last year in this post:
Understand your core values — Value Worksheet
I was told we are the happiest when we follow our values, which requires us to know our values first. I made a value…
2. What actions can I take to embody these values?
Aristotle says a good life has to be an active life. We can’t just think in our heads; we have to act. For example, if I value sustainability, can I commit to veganism someday, can I buy second-hand clothing only, can I take 5min showers, can I cut unnecessary trans-Pacific business travel? If I value social impact, can I set up a monthly donation to the most effective charities? If I value knowledge, can I read 20 pages every day?
Why I became a vegetarian
It was Dec 31, 2017, the first day of my meditation retreat. I thought I was only going meatless for 10 days, not…
You might challenge me now: why the need to control your life? Why not just go with the flow? Why do you need a source of self worth? Why even have a self? These are questions for me to continue to ponder.
I’ve been trained my whole life to seek external validation, to go after success and approval. As a result, my egoist self ran the show and I lived a life of suffering and discontentment. It strikes me now that I need to start doing the groundwork to build a stable foundation for my real self, and hopefully, it can start steering the ship that’s my life. Internalizing self worth is extremely difficult, even counterintuitive. It’s not as immediately gratifying because there won’t be someone giving me thumbs up constantly and I might doubt if I am doing the right thing. But I trust the process. I know that, as long as I continue to examine my values and live in accordance with them, I can’t go wrong. I trust that the process will lead to a good life, one my authentic self chooses to embrace. Life is already getting simpler and freer; I can feel it.
Thanks Amy Shen, Angela Kong & Kelsey Wang for the edits!
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