60. Your work is not your worth

Uncategorized Sep 09, 2020

I have a dreaded time with the assumption that my work is tied to my personal worth. 

Others who've expressed the same sentiment are: fitness and nutrition coaches, massage therapists, barbers, corporate managers, realtors, and parents. 

The following is an excerpt from the book 'Feeling Good' by Dr. David Burns. I made slight modifications where I saw fit to make it relatable to my readers but otherwise I claim none of this as my own. 

The assumption goes like this: "My worth as a human being is proportional to what I accomplish in my work life."

This attitude is at the core of Western culture and the Protestant work ethic. It seems innocent but is in fact self-defeating, grossly inaccurate and malignant. 

It is fairly common for men to be preoccupied with their achievements. Women are not immune but they tend to get depressed more over loss of love or approval. Men are vulnerable to career concerns because they have been programmed since childhood to base their worth on their achievements. 

The first step in changing any of your personal values is determining if it works for you or against you. Deciding that it doesn't help to measure your worth by what you produce is the crucial first step in changing your philosophy. A good exercise to complete is a simple cost benefit analysis.

Yes, there can be some advantage to equating your self esteem with your accomplishments. You can say, "I'm okay" and feel good about yourself when you have achieved something. For example, if you win a golf match you can pat yourself on the back and feel a little smug and superior to your opponent because he missed his last putt. When you go running with a buddy and he runs out of breath before you do you can pull yourself up with pride and say "He's a great friend for sure, but I'm just a little better!" If you make a big sale at work you can say to yourself "I'm producing today. I'm good at my job. My boss will be pleased and I can respect myself." Essentially, your work ethic allows you to feel you've earned personal worth and the right to feel happy. 

This type of belief system may make you very motivated to produce. You might put extra effort into your career because you're convinced this will give you extra worthiness units and therefore you will see yourself as a more desirable person. In this way you can avoid the horror of 'being average.' Put simply, you may work harder to win, and when you win you may like yourself better. 

Looking at the other side of the coin, what are the disadvantages of your philosophy that "worth equals achievement?" First, if your business or career is going well you might become so preoccupied with it that you might inadvertently cut yourself off from other potential sources of satisfaction and enjoyment as you slave away from early morning to late night. As you become more and more of a workaholic, you will feel excessive drive to produce because if you fail to keep up the pace, you will experience a severe withdrawal characterized by inner emptiness and despair. In the absence of achievement, you'll feel worthless and bored because you'll have no other basis for self respect and fulfillment. 

Suppose as a result of illness, business reversal, retirement, or some other factor beyond your control, you find you are unable to produce at the same high level for a period of time. (Does this sound like 2020 to anyone else?) Now you may pay the price of a severe depression, triggered by the conviction that because you are less productive it means you are no good. You'll feel like a tin can that's been used and is now ready for the trash. Your lack of self-esteem might even culminate in a suicide attempt, the ultimate payment for measuring your worth exclusively by the standards of the marketplace. Do you want this? Do you need this? 

There may be other prices to pay. If your family suffers from your neglect, a certain resentment may build up. For a long time they may hold it in, but sooner or later you'l get the bill. Your wife has been having an affair and is talking about divorce. Your fourteen year old son has been arrested for theft. When you talk with him he snubs you: "Where have you been all these years, Dad?" Even if these unfortunate development do not happen to you, you will still have one great disadvantage - your lack of true self - esteem. Which is not governed by your work outputs. 

Dr. Burns treated a very successful businessman. He claimed to be one of the top money earners in the world in his profession. Yet he was victimized by episodic states of fear and anxiety. What if he should fall off the pinnacle? What if he had to give up his Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and drive a Chevrolet instead? That would be unbearable! Could he survive? Could he still love himself? He doesn't know if he could find happiness without the glamour or glory. His nerves are constantly on edge because he can't answer these questions. What would your answer be? Would you still respect and love yourself if you experienced a substantial failure? 

As with any addiction, you will find that greater and greater doses of your 'upper' will be needed in order to become 'high.' This tolerance phenomenon occurs with heroine, alcohol, and sleeping pills. It also happens with riches, fame, and success. Why? Perhaps because you automatically set your expectations higher and higher once you have achieved a particular level. The excitement quickly wears off. Why doesn't the aura last? Why do you keep needing more and more? The answer is obvious: success does not guarantee happiness. The two are not identical and are not causally related. So you end up chasing a mirage. Since your thoughts are the true key to your moods and not success, the thrill of victory fades quickly. The old achievements soon become old hat - you begin to feel sadly bored and empty as you stare at you trophy case. 

If you do not get the message that happiness does not reliably and necessarily follow from success, you may work even harder to recapture the feeling you once had from being on top. This is the basis for your addiction to work. 

Many individuals seek guidance or therapy because of the disillusionment that begins to dawn on them in their middle or later years. Eventually these questions may confront you as well: What's my life all about? What's the meaning of it all? You may believe your success makes you worthwhile, but the promised payoff seems elusive, just beyond your grasp. 

As you read the above paragraphs, you may suspect that the disadvantages of being a success junkie outweighs the advantages. But you may still believe it is basically true that people who are super- achievers are more worthwhile - the big shots seem "special" in some way. You may be convinced that true happiness, as well as the respect of others, comes primarily from achievement. But is this really the case? 

In the first place consider the fact that most human beings are not great achievers, yet most people are happy and well respected. In fact, one could say that the majority of the people in the United States are loved and happy, yet by definition most of them are pretty much average. Thus, it cannot be the case that happiness and love come only through great achievement. Depression, like the plague, is no respecter of status and strikes those who live in fancy neighborhoods as often - if not more frequently - as it does those of average or below-average means. Clearly, happiness and great achievement have no necessary connection. 

Your work is NOT your worth.

*****

I share this with you because it helped me and more than a couple clients I've shared it with too. 

Check out Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by Dr. David Burns

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