The vital importance of feeling worthy.
My husband does not believe in New Year’s Resolutions. He believes that if you want to make a change, you should make it in that moment and not wait for a calendar month to turn over. While I tend to agree, I spend a lot more time on reflection as the calendar rolls over. That has been no exception in the opening weeks of 2017. Last year was more about my self-worth than my net worth, but there are some surprising ways that these things are related.
Just as we each have our own relationships with money, we also create ideas about how much we are worth. This idea of worth can be realistic, overly optimistic, or limiting and potentially damaging. It affects us in many facets of our life. We may feel we have a great sense of worth as a parent, but are not desirable as a romantic partner. We might overestimate how lovely we are to have as a neighbor, but underestimate our potential in our professional careers. We might feel like God’s gift to our siblings or friends, but feel less worthy when we consider how we have treated our parents. In 2016, some professional milestones forced me to acknowledge my own deep and limiting ideas about my value.
I was mostly raised by a single father in a trailer park where many families (including ours at times) lived in poverty. Comparatively, we were well off: My dad had a good paying job as a concrete worker that kept food on the table for most of my youth. When I was in elementary school, my hardworking father was injured in an accident at work. While he surprised the first responders who came to his aid by surviving the accident plus the 8-hour surgery that pieced him back together, the years that followed were not easy.
After his accident, we lived on a modest income provided by worker's compensation until my dad recovered enough to be considered rehabilitated by the state. “Rehabilitated” meant my father was capable enough to return to work at a minimum wage job washing dishes. Dishwasher wages did not cover the house payment and utilities (even in our low-priced neighborhood) and the work caused him great pain, but my dad was not one to complain. He pulled his work boots back on and, despite the pain from his injuries, began climbing his way back up the blue-collar career ladder from the bottom.
In the meantime, money was tight. I recall an elaborate system my dad used to make ends meet during the leanest weeks. Like any normal shopping trip, he'd write a check to cover groceries. The next day, he'd purchase a few more groceries by check and request cash back. The additional cash would be immediately deposited into the bank to cover the cost of the previous day’s groceries. Sometime the steps would be repeated a number of times, with ever increasing cash back amounts, in order to keep us fed until payday. There were no vacations, new clothes, or any extras really to speak of, but I didn’t mind. My dad took us on lots of outdoor adventures, and my home life was much more stable than what many of my friends experienced.
My expectations about my future working life were modest.
I failed to follow through on college three times (yes, three times!). When I finally returned, it was with the ambition to do some kind of good in the community and provide a yard for my small son to play in. My first quarter back at school, I took a political science class and knew immediately I needed to work in public service. With that goal in mind, I earned an associate degree and then my bachelor's in short order. Last year, I finished my Masters in Public Administration with great grades and high praise from the city manager who supervised my final project.
My education alone did not make me feel professionally valuable. Neither did the praise from the community or council members that I worked with over the years. Overall, any success I found at work, including promotions and raises, felt like incredible luck (luck that could run out at any moment) rather than things that I had earned through ability and hard work.
About a year and a half ago, I took a more specialized job for a slightly larger city. After less than 18 months in the field, I was asked to sit on a national conference’s opening panel alongside national experts and co-facilitate a workshop for cities, counties, and states who wanted to start up the kind of program I created. The following month, a national non-profit wrote an in-depth review of the program I run, calling it a model for similarly sized cities. Then, a national organization asked if they could fly me out to speak on a panel at their annual conference. While there was no speaking fee (I appeared on the panel in the course of my work as a public servant), my airfare, hotel, and other expenses were covered in exchange for being one of four speakers on the panel. Even though I only spoke for about 25 minutes minutes, the organization paid roughly $1,500 to have me there. There are many folks whose accomplishments greatly outshine mine who will not be impressed by this number. There were no fat cash bonuses, awards, or raises. I didn't have one extra dime to show for it afterward, but it still felt unreal to me.
Growing up in a lower-income neighborhood, there was an ever-present feeling that the burdens of debt and the struggle to make a living were inescapably crushing everyone. It wasn't anything sinister, just reality. The air we breathed was filled with hardship, and this shaped the way I viewed the future. I could not imagine any jobs available to me except those held by my friends’ hardworking mothers: Bank tellers, cafeteria workers, gas station clerks. As a kid raised surrounded by sometimes severe poverty, two things never occurred to me: 1.) I could grow up to do meaningful work that I was proud of; and 2.) Someone might shell out $1,500 so folks could hear me talk about it for 25 minutes.
My falsely limiting beliefs remained in place even when I went to live with my mom in a beautiful home on 5 acres when I was 13 and after my father bought a cozy house in a much nicer part of town when I was 14. The most insidious thing about having limiting beliefs was that I was unaware of them. They were built into me like a truth we don't question, like water, air, and traffic laws.
On the plane on the way home from the conference presentation, I found myself wholly absorbed in Lidia Yuknavitch’s strikingly honest memoir “The Chronology of Water.” As if on cue, I came across these lines that laid my reluctance to accept my professional successes bare:
If I could go back, I'd coach myself. I'd be the woman who taught me how to stand up, how to want things, how to ask for them. I'd be the woman who says, your mind, your imagination, they are everything. Look how beautiful. You deserve to sit at the table. The radiance falls on all of us.
I hold Lidia Yuknavitch personally responsible for the only time I've cried on an airplane. But these were the discreet tears of invisible shackles breaking open, so I probably also owe her a debt of gratitude for handing me the keys.
For many years, my deepest beliefs were limiting. I did not dare to dream the biggest, scariest dreams; the kind of dreams whose fulfillment keeps our hearts and minds pulsing with bold life. I didn’t begin breaking down these false limits until I decided to pursue my master’s degree. It was the first choice I made solely because I wanted something for myself -- I deeply wanted to do more with my work, and I believed I was capable. Those restrictive, subconscious beliefs continued to hold some power over me until my mentors, my accomplishments, and Yuknavitch’s words broke them down to dust.
Our worth, financial or otherwise, is in no way determined by our past, but so often we accept the mediocre options offered to us by our limited imaginations. Our imaginations cannot be trusted when they are hemmed in by harmfully limiting ideas about what we think we deserve.
Under these stifling, self-imposed boundaries, we settle for jobs, relationships, and lives that don’t allow us to fully become who we truly are. We feel smothered, bewildered, incomplete, and trapped in situations that don’t suit us. Meanwhile, somewhere (deep down inside of each of us) a quiet voice demands that we use everything we are capable of to pursue a life filled with purpose and meaning.
Without my imagined limits, I could have begun earlier, been bolder. I could have saved myself the anxiety of feeling undeserving and the worry that I would spend so much on college only to do nothing with my degree. If I could go back, I would tell my 12 year-old self growing up in a trailer park that this is possible. It is all possible. “The radiance falls on all of us.” We are all worthy.