Dignity/why do I sometimes feel so worthless?

The short answer is: put downs are easy, they have a powerful negative effect on the victim, and they provide an apparent short-term thrill for the aggressor. The asymmetry is stunning; the aggressor gets a momentary thrill while the victim remembers the shame for a very long time.

Consider the common situation where a young child, engrossed in play, inadvertently and unintentionally knocks over a glass of milk from the breakfast table. The milk spills out over the floor and the glass breaks. The frustrated mother impatiently shouts “you are so clumsy and stupid” while she hurries to clean up the mess, displaying her contempt for the child.

Consider the impacts here:

  • The mother is physically giant compared to the child. She is large, angry, moving quickly, and shouting. She is a primary authority figure for the child. She is focusing her displeasure at the child.
  • The statement “you are stupid” criticizes the child’s being, not only his behavior. It describes what he is, not only what he does.
  • The statement “you are stupid” has an unlimited time horizon, it implies that the stupid condition will last indefinitely, perhaps forever.
  • All of this is in response to a trivial lapse by the child

This event can easily become a prototype for how we experience criticism throughout our lives. We accumulate long-lasting doubts about the worthiness of our essence. No experiences affirm our worthiness with the same power, frequency, or impact to counterbalance the insults we regularly suffer. The shame can become deeply rooted and persistent, self-doubts can easily arise.

As an antidote to these corrosive forces, work toward becoming authentically humble. Integrate humility with a constructive willfulness.

Assignment: Recall a time when you were insulted or humiliated. How did it make you feel? How long did those feelings last? Did you doubt your self-worth as a result? Try to estimate how significant and long-lasting an event this was for you, compared to the person who insulted you.

Recommended Reading edit

  • Brown, Brené (October 4, 2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Hazelden. pp. 260. ISBN 978-1592858491.