My dear friend Chris is a new subscriber to my blog, and it was just after he started reading when he asked if he could offer advice about some of the personal struggles I have documented here. I have known Chris for over twenty-five years – he was Jim’s roommate in business school and the best man in our wedding. He is still one of Jim’s closest friends. Chris is a deeply thoughtful and principled individual, and I told him I welcomed and would value anything he had to offer. Our conversation was long, but in sum, he suggested I should stop valuing myself in terms of what I accomplish and instead believe in my worth just because of my innate character. Chris was asking me to accept that I am worthwhile just because of how I live my life every day.
I recently told another individual about Chris’s advice, and she offered that she thinks about self-worth as something that is embedded in our soul. She used the Yiddish word for soul: neshama, and it strikes me that character is really just a less spiritual term for the same idea. Our soul is with us from the day we are born and as we grow and make decisions about the person we want to be, we tap into our soul to form our character. These two terms really define the crux of our identity.
I have been thinking about what Chris and this other confidant said for several weeks now, trying to figure out why I have never come to their conclusion on my own. Why have I always assessed my worth based on the what instead of the who? And with great reflection, I have come to believe that defining myself in terms of my academic and professional accomplishments was a learned behavior, a false premise that I never understood as false such that I would challenge myself to undo it.
Parents tell their children that they love them unconditionally. Parents believe they act by that principle. And many parents truly live that creed and are able to ensure their children believe it. But in some cases, whether parents act consciously or subconsciously, their kids perceive a mixed message. And in those cases, kids feel a need to strive and achieve because they feel more valuable and loved when the report card is all As, when the college is elite, and when the job is prestigious. Parenting in high-performing families such that one’s children don’t link love with accomplishment is incredibly difficult. Parents do feel pride when a child succeeds, and children feel pride when their parents acknowledge their efforts. No one wants a parent who doesn’t celebrate his or her success. But you can tell when kids truly perceived parental love as separate from achievement or when they rejected the causality if present because, as adults, those kids don’t question their worth as people. They do not define themselves by their “resume” accomplishments – instead, they define themselves by their character. For those kids, living a principled life is enough.
Growing up, I always felt loved by my parents, but I also felt rewarded with more love when I achieved and excelled. For me, it became natural to seek ongoing the pride I saw in my parents faces when I strove and succeeded. More praise from grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and teachers only bolstered the effect. And though it was surely a subconscious linkage by my parents or a misinterpretation by me, I also came to fear losing my special position in their eyes should I stop achieving at the highest level. So, striving and succeeding in external, public-oriented terms was just what I did and how I came to define my worth. And it was pretty easy to live that way until Jack and Emma entered the scene, and I decided to prioritize motherhood.
Reflecting now, I can see the falsity in what I internalized at an early age. I have many incredible friends, and they don’t love me for what I’ve accomplished. They value my loyalty, thoughtfulness and generosity of spirit. I have a wonderful husband who is my very best friend, and he doesn’t love me for what I’ve accomplished either. He values my intelligence, my principles, my devotion and our mutual support of one another. My kids certainly don’t love me for what I’ve accomplished. If anything, they love me because I made them the center of my life while they were growing up and stopped my own striving to put them first. And as for my parents? Today, I know their love for and pride in me wasn’t and isn’t rooted in my accomplishments, and I don’t believe anymore that they had any intention of making me feel that love was a reward for achievement. In fact, I think they will be appalled that I internalized that perception in childhood (and based on my understanding of the way they were raised, it wouldn’t surprise me if they fell into the same perceptive trap in their younger years). The simple and clear truth is that the parents of my youth can only live on inside me now if I let them.
As I work to redefine my self-worth in terms of my neshama, or my innate character, I have also started thinking about how well I’ve managed the messaging to my own kids. I believe I have tried to ensure Jack and Emma feel loved and valued just for who they are every day, but I can think of moments when I’ve been told “you want me to be perfect” or “I can’t handle disappointing you.” I believe that acknowledgment and realization of a problem is the first step towards resolving it, so I am on track to be more accepting of myself for who I am and regardless of what I do. But I’m 52-years-old, beyond halfway most likely, and I do wish I had embarked on my self-healing journey earlier. As such, I’ll just add that I hope my kids know my love has no strings, that their worth in my eyes is only and ever defined by their neshama. It is in my neshama to do whatever I can to ensure that peace for them now and in the future.