The value of self-worth: how much is enough?
Dear Future Self,
There’s this thing I’ve been grappling with lately: the feeling of ‘being enough’. And I’ve been wondering what it means to be enough—whether I am enough. I keep coming back to it. When I’m feeling anxious or depressed, or have an excessive reaction to something, there it is underneath it all. Over and over again at the crux of pain is this feeling of not being good enough: of insufficiency. And this feeling can be a real drama queen. It says things like, ‘You’re not as deserving of love and attention and being heard as others. You should prioritise what they want to say, do, or feel—your needs are secondary. It would be better if you just loitered in the wings and allowed them to take the stage, to fill the space.’ At first I didn’t really know what to do with this—it sounded like teen angst. I figured I was too old to hang out with the Goths in the Queen Street Mall; plus, I didn’t really want to wear leather in Brisbane all year round. So instead of eyeliner and brooding, I opted for pondering: what causes these feelings of not being enough and what are they trying to show me?
I started to look at the things in my life that frequently set off feelings of insufficiency, and at the top of the list was something that surprised me: money. Logically it kind of made sense (that my self-worth might somehow be tied to my sense of monetary worth), but it didn’t fit with the way I saw myself, and the lack of importance I placed on money.
For most of my 20s I had just enough money to scrape by. I wrote music and played in bands, and pretty much anyone who’s ever done these things knows it’s a fantastic way to never see any money—ever. But I didn’t care. I wanted to write songs that connected with people on an emotional level. I wanted them to feel like they weren’t alone in whatever they were going through; that’s what music had done for me at my lowest points. It had been a friend: someone who understood me when I wasn’t sure any real people would. And I wanted to the return the favour. I told myself that money wasn’t important to me, so it wasn’t worth thinking about; it was way down at the bottom of my list of priorities. And I had enough money to keep me sheltered and fed, so why waste another second thinking about it? I was disinterested in money: that was the official line. But in reality there was more to it than that. I was afraid of it. My greatest fear was becoming a soulless businessman in suit-and-tie garb, carrying a briefcase—defeated—to an office wonderland of cubicles and green fluorescent lighting. The same people Paul Dempsey from Something for Kate sang about in songs like Twenty Years and Jerry Stand Up. I didn’t want to get old and feel like I had followed the path of least resistance and made lots of money, but hadn’t followed my heart or been myself. To me that was a wasted life—and I only had one.
Over time, though, I started to notice how much I thought about money on a daily basis; it was a lot. It wasn’t that I was swept up in dreams of cash-fights and sliding down mounds of pirate treasure, the problem was that I over-thought every transaction—weighing up the pros and cons. I watched every cent that passed through my hands like Scrooge McDuck. Before I spent any money my first thought was, ‘Can I afford this bus trip? This sandwich? This tube of toothpaste?’ I had to—to make sure I had enough money to pay the rent, bills, and buy food: not an uncommon experience for a student/musician. And I got really good at saying ‘no’, at depriving myself. But for something that supposedly wasn’t important to me, it was taking up a disproportionate amount of my thinking. And then one day the paradox hit me: I didn’t care about money, and yet I was obsessed with it.
When I turned thirty I stopped writing and playing music—I’d ‘returned the favour’ and it was time for something new. Around that time a thought occurred to me: if being poor made me obsess about how much money I didn’t have, perhaps the way to stop thinking about it was to get more money. Maybe money wasn’t something to be afraid of. So at the tender age of thirty-one I started my very first full-time office job. And not just any office job, a job with the Queensland Government—I was going to be a public servant and they were going to pay me a lot of money. To my nineteen-year-old Marxist self, this was akin to a funeral for my soul: it was selling out; it was giving up on the dream; it was assimilating; it was capitalism; it was … eww.
But I wasn’t nineteen anymore, and I had something new driving me: a desire to work in a job that paid me what I felt I was worth. I wanted to know that my six years of university study hadn’t simply been so I could clean toilets in nightclubs, or work in retail for the rest of my life. So when the opportunity presented itself, I took it. I thought, ‘Maybe now I won’t be as obsessed with money because I won’t have to scrutinise every transaction to death. And maybe, by getting confirmation of my financial worth, it will somehow translate to self-worth. Maybe if I earn a crap-load of money I will feel like I am enough!’
So I worked nine-to-five, Monday to Friday, like a respectable citizen. And as I walked to work every morning I sang the lyrics to a Dolly Parton song—‘Working nine to five, what a way to make a living’—under my breath as some ironic distancing technique. I figured this would somehow save me from being seduced by the mundane.
For the first time in my life I had more money than I knew what to do with; I had disposable income. So what did I do? I bought a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade machine from 1989, because why not, and I saved. Eventually my wife, Meg, was able to leave her job and go back to university. And as the months rolled on I found myself thinking about money less and less. Even while we were spending thousands of dollars so that doctors could help us have a baby, it didn’t occupy my mind. And when we reached the twenty thousand dollar mark it still didn’t bother me; it was an investment in our future. But as the negative results continued, and our savings started to run out, everything else started to slip too.
We had just enough money for one more round of IVF, and then we’d have to ask our parents or a bank for money. Meanwhile, the medical bills kept coming, week after week, piling up. I started to resent them. I felt frustrated and angry at these stupid bills, at the whole IVF process. Some days when I looked back at the past three years it felt like we’d spent twenty thousand dollars on some metaphorical ‘journey’, and all we had to show for it was more lines on our brows and grey hairs on our heads.
I felt defeated. And underneath all the resentment and frustration there was something else: failure. I had gone and got this stupid job and earned stupid amounts of money and it still wasn’t enough. I still wasn’t enough. I’d never felt like I needed to play some clichéd gender role: I despised them. And yet here I was feeling like I had taken over the role and responsibility of breadwinner, and that I had failed—like I wasn’t winning enough frickin’ bread. It didn’t matter how often Meg told me she was grateful and that she loved me and that I was more than enough, I didn’t believe it, so I didn’t hear it.
I’d somehow tied part of my self-worth to the size of my income; and when I saw the frivolity of it, something occurred to me: no amount of money would ever make me feel like I was enough. For the first time in my life I understood greed—I understood how someone could have millions and millions of dollars and yet still want more. After all, if you’re a millionaire who doesn’t feel, deep down, that you’re good enough, your money will only mask your true feelings about yourself. And fear will motivate you to get more and more money so you never have to face how you feel without it: inadequate. You can remain artificially buoyant on a sea of cash. If you’re rich and inauthentic, the thought of losing it all is probably terrifying—because you likely think you need it to be who you are. I knew in that moment that if I won the lottery the very next day it wouldn’t suddenly make me enough simply because I had lots of money, and it wouldn’t erase my feelings of insufficiency. Sure—they’d be buried under a giant pile of money for a while, but they‘d only remain latent for as long as it took for the money to run out. And then they’d be exposed again, raw, like a wound that won’t heal.
When our money ran out, instead of concentrating on getting more, I decided I was better off spending time working on the way I saw myself. So I started with a few simple ideas: whatever qualities I was given by the universe were enough; whatever I could provide was enough. And I’m making progress. I know, intellectually at least, that I am enough; I’m even starting to feel it. I suppose it hasn’t fully transitioned from a thought to a feeling to a belief just yet—that is the gap I’m trying to bridge. So I concentrate on the thought that I am already enough, and when I meditate I let this marinate. Sometimes I get glimpses of how I’m going to feel in the future—glimpses of you my Future Self: I have a quiet calm, a knowing peace. And in these previews I know that I am already enough because I am already perfect in the eyes of the universe. Not faultless, but perfect in my imperfection. Everything I need has already been given to me; it is already within me. I will grow and learn along the way, but I will never become ‘more’ than I am today. I am already enough. And that’s what these feelings were trying to show me. How much is enough? Well, whatever is there, in me—that is enough. Whatever has been given—that is enough. There is no sufficiency or deficiency in being; there is only truth and non-truth. If I am authentic from moment to moment, I can never be deficient—I just am.
Feeling like I’m not enough is like telling the universe that it made a mistake—left something out—when it created me. And like telling myself that I need to find the missing pieces to a puzzle. On my good days I know that there are no missing pieces; all the pieces are already within me. And I know that I’ve been pre-programmed with all that I need to be exactly who I am meant to be and do exactly what I am meant to do. It is simply a matter of uncovering and illuminating what is already there. It is not a matter of going out on an epic search to find things to make me enough. People often travel to the other side of the world to ‘find themselves’—as if one day they got drunk and accidentally lost themselves—but I know that anything worth finding is already here, within me. So the only searching I need to do is inward, not outward. I can do simple things like be silent with myself, sit with myself, meditate. I can get in touch with my essence without even leaving the house. I’ve learned that it’s how you search that is important, not where you go to do the searching. And I’m finding things I thought I’d lost, and some I never even knew I had. But the truth is that they’ve been with me all along, right under my nose, just waiting to be found.
Yours forever in the here and now,