What Feeling Worthless Is All About

Dear Claudia,

I’m constantly struggling with feelings of worthlessness. What do you think causes this and what can I do about it?


Third-Rate Thirty-Something

Dear Third-Rate Thirty-Something,

A few things to consider before I get to your question. Ask yourself:

• What does worthlessness actually feel like? Obviously it doesn’t feel good, but how does it feel in your body? What thoughts do the feeling of worthlessness trigger in you?

• What is the context of those feelings? It is from being around someone who’s achieved more? Does it happen if and when someone doesn’t appreciate you, or criticizes you? Does it come from having experienced a failure?

Regardless of how worthlessness may rear its head for you, it’s important to sit with this feeling and understand your relationship to it.

What Does the Feeling Tell You?

Worthlessness, in many ways, is a side-effect of extreme ambition. It tells you that your innate good qualities, achievements, or experience, don’t count.  They are not enough.

Are There Any Upsides to the Feeling?

When we feel worthless, two positive things are happening:

  1. We shoulder the responsibility for not being worthy enough
  2. We recognize that something should be better.

People who don’t take responsibility for their negative traits, lack of success or inability to be recognized by others, don’t do as well as people who can tolerate feelings of worthlessness.  Worse, by not recognizing that things could or should be better, many people simply give up and become addicts, alcoholics, or find other ways of throwing their lives away.

The Weight of Worthlessness

People who feel worthless, however, carry this huge load of responsibility, which literally feels like a ball and chain, and they never let go of standards of excellence against which they measure themselves constantly.  

How to Manage the Weight of Worthlessness

The weight of worthlessness can become so great, that it feels impossible to move, sometimes.   At these times, it’s important to do some damage control, and keep the feeling in line.  Here’s how to do it:

  1. Feelings of worthlessness may carry some comparison scenario’s, where you figure as either incompetent or hopelessly behind.  Take your comparison scenario’s and write them down, as they contain the gems of your goals.
  1. Extract from your worthless feelings, anything specific about what you would like to be better at.  Make the list as comprehensive as you can, here are some examples:
    1. Better parent
    2. Better money-earner
    3. More successfully recognized
    4. More self-loving
    5. Less depressed
    6. More optimistic and pro-active
  1. Now, write down the ways you blame yourself for the lack of achievement.  Make this list as comprehensive as possible too.  Here are some examples:
    1. I’m too lazy
    2. I’m too weak
    3. I can’t stick to anything
    4. I have had bad luck
    5. I have no self-control
  1. Both of these lists are a testament to your ambition, and to the responsibility you take for why things haven’t happened that would give you better feelings about yourself.
  1. By taking responsibility for your lack of success in love or work, where you have not been appreciated, valued or recognized enough, your brain gears up for and generates hope.  “If only I could be different” it says, and that’s actually a hopeful feeling.  So not only are you ambitious and take full responsibility for yourself, but you are also generating hope that you could control some of this, if only you were different.  This is very positive.  Recognize what your brain is doing to try to protect and improve you.  
  1. Now, it’s time to know your brain, how pro-active, protective and hope-generating it is, and focus on something that the worthlessness – in all it’s responsibility and hope-generating glory – is trying to cover up.  That’s right, your worthlessness is a cover up.  What’s is covering up?  The pain of defeat.  Whenever we are defeated – beaten down, overwhelmed, abandoned emotionally, left too alone, or too daunted, we don’t focus on the feelings.  We quickly move into ambition and hope.  Which leads to the worthless feelings, since we’re not there yet. Know your brain.
  1. Discover what the worthlessness is hiding.  For each of us, the journey to re-connecting with feelings of defeat, including hopelessness, helplessness, grief, despair and even frustration and anger, is a difficult road.  We don’t like to piece together our defeats, not only because it hurts, but also because we don’t always like to play the “blame” game.  We don’t like to point fingers at our parents, children, partners, friends, colleagues or relatives to know “I don’t feel good around you.”  Instead, we feel guilty for our negativity, and then, our worthlessness steps forward.
  1. Of course, how we discover hidden feelings inside ourselves is the stuff of psychoanalysis.  So join me in learning more about that!  How to free-associate, how to follow feelings to deeper places and understand what they’re hiding, what to look for in your journey, and what to avoid.  

Signup for musings and news sent to your inbox

"*" indicates required fields

I am interested in:
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.