Humans are born with a need to be accepted and to belong. So we constantly do what we must, in an attempt to receive love from others, especially caregivers. It starts as a mechanism to cause others to provide us with the basics of life, since we are unable to acquire them ourselves until we reach a certain age. Under normal circumstances, this is a symbiotic relationship, with children getting love from their parents, and parents receiving love from their children. But, as with most things concerning human being, almost everything about us is a series of compromises. Remember, a survival mechanism doesn’t have to be the best solution. It just has to work long enough for at least a few of the representatives of the species to reproduce. The emotion of Love evolved as a survival mechanism. And it is far from perfect…
Most people realize that there are different kinds of love. There is the brotherly and sisterly love that we feel towards our siblings and close friends (at least most of us do…). There is the general love we feel towards other living things such as pets, and non-living things (such as your car, nature, etc…). And many nuances of each type of love also manifest themselves, sometimes to the point of obsession. In relationships, there are two basic types of love, Unconditional, in which we love someone no matter what they do, whether we approve or not, and Conditional, in which we love someone because of what they do. Unconditional love means you are loved for who and what you are, regardless of mistakes or transgressions you may make. This is the type of love many of us have experienced from our parents. Conditional love is only offered when the conditions of another party are met, such as proper behavior, accumulation of wealth and success, willingness to have sex, being submissive, etc…. It is completely under the control of another person, or group of people. It forms the basis for our entire social structure, and it often used as a way to compel an individual to conform to certain behaviors they would not otherwise do.
Conditional Love creates a mental state of mind known to psychologists as Conditions of Worth (your idea of self worthiness). Mentally, we measure our value by our perceived conditions of worth, consciously, or sub-consciously, or both. Perceptions of worthiness can motivate individuals to great accomplishments, such as academic excellence, and great successes. But remember, these conditions of worth are established by others, not ourselves, and have a profound effect on our innate desire to be accepted and loved, even when those conditions are at odds with who and what we really are. And there’s the rub…
Our perception of our worthiness or lack of it, can often result in us pursuing avenues that we are not really suited for, not using the talents we are born with, and not living up to our full potential. An example would be a naturally-gifted musician becoming a lawyer, even though they may be a mediocre attorney at best, because their parents expected it of them. Every day, extremely talented artists, musicians, philosophers, people with awesome intellect, and people with great empathy and intuition, toil away on mindless assembly lines, behind cash registers, chained to a desk, or otherwise live in situations that are not congruent with their natural abilities…all because someone else expects it of them. And often this comes at an enormous emotional cost.
When we violate our perception of our Conditions of Worth, perhaps by doing something we want to do, but our past experiences have conditioned us to believe it is not appropriate, it can engender feelings of guilt, and a loss of self-esteem. Inversely, when we deny who and what we are because of a distorted sense of our Conditions of Worth, we can also experience a loss of self-esteem, depression, and feelings of worthlessness and despair. A significant portion of psychology is devoted specifically to addressing these issues.
No less an authority than Carl R. Rogers (Jan 8, 1902-Feb 4, 1987), a Clinical Psychologist rated # 2, right behind Sigmund Freud, as one of the most influential developers of modern psychology, developed the basics for Conditions of Worth and used it to explain various emotional issues.
While specific methods of dealing with a distorted sense of your Conditions of Worth are beyond the scope of this article, we can address it generally. Ask yourself, “What must I do to be considered worthy?” Then say the first things that come to mind. Most people would answer things like:
- Do as you are told.
- Work hard, at anything you can find.
- Strive to be the best.
- Never show weakness.
Now, try to determine how you learned these things. Did you arrive at these conclusions on your own, or were they influenced by the desires of others? The next trick is to find a way to not let your conditions of worth keep you from doing what is best for you, and muting your own inner wisdom. Learning to recognize your conditions of worth can help you to control it, rather than letting it control you, and you can work on being yourself, rather than what others think you should be.
Rogers, Carl. (1959). “A theory of therapy, personality relationships as developed in the client-centered framework.”
S. Koch. Psychology: A study of a science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the person and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill)