I wish the world did not operate this way. As a Licensed Psychologist, I too often see people, who have been beaten down emotionally by others, believing the Big Lie. That Big Lie goes something like this: I have been told that I am worthless; it is all my fault; I am a burden. The person receiving these lies actually becomes obedient to the message and begins to think of the self as worthless.
Suzanne Freedman of the University of Northern Iowa and I saw this as she engaged in a forgiveness intervention with 12 women who are survivors of incest. Every one of them came to us with a very low sense of self-worth. Along with this came anxiety and depression. The Big Lie, you see, does not just affect one’s thoughts (I am worthless) but also has a profound effect on the emotions.
As part of Dr. Freedman’s successful work with these courageous survivors of incest, the women began to think about what inherent worth means: “inherent” = built-in, no need to earn this, unconditional; “worth” = of substantial value, special, unique, and irreplaceable. Such a thought as this, that all people — -including the beaten-down self — -have this built-in worth, takes time to consider, foster, and develop, but once it emerges within a person, it has remarkable effects on who the self is, who others are, and how one feels.
The effort to see all as possessing inherent worth is best with small steps. For example, pass by a person who is homeless and say to yourself, “This person has built-in worth. She has great value as a person.” See more deeply into the cashier at the supermarket, the one who is having a bad day, and say to yourself, “He is special and unique and irreplaceable in this world. His behavior now is not a final indication of who he is as a person.”
Gradually, and only when ready, one can apply this same principle to those who have been cruel. Right the wrong to the extent that you can, but at the same, if you choose, use this as an opportunity to practice thoughts of inherent worth on a challenging level: “Despite this person’s behavior, I can see that she has inherent worth, not because of what she did, but in spite of this.”
This is the struggle to forgive, the kind of intervention which Dr. Freedman used with those surviving incest. It worked. They not only became less depressed but also their depression left and it stayed away for as long as we assessed some of them, for 14 months after the intervention ended. And do you know who they started to like? Right…..themselves. As they applied the principle of inherent worth in the most challenging case (to the perpetrator of incest), these courageous women began to apply that principle to themselves. They cast aside the Big Lie. They stopped the internal conversation that they, themselves, are of no value. If the perpetrator has value, then what of the victim herself? All concluded correctly and all had their sense of self-worth restored.
We have to keep in mind that all of the women, prior to working with Dr. Freedman (for one hour a week for about 14 months), tried all kinds of therapies in the hope of returning to thriving, to sound mental health. Yet, nothing was working for any of them……until they tried the forgiveness intervention…..until they began to apply the principle of inherent worth, first to the perpetrator and then to themselves. Forgiveness interventions are not for everyone. They are only for those who choose this and it never should include pressure to do so.
You need not start a forgiveness intervention to become proficient in thoughts of inherent worth toward others and toward yourself. As discussed above, you can start with the person who has no home or the grumpy cashier. Challenge yourself then even further. If a loved one is being annoying, yes, right the wrong as best you can and at the same time consider saying to yourself, “I can see beyond this behavior to whom she is as a person.” Build up your cognitive fitness one practice at a time until you can see this worth in all……including in yourself.
Yes, there is a way of recovering a sense of self-worth and it starts with the small step of acknowledging that worth in those you see, in those with whom you have a brief interaction, in those with whom you are in meaningful relationships, and eventually, and only when you are ready, in those who have not been good to you. Such exercises aid you in being good to yourself, in perhaps for the first time in a long time concluding, “Yes, I am a person of great worth.”
Originally published at medium.com