ask a narcissist #2: how do you know what you’re worth?
As my Trusts lecturer once said after more than a dozen students demanded his resignation: well, I’m back.
This letter is short and sweet but gave me plenty to think about.
Thanks for doing this! Such a cool idea.
My question is: how do you know what you deserve, let alone ask for it? Despite self-confidence I often undervalue my time and ability, so are there effective ways to better recognize that value?
Dear deserving person (because you are deserving, no matter how you feel),
Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the anti-work movement. Employees are demanding better pay, less strenuous conditions and more humane treatment, and if they aren’t getting what they want, they’re quitting. What a time to be alive — we’re watching the next labour revolution unfold, and it’s been glorious.
A popular conservative refrain is that we young people are entitled: that we feel entitled to money, to freebies, to all kinds of handouts. And perhaps they’re right! I’m young and I feel entitled to a job that doesn’t work me to the bone, that pays a salary that allows me to live relatively comfortably, and to a lifestyle that makes living worthwhile.
Life is short. We aren’t here long enough to make constantly giving up on what we want worth it. Whether or not you believe in an eternal afterlife with rewards for good behaviour, the fact remains that we are here now, and barring unfortunate circumstances, we’ll be here for a little while longer. Why not make our time more pleasant?
You asked me how to help you recognise your value. There are plenty of guides online to figuring out how much you should ask to be paid, which of your skills can be monetised, what you should charge for your time. That’s certainly one kind of value, albeit a very capitalistic one. I can’t give you better advice than the experts in that respect. If you want to know how to negotiate a better salary, advice columns exist that have you covered.
But there are so many different types of value, and so many different things we need and want and maybe feel afraid to demand, that go far beyond money. Let’s focus on those.
The simplest and often best way to get what we want is to ask for it. Are you someone who asks for what you want? When you want a romantic partner to pay you more attention, when you want a friend to support you through a hard time, when you want a family member to listen to what you’re saying and really understand you, what do you do? Asking for what you want won’t always get you what you want, but I can guarantee that not asking will definitely get you nowhere. But of course it’s never as simple as that, because to ask for what you want, you need to feel like you deserve it.
How do you convince yourself that you deserve the things you want and need? Honestly, I’m not sure you can — not because you shouldn’t get those things (you should!) but because I think that when we frame our needs and wants in terms of what we deserve versus what we don’t deserve, we’ll always end up with an unbalanced scale. The idea of being deserving is tied up in so many societal mores around goodness and worthiness and having to struggle a certain amount before you’re allowed to have anything nice. The word ‘deserving’ comes with a lot of baggage, and carrying it around with us can get exhausting.
So my first answer to your question is: let go of the idea that you need to deserve good things in order to get them. Who cares if you’ve met some arbitrary standard of having done enough or suffered enough or begged enough or toiled enough? You are going to want the things you want and need the things you need regardless of how much you deserve them. That’s just a fact. So forget about being deserving. Decouple your worth to this society from your desire to be happy and fulfilled. You should get a chance at happiness and fulfilment even if you don’t jump through all of society’s hoops to get there.
I realise this is a radical proposition. We’ve all been thoroughly conditioned by old white men and their Protestant ethics to believe that happiness is something you have to earn through pain, and that if you haven’t experienced enough pain, you don’t get happiness. It’s like eating your vegetables before you get your dessert. We’re made to believe that you’ve gotta choke down a certain amount of broccoli and brussels sprouts before we get our cake.
There are a couple of things wrong with that. Firstly, why should eating our vegetables have to be so unpleasant? There are so many ways to cook vegetables so that they’re delicious! Why does our labour have to be painful for our rewards to be sweet? Why can’t we just enjoy the damn cake?
Now I’ve made myself hungry for vegetable stir fry. And cake, possibly.
You are worthy of joy and fulfilment simply because you exist. This is true of every human being and it is true of you. You shouldn’t have to debase or demean yourself, shouldn’t have to beg for scraps of good feelings when you could be at the table enjoying the whole damn meal. (I’m getting hungry again.) You should ask for what you want, and you should get it.
Okay. So how do you do that?
I find that it helps to know exactly what you want first. Do you keep a diary or a journal or some place where you can get your desires down on paper and see them? If not, you should start. When we’re trying to achieve something, setting concrete goals for ourselves can be helpful. There are plenty of advice columns about this, too, so I’m not going to go into a whole ten-step process for organising your life using a bullet journal or whatever, but for now: write down what you want. Let yourself actually see it. Imagine the things you want not as abstractions or out of your reach, but as real goals that you are going to achieve.
Once you’ve done that, it’s all a matter of asking. Ask for what you want, and ask with the expectation that you’ll get it. Some of this is about confidence, and that comes with practice. Rehearse your requests in front of a mirror, or write down the things you’re going to say before you say them. Play your favourite psych-up music before a big conversation. Whatever works for you to build you up and make you feel good, do it!
Some of this is about authority. This comes easily to some people and less easily to others, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work on it if it doesn’t come easily to you. Start small: ask for little things you want, like a hug from a loved one or a slice of pie or the last cookie. Low-stakes interactions get you used to the idea that you can ask for things and people will listen to you, and the more that you internalise that idea, the more you’ll start to believe it. That belief is what lends you the air of authority, and that air of authority is what makes people listen to you.
Some of this is about tenacity. Don’t let setbacks discourage you. If you ask for something and you’re knocked back, it’s time to regroup, lick your wounds and reconsider your approach. If you want things badly enough, be prepared to go through a little hell to get them. Sometimes the world won’t make it easy, and you have to fight back against that, and that’s all about perseverance and grit. Imagine the soundtrack from Rocky every time you get knocked down, and then get up off the mat and back into the fight.
Some of this is about charm and charisma. Learn to read people, understand their moods and motivations, and say and do the right things at the right time. A lot of charisma is about knowing exactly when to shut up and listen and make people feel special by giving them your attention. People who are good at getting what they want are masters of this. (If someone wants me to elaborate, though, they’re going to have to write me another letter. This reply is already getting pretty long.)
Finally, all of this is about belief. Do you believe that you should have the things you want? If not, why? If you think other people should have the things they want but you shouldn’t, ask yourself: why them and not you? Or to make it simpler: why not you? You are here and you are alive and you have things you want and things you need. Why not go out and get them? Why not make the world pay you fair value for your time, your effort, your life?
You want to know how to value yourself. Well, how do you value everyone else? What led you to decide that the people you favour with your time or your attention or your hard work are entitled to those things from you? I assure you, whatever qualities you think other people have that entitle them to the things they want, you have those qualities too. And I know that because everyone on the planet, every single person, has in them the stuff of greatness. It is such a miraculous thing to be human and alive against all the odds. You are already entitled to joy just by being here. So stop allowing other people to tell you that you need to wait, that you need to settle, that you should be happy with less than you want. As Terry Pratchett said, we are here and it is now. Your life is going to go by whether you take the opportunities before you or not. Don’t waste your time waiting for permission. It’s your life! Go and live it.
I’ll leave you with a verse I first read — if you’ll believe it — in a Harry Potter fanfiction written by someone who is now a dear friend of mine. She took it from an English translation of a poem by Virgil. The whole poem is quite lovely, but it’s the ending that’s always stuck with me:
The wine and dice and let him perish who
Doth care about tomorrow; Death your ear
Demands and says, “I come, so live to-day.”