Self-Worth is All It’s Cracked Up to Be

LACMA quinceanera/photo: Andréa R. Vaucher
“In our culture there is a level of self-criticism and self-judgement and self-hatred that often shows itself as soon as people try to become quiet and do the inner work of the heart. What comes up is that there is something wrong with me, there’s shame, there’s guilt, there’s unworthiness and these become the default mode for a lot of people in their lives…The fact that loving oneself is difficult for people in this culture is the ground that says this is where we need to turn our attention.” — Jack Kornfield, author and meditation teacher

When the Thrive editors recently asked contributors to write about self-worth, I realized that words we use all the time can take on a life of their own when they are rolling around on your tongue devoid of context. Sometimes a word can pop or sizzle like a new taste or flavor and other times it can feel as stale as that old piece of gum you forgot you were chewing.

Self-Worth. Something worth thinking about or new-agey buzzword?

You know that quote that’s attributed to Michelangelo? Something like:“I saw the angel in the marble and just chipped away until I set him free?”

That’s what self-worth is to me. That angel.

It’s the gem of my personality, the jewel of my soul. It’s the me without the judgment, the me without all the cultural baggage. It’s the best Andréa, the Andréa that shines. It’s the me who is enough, who breaks through with the people who love me and value me. It’s the me who is mirrored in the eyes of my lover, the me whose heart opens and expands in the warmth of the smiles of my friends.

It didn’t just happen. Like Jack Kornfield says, it took time to get there, like learning the piano, or becoming a carpenter or a surgeon. Arriving at a feeling of self-worth can take years and years of practice. For me there was all that chipping away. Chipping away at the detritus of the typical up and down childhood where I was raised by well-meaning but young parents. Chipping away at the self consciousness left by the awkward phases of youth and by teen angst. Chipping away at the hurts of first loves and an early marriage to another unformed though well-meaning kid.

Chipping away. Chipping away.

But I was a seeker and I read a lot of the right books and was fortunate to get a good education and attract unbelievable teachers and mentors and friends.

I discovered meditation early and the wisdom of the Buddha and other spiritual teachers. And eventually I figured out that the clue to happiness was loving myself, and in order to do that I had to become someone I could fall in love with.

So I set out to do that. I tried to answer the hard questions. What made me happy? What would I do for free and for fun? What actions made me proud? What — and who — brought out the best in me?

The answers came through meditation, through silent meditation retreats, through winding walks in nature, through long conversations with girlfriends and boyfriends, through great books. They came through travel to exotic places and through getting out of my comfort zone. And they still come through these pursuits: just a couple months ago I spent a week paddleboarding in the Sea of Cortez and camping (which I had never done before!) on the beach. That feat, and the self-esteem that came from it, has kept me flying high all winter.

One of the first things I did when I had a little bit of money was buy myself a cabin in the woods, two hours from Los Angeles. It’s my feel-good place, where I go to recharge, to continue to ask the difficult questions, to write, to be silent. I am lucky that I am in a place in my life where my self-worth is solid, non-negotiable in any situation or with any person.

The picture above is of a beautiful Mexican girl celebrating her quinceanera. I met her in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where her family was photographing her in her gorgeous pink tu-tu of a gown in front of Chris Burden’s fabulous sculpture, Urban Light. You could tell she felt beautiful in her dress. She felt loved by her family and her boyfriend. She was lit up as bright as Burden’s street lamps. She was beaming self-worth.

Will she hold on to that feeling? Will she be able to call it forth and remember it in times of challenge and pain? Will she be as lucky as I to find the teachers and the friends to support her? Will she be able to create her world within a world, one that values feeling good about oneself?

Will you?