What We Deserve from Life


What do I really deserve from life? That’s a question that comes up online a lot, even if it’s only implied. And the dismaying but common answer is often: not much. It always saddens me to read that, but it’s never surprising. Those of us who’ve lived with depression for a while know that the first thing to go is self-esteem. I lost it early on and formed the habit of tearing myself down, focusing only on what I’d done wrong.

For me, it was a short step from losing self-respect to believing that I didn’t deserve success or happiness and that I would turn every good experience into something bad. In the midst of depression, behaving in self-defeating ways wasn’t so hard to do.

That was partly because I could never pass the inner rating system I used – the one that began with the question: What do I deserve?

Even thinking, “I don’t deserve…” (fill in the blank) … turns the experience of life on its head.

  • A depressive friend told me some time ago in the midst of a market boom that she’d sold her stocks because she had made far too much money. She felt shame and said, only half jokingly: “God doesn’t want me to get any more money.”
  • Driving one day with another friend, a man of considerable accomplishments, I asked him if shame and depression had been problems for him as they had been for me. (I only asked because I believed they were.) He laughingly dismissed the idea of depression, but shame about who he was? That was different. “Of course – what else? If I don’t amount to much, shame is right. What could I possibly deserve?”
  • In my own case, I’ve had shame attacks in response to praise. I’ve also felt  scorn for an honor that I knew damn well should not have been given me. I’d be thinking: Those people can’t see the real me or they would know that I don’t deserve this.
  • One woman I knew years ago had an off-again on-again affair with a married man who came and went as he pleased. That was her main relationship. She assumed that was the best she deserved.
  • I’ve read many comments in forums that tell of confusion about what to do when faced with a partner who turns abusive. They ask the question of strangers – What should I do? There is doubt about who is causing the problem: Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s my fault, maybe I deserve this.

To deserve: to be worthy of, qualified for, or have a claim to reward, punishment, recompense, etc. …

Why do we even use words like deserve and worthy in talking or thinking about our deepest nature? Those words carry an assumption from the outset that we’re being evaluated for what we have done or for the talents we have demonstrated. In my case, there was always a mysterious standard I couldn’t meet and a  judge who determined how far I fell short. He always handed down the same verdict no matter what the evidence – undeserving.

The idea that I wasn’t worthy or deserving of love was the worst of all, but at times I believed it. Like so many, I often blocked out chances of intimacy through actions that repeated harmful patterns from the past – but to me they seemed only to confirm the belief that happiness in love was something I would never reach. I could yearn for intimacy, a trusting embrace, a deep bond of love, but I usually tensed up at opening fully to another. I was too afraid of what I was to do that, too convinced that the real me wasn’t fit to be that close to anyone.

It was a sure sign of recovery when I could finally stop listening to everything the inner voice was telling me about what I deserved. When that happened it was like seeing the emperor’s clothes for what they were – nothing at all. And into that nothingness also went the empty certainties of a rating system that was stacked against me from the start.

But for so long until then I listened to the voice, sometimes whispered, sometimes shouted from within, that I didn’t deserve whatever good might come my way. On the other hand, I took the bad, the disappointing as revealing the true me. Even if good things happened – and many did – I would likely feel undeserving and convince myself it was either a mistake or a strange bit of luck that couldn’t last long.

What occurs to me now is how the familiar, almost comfortable, the bad news felt. That was my element. My own success seemed intolerable, and I instinctively set about undoing it.

How do you feel when good things happen? Do you celebrate what’s happened, feel pride in what you’ve accomplished? Or does it feel undeserved, as if it resulted from a bureaucratic mistake, like a payment in the wrong amount that you’ll have to return?

Image: Some Rights Reserved by Delphine Devos at Flickr

28 Responses to “What We Deserve from Life”

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  1. naomi says:

    sometimes I ask myself is this what I really deserve in life, everybody puts me second, everybody uses me how they want, everybody kicks my back in, nobody’s really my friend and I just gotta remember that like I never did anybody wrong and my thanks was them stabbing me in my back and I always make sure everybody’s good and just never realize nobody in their life ever ask me that and if I show it through my facial expressions they only ask just to be noisey nobody really cares about me I just hate getting treated like shi and im such a good person

  2. elle says:

    I know when sonething good happens I will pay dearly for it. I always do. At 54 years old I’ve amounted to nothing because of this insidious disorder, disease whatever you want to call it. I don’t know how to change my story. Always the same. I live wuth a depressive person worse than me. I hate him. I need his money. I hate what I am. I know I’m so much better than this. My guttoral cries to God go unheard. My thoughts to all of you who suffer this horrible disorder.

  3. sally says:

    i have always felt a sense of being unworthy or undeserving whenever i get any good thing happening in my life.i think its happening due to sheer luck or coincidence ,without any contribution from mine.and on the other hand whenever i get any kind of bad things ,i feel i truly deserve it,its my punishment.also i have developed a kind of uncertainty towards good things in life and i just cant handle being happy and balanced for even one day in my life.every time sthg good happens i feel it is some kind of burden on me as if i have to repay it someday.looking back in the past,there is isnt a single good thing in my life that i deserved.
    i want to get over this guilt.
    i want to achieve sthg which i truly deserve but my own thoughts and habits haunt me that it will never come true and that everything that csn happen in my life is controlled by fate and not me.what should i do?

  4. Donna-1 says:

    Anything less than winning top honors “proved” to me that I didn’t deserve any more than honorable mention at the very most. It seemed very self-evident and obvious to all that I was undeserving because I simply didn’dt try hard enough…even when I had done my best.

    So every 2nd place I earned with hard work and diligence was an occasion to be depressed. At some point it was even that important to reach my parents’ expectations; I had aaccepted for myself that the bar was forever beyond my best efforts. Should anyone be surprised that this led to depression?

    And the times I did come out on top, I felt somewhat vindicated, yet convinced I should keep my excitement and pride under wraps as a truly undeserving person should. And my mind would rehearse disclaimers and prepare me for some undefined negative outcome that loomed just ahead. I always braced myself for the shot that would take me down.

    I believe I also had a pathological need for that next “fix” of approval. Any successes, after all, were in the past. Never in the present. I threw away trophies and ribbons and letters of commendation because they had not been received THIS year. It was always, “Okay, so what have you done TODAY that is worthy of praise?”

    But now, I feel really really proud of myself because I have been so courageous and resourceful in recovering from mental illness. Now my trophy is simply being alive and being of help to others. And I will never throw that away.

    • John says:

      Hi, Donna –

      You’ve hit my experience exactly, though I did have another strange element in this. I moved in cycles from being totally down to totally up, and in the up periods I had grandiose dreams of myself and felt fiercely competitive and dominating. That was another form of this inner belief in not being good enough and being wrapped up in myself. Grandiosity instead of shame.

      My best to you –


  5. Bill McPherson says:

    I have been suffering from a inferiorty complex all my life. I don’t know where to go to get help. I am tired of being depressed. Can anyone help me?

    • john says:

      Hi, Bill –

      Have you tried any form of therapy? There are many types to choose from – PsychCentral has a very good introduction to them, starting here. They have a lot of material about drugs and a great deal more – so does Health Central at their depression site (I’m one of a number of contributors there) so that’s also worth checking out. I don’t know if you’ve considered medication. It sometimes helps take the edge off the worst symptoms. I’ve found it’s then easier to move ahead in changing how you feel about yourself, and undoing the other psychological damage depression causes. But it can take forever to find the right med – not at all an ideal approach. I’ve been thinking about everything that helped me get past depression (like yours, lifelong), and I’m writing an ebook about it now – actually a series of them. Hopefully, I’ll have the first one ready by the end of August. The series will describe strictly my own approach and might be useful for folks who’ve dealt with similar circumstances.

      What approaches, if any, have you tried so far?

      My best –


  6. Shirley says:

    Thanks for visiting my blog, Sweet Resistance. I can relate to so many points that were made in this post and in the comments left by others.

    When you replied to Clinically Clueless, “…Of course, we grow up with cultural and religious voices telling us we start as nothing – or as fallen – and have prove our value as people or believers…”. John as a believer, I still fight with my inner self about being worthy. I hear in many sermons that we as Christians as not worthy of God’s love. I sometimes feel like that is a self defeating statement. It is like we are trying every minute to be people pleasers, because of our low self esteem to feel loved and worthy of love, even God’s love.

    My doctors over the past 30 years have changed my medications probably 20 times. My current doctor has added Cymbalta to my Depakote. The Cymbalta is helping my depression, not feeling so sad and days seem more uplifting.

    Thanks for your blog and the great post! Stop by my blog again.

    • john says:

      Shirley –

      It’s hard for me, as well, to understand the emphasis in Christianity on our being unworthy. For a believer, the authority of one’s church drives the idea quite deeply. As a kid, I kept feeling watched and judged and knew that I would never be worthy, though I wasn’t quite sure of what. It’s such a crippling thing to hear and to have repeated throughout your life.

      I’m glad the cymbalta is working for you. Changing medications that often has also been true for me – the benefits never lasted. And now, though I still take some – which are working – I know they’ll never suffice no matter what they do. It’s up to us to get our lives back.

      Thanks so much for your comment. I’ll definitely be back to your blog.


      • Donna-1 says:

        We are told, as Christians, that we are made in the image of God and that He desires our companionship. Doesn’t that speak of worthiness? Yet, it’s hammered into us that we are indeed unworthy of His presence unless we blindly adhere to His rules. Science and observation tells us we are each unique, but religion tells us God wants us all to conform. Sometimes I admit I just don’t get it.

        • John Folk-Williams says:

          Hi, Donna –

          I don’t get it either. I don’t know why the religions of fierce belief set up so many conditions for faith. God grants grace, and that is a free gift, not something you earn.


  7. herrad says:

    Hi John,

    You and we all deserve everything.

    Take care.

    • john says:

      herrad –

      I’m always impressed with your optimism and inner strength.

      Thanks for your comment.

      My very best — John

  8. Just Be Real says:

    Yepper! I can relate also. Intimicy is very hard. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Thanks for the support John. This post really resonated with me.

    • john says:

      Thank you for being so willing to share such experiences. We all learn from your openness, and you deserve every bit of support anyone can offer and more.


  10. John,
    This post resonated with me. Right now in therapy, I’m looking at how my whole system of being is tied to self-hatred and self-loathing. This effects everything that I think, feel and behave.

    Even when I earn something, I think that I’m a phony, that they saw through me. Deserving or being worthy…with all that has gone on in the past couple of months, I have been struggling with being deserving of care. Even now as I recover from pneumonia.

    Self-hatred, self-loathing, low self-esteem and self-judgements are such insidious things.


    • john says:

      Clinically Clueless –

      I’m sorry to hear that self-loathing & its kin are so strong. Those can be dangerous times, and I so wish you well in at least lowering the inner volume of those judgments. I know it’s been a help to me to stop accepting what I call the rating system with its vocabulary of deserving and worthiness. Of course, we grow up with cultural and religious voices telling us we start as nothing – or as fallen – and have prove our value as people or believers. Parents tend to confirm that – though thankfully there are lots of exceptions. So severe depression has a lot to work with when it takes over, and of course many who are not depressed have internalized this same system of judgment.

      All my best in getting past this – I know so well how hard it is.


  11. “When that happened it was like seeing the emperor’s clothes for what they were – nothing at all.”

    Absolutely, John. Bravo. There is no undeserved thing or way or being. If it is then that’s that ‘eh?

    It’s more complicated in practice, of course because the mind turns on a dime sometimes. Even when, for a moment, I find myself ‘deserving’ I’m still not sure I ever really believe my worth has been assured.

    But then we are the only ones who can discover that for ourselves, right? But I wonder if belief is the point. Maybe we need something beyond that, something a little deeper to help us value the light in ourselves which we are so very afraid of.

    • john says:

      CK –

      Those are great points. I’m intrigued by the idea of something deeper than belief – I tend to equate basic values with beliefs as things that only change in the face of some event that can’t be comprehended or contradicts what a person has felt make sense of life – an event of conversion. Deeper than that, I guess, would be a more instinctive level to stay alive. Unless you’re in suicidal despair, that one comes through for us. Then there’s the will to live, determination to get over illness. I’ve got to sort this out!

      Thanks for probing more deeply – as you always do!

      All love — John

  12. Svasti says:

    Good point, John. Its safe to say that good news never feels as real, as concrete and certain as bad news. Funny, that!

    • john says:

      Svasti –

      Exactly – Good doesn’t feel as real as bad – I like that way of putting it.

      All my best — John

  13. Evan says:

    Hi John,

    The whole deserving thing is a pretty big trap.

    I now feel pretty OK with myself. There wasn’t any one thing I did to get here: just worked on lots of different stuff. So I can’t provide any real guidance or experience for working on this stuff.

    • john says:

      Evan – It is a terrible trap, but I’ve been in it – on and off – for a long time. It’s a combination of things that have helped me stop or at least not pay attention to the judging. It helped a lot to stop using this words too.

      I’m glad you’re OK with yourself!


  14. la says:

    I see a lot of myself in this post. I, too, struggle to get close to people, because I assume if they knew the ‘real me’ they wouldn’t like me. I’m especially afraid to talk about my depression (it feels more like coming clean) because I don’t want the negativity that surrounds it to pollute the relationship.

    I don’t want to blame our parents, but I think our self-esteem is cemented in early life. Parents who are overly critical, even with the best of intentions, don’t know the damage they do.

    Of course, we are coming from different cultural perspectives. In the US, you’re told you’re number one. In Scotland, you’re told you’re no better than you should be. There’s got to be a happy medium.

    • john says:

      Hello, la – I’m with you on the parenting problem. It’s hard to believe that once the damage is done, you can spend the rest of your life trying to get past it – also trying to make it right with those primal parents. I would qualify your last point a bit. True that kids here often grow up with the expectation of the parents that they’ll be number one or anything they set their minds to (usually an inflated goal) or go farther than mom and dad have. The problem is that they probably fail to satisfy that goal, or fail to meet the parental schedule for getting there or don’t want to have anything to do with what they’re expected to be. Then the hammer falls – the kid is belittled, humiliated, reminded he/she can’t or won’t try to make the grade, etc. There is a perverse but widespread notion here among adults – especially sports coaches – that if you smash egos long and hard enough kids will be motivated to do better. Makes many of us desperate to succeed, perfectionists or just tormented.

      Thanks for being here! I love your comments.


      • MJ says:

        Thank you for the great points about parenting. Yes, we are not supposed to blame our parents. However, I think that we can (at least I can) acknowledge that the demanding/criticizing type of parent does set a child up for years of depression/therapy etc.

        Mine meant well, I’m sure, but in my mother’s frustration with her own life and desire to see me be a stunningly glorious success she sent the message most often of “if you are not a [doctor/lawyer/CEO/wife of a surgeon/millionaire], you’re a loser and failure.” And those were her words! She loved “loser, failure, nobody, nothing, garbage and dud.” You can imagine how dad and I weren’t the only worthless losers in the world – pretty much everyone else is too.

        And now she’s disappointed in me and perplexed, because I’m 40, just emerging from self doubt and self hatred, and still think that (with my 2 professional degress and good job) that I’m a “loser.” Why do people do these things and then act surprised????????? How can people be so clueless of the impact they have on others?

        We deserve to be who and what we are, be respected and be happy. We aren’t put on Earth only to make our parents/bosses/partners feel better about themselves.

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