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?