Conditions of worth

What is surprising about progress is how often you have to keep coming back to the same mistakes.

A subterranean boxing gym in central Helsinki, opposite Sörnäinen station (some readers will know exactly where I mean), seemed a particularly rugged place in which to hear something said about the more fragile side of human nature. Surrounded by the echo of the low ceiling, the hollering of the occupants and the steel rivets mooring the ring to its station, one could be forgiven for thinking only about toughness.

“People really put their inner selves on display when they get into the ring”, I was told. I agreed wholeheartedly.

In the ring, it is possible to see exactly what someone is made of. Where they buckle, where they shine, how they deal with troubles, successes and other people: all of this is projected onto a very clear backdrop. The vestiges of childlike ways of responding return for everyone to see. You would scarcely be more on display with Gunther von Hagens standing over you, scalpel in hand, TV monitors humming in the background.

Under this light I learnt something about myself. In the midst of a fight I found that I was holding on to an outdated belief about my self worth. Somewhere in the melee a resistance to change grazed the contours of reality and gave me the chance to address it. It is for this kind of insight that I think sport or competition is useful; the pursuit of medals is a comparatively mundane affair.

I realised that I was able – if I chose – to believe in my technical defensive ability. I know. I am World Champion and still have a hard time with that? I realised it precisely because I was not doing it. I was acting out of fear instead. As a beginner my defences sucked – I was scared of getting hit and did not have much in the way of replies or composure. That was my early belief. I held onto it for a long time because it took a long time to learn a better strategy. I have since developed a better technical defence, but all this while I have been carrying around a belief of not being ‘good enough’. And so I have been limiting myself. I saw this clearly for the first time.

In Rogerian, humanistic psychotherapy, ‘Conditions of Worth’ are the values that we receive from our parents, society and authority figures as infants. They are the conditions we feel must be met before we can feel good about ourselves. For instance, Jane learns she is only a ‘good girl’ when she is being quiet. Tom learns he is only an acceptable child when he is being nice to his brother, and so forth. Somewhere, an early condition of worth was not being met and the child in me was refusing to believe I was ‘good enough’ to be effective technically. The sad thing is, it is easier to hold onto a limiting belief than to upset a lifetime of security that springs from it.

In the humanistic model, under the right therapeutic circumstances our ‘locus of evaluation’ may shift from the external (ie. the conditions of worth we inherited so early on) to the internal. We have the power to choose to trust our own inner experience rather than be caught in the childhood wish to chase other people’s expectations before feeling good about ourselves.

The adult me is okay with feeling ‘good enough’ to rely on my technical ability. So I can lose the fear-based response that was otherwise taking over.

We all have self-limiting beliefs, yet the easier thing to do is to retain them than challenge them. Bravery belongs not to those who can hit hard, drop to the canvas and keep going, but to those who have the guts to step into the light and truly be seen.

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