When Does Self Worth Become Self Entitlement?

Photo by Randy Jacob

We’re taught that we deserve a place in the world, but claiming that place is a guilty process.

I am worthy is the phrase I couldn’t quite bring myself to say six months ago. I still struggle with it. Six months of EMDR therapy later, my therapist asked me if the phrase fit. No. I am free. Not quite worthy, but in that moment, being free was enough. But why can’t I be worthy?

I suppose it depends on what we’re worthy of, says my brain, but that doesn’t sit right. Surely if we’re worthy, we’re worthy of everything. Being worthy doesn’t mean receiving that thing. It just means we’re deserving of stuff. Then again, I don’t think anyone is worthy of a private jet so maybe it does depend. The stuff I’m after, I struggle to see how anyone could be unworthy except when I look at myself.

So what are we worthy of? Life, the space we exist within. Love and support. Food, shelter, protection from the elements. The means to express ourselves. Is that self worth or self entitlement? My mind is muddled, but I struggle to see myself as self entitled when I expect these things, but I also see myself as unworthy.

I can’t explain the double standard, but there is something out there telling me that I need to earn these things. That I need to prove I deserve them and there is no ruler for me to use; no goal post to clear.

One interesting thing I noticed about the British, having arrived here from America, is how the Brits will spit on people with things Americans will cheer about. Disparaging comments such as, “Oh it’s nice for some!” pepper their responses as someone they know ends up with some extra time off, a holiday or what have you. Americans of similar standing will look at a neighbour’s BMW and take a certain vicarious pride in that; I was taught to do the same — to praise those who display material success. Despite this difference, I don’t see the British as more or less inclined to misunderstand self worth for self entitlement.

Thing is, it’s obvious on the extremes: I don’t need some ten bedroom house and it’s pretty clear that anyone who feels they deserve such a thing is self entitled. I don’t believe my rights should come at the expense of others, so that’s clearly self entitlement too. It seems obvious that we all deserve food and shelter. We all need love. So our self worth should include those things as basic expectations, I would think.

"YOU CAN’T MAKE PEOPLE LOVE YOU, WE ALL DESERVE LOVE. IT’S A PARADOX."

Love is the hardest thing for me to accept. You can’t make people love you, we all deserve love. It’s a paradox. Material things are easier to carve up as reasonable or frivolous; a product of self worth or self entitlement. But the emotional stuff is intangible: we can’t make people be our friends, but we all deserve friends. At what point am I accepting friendship from a place of entitlement? And why do I apply this line of questioning to myself and nobody else?

I think maybe it comes back to our warped idea of how good things come to us in society: we earn things. We get nice things because of some trail of merit that we can recount. It’s the fable capitalism tells that we might deify the rich and chase the dream of being oligarchs one day. We get what we earn, but love is given freely — we can’t earn love.

Love, support and commitment are not things we can earn. Those are things we have that are given. The reasons for people to give those things are varied; they may or may not come as part of an exchange. On a friendship level and beyond, an exchange involving love or support would be considered toxic.

I can’t actually think of a scenario where the emotion love could be given as part of an exchange, but here I am trying to make the love people give me an exchange. My… something… for their love. I don’t even know what I might give them. Loving back is too obvious, right? That’s where self worth comes back into play: if I’m not worthy of love, then my love is not worth as much as other people’s. I need to justify the love of others beyond mutual loving.

" I DON’T UNDERSTAND MUCH ABOUT WHY PEOPLE DECIDE TO LOVE ME BUT MAYBE I DON’T HAVE TO."

In that moment with my therapist, I didn’t believe I was worthy. It still didn’t fit. Freedom was enough. But now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I have to admit that I don’t feel I have to do anything to deserve the love of others. I don’t understand much about why people decide to love me but maybe I don’t have to. Maybe nobody does.

Perhaps we’re so willing to believe that we have to earn love because nobody really understands why people love us. If nobody knows despite giving their own love, then it becomes easy to assign the fable of exchanges and earnings to relationships. At that point, we can commodify personal connections — which already happens in the form of social media and dating services. That assigned value becomes an internalised thing that we attempt to return.

I am worthy. Maybe it didn’t fit in the moment, but if I can’t assign a value for what I offer to the world, then I shouldn’t assign a value to what the world offers me. Whatever my understanding of self worth is, I’m entitled to the basics, same as everyone else. Why is that so hard to understand? It seems so simple, but here I am at forty only now deciding that I don’t need to worry about whether I deserve affection.

I still don’t know where self worth ends and self entitlement begins, but if I had to pick a boundary, it would be whether what one wants comes at the expense of someone else’s basic needs. I don’t believe I’m doing that. At least, not any more than anyone else in a first world country does; the world is cruel and we are all victims of its cruelty. Despite it all, or perhaps because of it all, we need to allow ourselves love. It’s a thing nobody can put a price on; beyond commodifying. Let it be free.

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