The politics of worth

Chally just today posted at her blog, Zero at the Bone (my current favourite blog) about “loving yourself, and the social value of putting yourself down.” I attempted to leave a comment to her excellent and thoughtful discussion, but ended up having to think about what she wrote more deeply, in regards to my own experiences.

This passage sums up the general diection of her post:

It (putting oneself down) is something women in particular are taught to do. Taking pride in ourselves is understood as immodest, disconnected, and something to be swiftly undone. Women are taught to be givers, not takers. Part of that means giving out compliments and affirmations to others for qualities one strenuously denies in oneself. Sometimes this means a secret satisfaction in retaining a socially acceptable appearance of level-headed humility as well as knowledge of one’s own skill, character, or beauty…

It’s worse, however, for those for whom there is no realisation of doubleness, for whose who have internalised the idea that there is nothing particularly nice about who they are, and anyone who thinks there is anything good to say is kidding themselves. Then false humility marks a systemic sowing of self-doubt and self-sabotage. It’s a cruel thing to require people to dislike themselves.

Reading the rest of her post, I realised that I have gone to both extremes of valuing and devaluing myself.

I have never tried to police myself in order to fit in anywhere, to be seen as socially acceptable. The things I take pride in I take pride in vocally and visibly. I have often been told (even by those who are now close friends) that this makes me seem arrogant, snobbish or self-centred – but I have accepted that as a consequence of not wanting to believe that I am not someone extraordinary. (Which in itself is wrong.)

But at the same time, I have managed to completely undermine that thought, though the idea that I am not allowed to be ordinary. It’s my greatest fear: being average, being seen as “normal,” being good enough, but not brilliant. So when I find myself not being extraordinary at something, I feel that I am not capable of anything, not worth anything. It’s not only destructive thinking towards myself and my own abilities and achievements, but it’s also grounded in the idea that people who are average at something are not worth anything, which is something that I’ve been trying to work on a lot during the last year and will continue to do.

Uni is the predominant outlet for this sort of thinking, because it’s something I value myself by (perhaps too much) and something that plays a very large part in my life and in my envisioned future. I have always been a perfectionist when it comes to academic work, because I value my mind a lot (again, perhaps too much). I feel the need to achieve very high results and I crave recognition for my achievements. When I get results that I am happy with, then I am visibly happy, and make no attempt to hide it, and I take pride in myself.

At the same time, I fear being average. I find it very hard to accept any marks that doesn’t place my achievements right at the top of my cohort and in a percentage above ninety. My standards are incredibly high, because I fear being average, because then I will feel that I am worth nothing. On one hand, I have managed to turn the idea of diminishing my achievements to fit in and appear modest around completely. On the other, I’m still sabotaging myself. Earlier in the year I was faced with market day at uni, where all the clubs and societies try to get you to join their causes. I felt completely overwhelmed, because while I felt strongly about any of the causes and wanted to join every group, my primary motivation for joining was so that I could do more than anyone else.

The other side of the coin of requiring women to put themselves down is requiring them to be superhuman in order to be worth anything. To have it all, to do it all.

Thank you, Chally, for being the catalyst to put what I’ve been thinking for the last couple of months into words. Once you understand something it is easier to begin to overcome it.

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6 thoughts on “The politics of worth

  1. And thank you. This is so true: ‘The other side of the coin of requiring women to put themselves down is requiring them to be superhuman in order to be worth anything.’

    • I was rather proud of that thought! :D I would say thank you for the comment, but that would seem like one of those chains of never-ending thank yous…

  2. “women are taught to be givers, not takers”: I think the whole thing of always being ‘nice’ to other people, especially men, bolstering them up, is a bad habit that some women find it hard to break. Not that it’s bad to be nice, but to always be the one who smoothes things over, etc … esp for women of a certain generation, this is what they see as their role.

    I accept that I’m good at some things, bad at others. I don’t take kindly when people insidiously undermine me. But I never think of it as ‘self’ esteem’ -it’s easy to talk self-esteem, harder to do it.

    I’m a high achiever, and very competitive (you should see me play Scrabble – ouch!), but I’ve learned to kick back and recognise that I’m never going to be good at everything, or even the best. I try to just enjoy what I do, and enjoy my successes.

  3. I think the whole thing of always being ‘nice’ to other people, especially men, bolstering them up, is a bad habit that some women find it hard to break. Not that it’s bad to be nice, but to always be the one who smoothes things over, etc … esp for women of a certain generation, this is what they see as their role.

    Yes, I agree with this completely. However it’s not just a bad habit of women, it’s a bad habit of the culture we live in – one where women who are not constantly giving and “being nice” are termed “bitches” while the opposite is true for men, particularly in position of power. Just the other day I saw a piece in the SMH which examined one man’s experiences in the workplace when he started acting “mean.” He found that he gained more respect, more visibility, was appreciated more. I think this really underlines the way that masculinity and femininity have been constructed with double standards and inequality abounding. And those constructions and the expectations they bring are damaging for both sexes, even though they are weighted heavily towards the subordination of femininity (and thus women).

  4. *narrows eyes* Are you secretly me?

    No but seriously, that is EXACTLY how I feel. But since I manage to be paralysed by the perfectionism and my own ridiculously high expectations I often end up being extremely disappointed with the end result, kind of resigned to my ever-present “failure” even if the marks are considered “good”. It’s never enough, I’ve never done enough, I’ve spent far too much time on the internet and everyone else tries harder and oh god I’m actually a terrible, hopeless person who isn’t doing life properly I’ve just cultivated this illusion of competence and it’s all going to fall down at any second and people are going to see how incompetent I really am.

    In fact right this second I am putting off an animation assignment because I hate that I’m not good or fast enough at drawing, I know that I only guess at timing, there are far too many frames oh god.

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