This question landed in my inbox a few days ago, and it immediately stirred my soul.
“Jordan, I found you and your writing when I searched ‘reasons not to kill myself’ and your article came up. First of all, thank you. I can tell that you have the kind of compassion that comes from having truly walked the path. I can feel the sincerity of your soul from where I sit. I’m sure you get a lot of messages on a daily basis so I don’t want to waste your time… but, in essence, I have been struggling a lot these past few years.
I feel guilty writing these words because my life isn’t even that bad. I had a relatively functional upbringing. My parents were good enough parents. I was never physically beaten, raped, or abandoned. The only thing that I can pinpoint is that I was bullied quite a bit during my early childhood years (on the playground) and it did a number on me. I constantly question whether people actually like me. My self-esteem is shit. My work ethic is patchy, at best. And I generally just feel like a waste of space.
It’s been going on for long enough that my suicidal thoughts have been increasing in frequency. I don’t really feel like I have many people to talk to about it, because everyone just thinks it’s all in my head… but I feel like you will understand. How do I pull out of this funk? How do I see myself as worthy of taking up the space that I do? How have you come to be the person that you are, and help millions of people across the world with your healed pain? Any advice would be much appreciated.
Dear Seeking Self-Worth,
First of all, I love you. I can say that without having met you, with total ease. Your eloquence, courage, and beautiful vulnerability drip off the page. I honour you for having made it this far in your journey, and thank you from the bottom of my heart for reaching out.
The second thing that you should know is this… I read your message with tears in my eyes. I know you and your struggle all too well. Like you, my upbringing was relatively healthy. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we always had food. We didn’t wear designer brands, but we were always clothed. I didn’t always have an easy relationship with my siblings, but they never once hit me.
And here’s the thing…
Your life doesn’t need to be impressively terrible on paper for you to experience self-worth issues. Or to feel pain. Or to struggle with anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem.
Everyone accumulates wounds in their childhood. Everyone experiences moments of invalidation. No one gets through their formative years unscathed.
My siblings bullied me a moderate amount for several years (as siblings so often do), and I took their words and actions to mean a lot about me as a person.
I assumed that everyone that I loved hated me. I assumed that my whole family wanted me to kill myself. I told myself that I had to simultaneously become as needless and as valuable as possible, in order to not be abandoned by my parents. I told myself that I either had to become a millionaire by the age of 30, or I had to kill myself. Either prove my worth, or admit defeat and opt out of the human race. These were the stories I invented about myself, and repeated, for many years.
You see, Seeking Self-Worth, nothing terrible ever happened to me. I had a fairly fortunate upbringing. And yet, I made up dozens of stories about my value in the world based on the perfectly average amount of invalidation that I received.
These stories compounded from the ages of 5-15, and at 15 I tried to kill myself.
Whether my raging hormones, a recent breakup, or a genetic predisposition were to blame… it doesn’t really matter. What mattered, to the people who loved me at the time, is that I swallowed an entire bottle of pain killers, washed down with a can of overly sweet orange soda.
I did it in an alleyway, on the perimeter of my high school. My friend noticed I was missing, told one of our teachers, and they found me and took me to the hospital in an ambulance.
They poured some magical antidote into my veins so that I wouldn’t die, and then put me on suicide watch for four days.
The room I slept in felt like a jail cell. No belts. No shoelaces. No metal cutlery.
My family came to visit me in the hospital every day. Their eyes were more red than mine.
I felt immensely guilty when I saw the pain in their faces. I also felt confused as to why they were sad. My distorted thoughts rambled on (“Why were you crying? I thought I was doing you guys a favour”).
With the help of friends, family, and the passing of time, the depressive episode passed. My life found a state of equilibrium once more, as it always does.
Here’s what life has looked like in the fifteen years since my suicide attempt…
Beautiful. Painful. Rich with meaning. Ridiculous with triviality. Boring. Exciting. Terrifying. Gratifying. Full of growth. Full of stagnation. Being led by my heart. Being led by my ego. Being humble. Showing off. Doubting myself. Crying. Doing. Being. Rushing. Relaxing. Partying. Grieving.
In other words, my years have been like everyone else’s. No matter what we do, life keeps on being life-y. All the time.
I know that you know what pain feels like. I know you know what frustration, anger, despair, and sadness feel like. I also know that you know what joy, lightness, and comfort feel like. For someone to write as eloquently as you do, I can feel that you have lived through a lot.
When you asked how I have come to be the person that I am, and how I help people through my healed pain, I feel it necessary to qualify, or reframe, two parts of your question.
First, there seems to be a small sense of pedestalization in asking me how I came to be the person that I am. I am who I am just as you are who you are. I am not special. You are not special. No one is special… but we are all unique. Not only are you and I unique, you and I are more the same person than we are separate people. How can I know this to be true? Because when you stare at the stars at night… or look at the ocean… or gaze into another person’s eyes for longer than a few seconds… you remember the ultimate truth. We are not separate. We are all the same thing. When I feel my way through emotional pain, I am not feeling my pain… I am feeling the pain. I am feeling the pain of my lineage. I am feeling the pain of my culture. I am feeling the pain of humanity. So as you do when you feel “your” pain.
Second, I would never call the state that I inhabit a place of having “healed pain.” To have healed pain, in my mind, indicates a sense of completion. I don’t believe that we ever 100% rid ourselves of our core wounds. We can dismantle our egoic stories of separation, yes. But I don’t subscribe to the idea that we will ever be woundless, or pain-free people. There will always be pain. This is to be embraced. The faster and more completely you embrace your pain’s existence, the faster and more completely you will experience true love, bliss, and connection with others.
So, to answer your question more directly…
How have I come to be the version of myself that I am today, and how have I come to have any genuinely earned sense of true compassion? By doing the following.
1. I learned to take care of myself
Learning how to take care of ourselves, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, is a gift that keeps on giving.
It took me years of trial and error, but I eventually figured out what combination of actions contributed to my health and well-being. Being flawless in my self-care doesn’t mean that I am impervious to sadness, pain, or anxiety. It just means that my life has a healthy foundation underneath it, and I feel more capable and resilient when I am taking care of myself.
Engaging in self-care is a war of attrition. It’s all of the little things that you do, that add up to a larger, positive result.
2. I learned how to reach out to others
And I let them be there for me.
This one took me the longest to learn, by far.
It is absolutely essential that you learn to reach out to safe, trusted, loving people, who understand you and your situation.
There is no greater peace that I know of than sitting, in a crumpled heap, with someone who loves and accepts you exactly as you are, when you are at your most vulnerable.
Our deepest wounds were formed in relationship, and they must also be healed in relationship.
Try as you might, you can’t go it alone.
Become an expert at reaching out to ‘your people’ as often as you need to, and the journey will be far, far less challenging. This is so difficult to do when you’re hurting the most, but you must deploy the courage it takes to reach out. There is no other way around this.
3. I see my pain as a gift
I used to blame my siblings for my low self-esteem. But I never blamed them for my ability to listen intently and hold people’s hearts with care.
I used to be ashamed of my past and hold on to things that I labelled as the messy, or scary parts of myself. But I never thought that telling my stories could help other people heal around the world.
I used to see my sensitivity as a weakness. But I never honoured it for the gift that it is.
Chances are, the things that you tell/have told yourself are your weaknesses are actually some of your greatest gifts.
It took many years to get there, but I’m finally in a place where I see all of the pain that I went through as the necessary training and initiation that I needed in order to be who I am for people in the world.
When I sit with a client and hear of their suicidal thoughts, I don’t bat an eye because I have been there before. I have stared those same demons in the face, and lived to tell the tale.
In truth, I harness my pain. I write. I create. I help to heal as many hearts as I can through everything that I do.
I still feel pain. I still cry, often. I still feel doubt, anxiety, and deep grief.
But I also laugh often. I hug my friends close to my heart. I tell my parents I love them as often as I can. I keep creating, even on days when I don’t feel my best.
As one of my favourite quotes by Elizabeth Taylor goes, “You just do it. You force yourself to get up. You force yourself to put one foot before the other, and God damn it, you refuse to let it get to you. You fight. You cry. You curse. Then you go about the business of living. That’s how I’ve done it. There’s no other way.”
Life keeps on going. Pain is a constant. So is love. There is no finish line when it comes to emotional processing.
But there is also no ceiling as to how much of a positive impact we can make on the world with the depth of our caring.
And, if you read all the way to the end of this message, then I am entirely confident that you still have a lot of gifts to give to the world.
If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also benefit from reading: