In Search of Self-worth amid a Pandemic

When I Can't Achieve, Produce, or Comply as Usual

Trigger warning: physical punishment

“Is self-worth tied to achievement, productivity, and compliance?”

This was one of the questions Brené Brown listed in Daring Greatly to check whether a family, a workplace or a group is shame-oriented. This hit me hard. I was shocked to learn that this narrative was toxic because I always thought it was normal. I was taught to achieve, produce, and comply. I was rewarded when I succeeded and was punished when I failed. I lived my whole life thinking that life is supposed to be that way, and it’s the only way to live. Then Brown’s question woke up a voice in my head, and it started shouting: That’s how I got here. That’s how I succeeded. And you are saying I’m suffering because of that?

My parents loved me the way they knew how. They provided for my wellbeing and education. But what they didn’t do was telling me how worthy I am no matter what I did. Their acknowledgment and approval were founded on accomplishment and compliance. They complimented me for getting good grades and not picking on food. When I brought home report cards, my mother took me to a bookstore and treated me to books I wanted to read, one book per A+. I was physically and verbally punished when I didn’t comply. The most frequent incidents were skipping after-school lessons, which earned me my mother’s beating.

Teachers in Seoul, where I grew up, were not different. Physical punishment was normalized and legal at that time. Not complying with a teacher’s order or failing to complete assignments led to beating on various parts of the body with various tools. Soles were the most sensitive parts, and the hockey stick was the most painful tool. Being a girl spared me from the baseball bat, yet watching and hearing the swing was enough to traumatize me.

My worth stood on my academic achievements. Each report card showed my rank in the homeroom and in the entire class. The fractions looked so plain that they felt inhumane: 3/54, 7/648. I was an obedient student, and I was good at studying. It was not hard to get my parents’ and teachers’ approvals. I just had to work hard, and I still do. I constantly seek acknowledgments and approvals. I was eager to earn them from my professors during my recent graduate study, and I am eager to earn them from you as my readers.

Being productive and accomplishing tasks give me energy. It would have been okay if I could do that throughout the year, but realistically it’s not possible. COVID-19 brought that reality into the light for me. I could not achieve, produce, or comply as much as I used to: I did minimal work to manage my classes; I could not focus to write; and I played mobile games a lot. I did not exercise as much, and I ate more junk food. As a result, I felt less worthy in general. When I had a particularly less productive day, I felt like a failure.

I’m struggling to accept this newly-found truth: I am worthy regardless of my achievement, productivity, and compliance. I want to accept it, but then I feel like the foundations of my self-worth are being taken away. What should I base my worth on then? I can’t do it out of nothingness!

I imagine how different my life would have been if I were taught that I am worthy no matter how imperfect I am. I wonder how I would approach my work, time management, and relationships. I am 38 years old, and now I’m trying to do something that the adults in my childhood failed to do for my younger self: teaching me unconditional self-worth.

One method has been proven to work well for shaping my mentality: reward and punishment, the method that my mother and teachers used on me. Since I believe punishments are harmful to mental health, I will only use rewards. Instead of rewarding myself for achieving, producing, and complying, I can reward myself for intending and making efforts. That way, my emotions do not need to depend on the results.

What I wrote here is not the best letter in the world. It is not even the best letter I have written. It might not be in publishable quality. But my intention is to reach out and connect with you by bearing my own vulnerability. And I made effort to do so. I could say it is good enough, but today I am going to pat my head and tell myself, “Hey, that’s awesome.”