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“What is the biggest obstacle you’ve ever faced? Did you overcome it? How?”
I recently started a writing class, and this was one of the prompts from the first week.
When I read this question, my first thought was the severe anxiety episode I experienced in 2018 and the aftermath. If you aren’t a regular reader of the blog, here’s the short version. I started experiencing panic attacks that kept me from being able to return to work for about 6 months. It was rough…
As I was thinking through this though, I realized that this was only one part (although major) of an even bigger obstacle.
The bigger obstacle was that I didn’t believe that I deserved to be happy or to thrive.
That was extremely had to admit to myself. And, it’s really hard for me to admit to you.
After reflecting on it further, I realized that I’ve been resisting writing this post for months. I knew I needed to work through this question and write it. But, I really didn’t want to dive into the recesses of my mind to figure out where it came from.
Now, I’m bringing it out into the open so that I can eradicate it, root and stem.
What Does it Mean to Thrive?
Before I get into all the reasons why I used to feel like I didn’t deserve to thrive, I think it’s important to define what thriving actually means.
From doing some research, it became clear that there is not a scientific consensus about what it means to thrive. People have articulated what it means to thrive in different parts of life. But, figuring out how to define “human thriving” is something that’s come to the forefront only in recent years.
In 2017, Dr. Daniel Brown decided to pull together the existing literature on the topic from different fields and came up with a comprehensive definition.
According to Dr. Brown, “[Thriving] appears to come down to an individual experiencing a sense of development, of getting better at something, and succeeding at mastering something. In the simplest terms, what underpins it is feeling good about life and yourself and being good at something.”
He also discusses various “enablers” or factors that increase our likelihood of thriving. A few of these include having:
- Your physical/social/psychological needs met
- A high degree of autonomy
- Manageable challenges
- Bonds with people who can provide support
If I want to thrive, the components include:
- Learning and growth
- Having my needs met
- Feeling good about life and myself
Because this still seemed very general, I decided to create my own definition of thriving.
To me, thriving means:
- Every day, I am learning more about what I value.
- I am aligning my time, energy, and money with those things.
- I’m growing, learning, and evolving into a better version of myself.
- I create conditions in my day-to-day life that feel good and balanced.
- I am resilient in the face of challenges.
Why I Believed I Didn’t Deserve to Thrive
There were a few key limiting beliefs that I needed to articulate and work through. These included:
- “I don’t deserve to be happy if other people are suffering.”
- “My value/worth comes from what I can do for others.”
- “Sacrificing and giving of myself is the highest virtue.”
First, I want to walk you through how I came to believe these things. Then, I’ll walk you through how I’ve unlearned them.
Before I jump in, I want to share that many of these things harmful perspectives come from my religious upbringing. I don’t often discuss religion on my blog, and, therefore, I’d like to be clear about a few things up front.
- I am writing about how things impacted me personally. I completely understand that the things I recall so vividly are likely outside of their full context. What I interpreted as a young person might be completely different than how you think about it. It is okay for us to have different perspectives.
- I am not looking for correction or advice on what you believe something actually means, no matter how well-intentioned.
- I am currently not part of any organized religion. As you’ll see, I have a lot of baggage that I’ve needed to unpack. But, I know a lot of people find meaning, purpose, community, and comfort in the context of their religion. That is wonderful. I have simply chosen to not be a part of it.
All that to say, please don’t make me regret writing this post…
Now that we’ve got that squared away, let’s jump in.
There were three main things I learned as a child that contributed to my belief that I didn’t deserve to thrive.
- I believed it was “correct” to have a humble and low view of myself.
- Self-sacrifice was praised, and I learned that it was a desirable way to live.
- When I was exposed to poverty in my early years, I thought that the appropriate response was guilt.
Let’s explore where these came from.
Myth #1: I should have a humble and low view of myself.
When I was young, I learned that I was supposed to have a humble and low view of myself. If I became small and thought I was unworthy, God would be more merciful. (Again, I know this is extremely broad strokes and taken out of context… But, it was what I thought this all meant as a young person).
Here are a few key things that contributed to this perspective.
I grew up in a Christian context as part of the Reformed church denomination. This may or may not mean anything to you.
When I was in middle school, one of the activities in Sunday school was to memorize and recite the Heidelberg Catechism, which was the core doctrine of that particular church denomination.
Thinking about it the other day (twenty years later), I literally only remember one line. It was this, “We [human beings] are totally unable to do any good.”
I had to Google it because I didn’t know if I was making up memories. When I Googled it, memories came back to me. The Heidelberg Catechism was a call and response. One person would ask a question and then the rest of the group would read back the answer.
Here is the actual text of the question I remembered, “But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil?” And, the answer we read back started with, “Yes…”
Another thing I remember hearing a lot growing up was that human beings are totally depraved. When I was a kid, I knew this was very bad. I recently looked up the definition of total depravity.
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition is, “a state of corruption due to original sin held in Calvinism to infect every part of man’s nature and to make the natural man unable to know or obey God.”
It’s really no wonder that I felt unworthy of happiness and thriving. According to my religion, I thought I was supposed to feel totally unworthy of anything.
When I was in college, I learned that not every Christian ascribes to this belief. In fact, some people actually describe this as “Worm Theology” which is the idea “that in light of God’s holiness and power an appropriate emotion is a low view of self.”
As a young adult, I consciously decided to no longer believe that I was totally corrupt and should humble myself. Yet, the conditioning was there and still set a foundation for my beliefs about myself.
Myth #2: Self-sacrifice is the highest virtue, so I should constantly be sacrificing and giving of myself.
When I was a child, it seemed as if sacrificing was praised constantly, so it must be the highest virtue. When you thought that human beings were horrible and totally depraved, the fact that Jesus came and sacrificed his life so we could be a little less pitiful seemed like a true virtue. I thought, “Wasn’t I supposed to do the same?”
As I was reflecting on this, a few particular phrases came into my mind about self-sacrifice. I knew they were likely from the Bible, so I googled it just to make sure.
Here are two phrases that came to mind:
- “You should lay down your life for your friends.” When I googled this, I found a verse (John 15:13) that says, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
- “Your life is a living sacrifice.” When googling, I found that Romans 12:1 says, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.”
Given my middle-class lifestyle in a suburban neighborhood in the 1990s, I didn’t really have the opportunity to lay down my life for someone else. But, I thought about it. As morbid as this may sound (and so quintessentially American), I thought (a few too many times) about what I’d do if there was a school shooter. Would I protect my friends over myself?
That was unlikely to happen though (and never did). So, instead of sacrificing my body for others, I realized that I could sacrifice my well-being to help others. I could put them and their needs before my own, and in that way, I could be a little less depraved and maybe a little more worthy.
Myth #3: When exposed to poverty, the appropriate response is guilt.
I am a white person who grew up in a middle-class suburban community. I always had everything I needed. I never went hungry. I always had a roof over my head. My public school was a safe place for learning.
In my own community, I wasn’t exposed to poverty or very many people who were different from me. My parents made efforts to make sure I understood that not everyone lived in the same way that we did. When I grew older, I sought out similar situations.
When I was five years old, my family started serving Thanksgiving dinner every year at a homeless drop-in center. As I got older, I also spent time volunteering at the food pantry as well.
I took my first international trip to Ecuador when I was 15 years old to volunteer at an orphanage. From that point forward, I spent as much time as possible traveling and volunteering. I went to Mexico (multiple times), Ecuador (again), Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and El Salvador to volunteer or study abroad.
I am grateful that I had opportunities to learn about poverty, oppression, and other ways of living. At the time, I didn’t know how to respond in a constructive way. My religious upbringing colored my response. I thought that I was unworthy to have the life that I had, and, thus, I thought I needed to self-sacrifice even more.
The combination of these three myths culminated in a belief that I didn’t deserve to thrive or have a happy life. This perspective was so deep-rooted that it continued to guide my behavior. Ultimately, it led to a lot of anxiety, depression, and issues related to my own self-worth.
It culminated in my severe mental health crisis in 2018. I pushed myself so hard and sacrificed my well-being because I thought that is what made me a good person. Ultimately, I became completely burned out. The dam that held back my feelings of anxiety, stress, and inadequacy broke. I could no longer handle any stress.
This resulted in me needing to take 6 months off from work to rebuild my life.
Unpacking the Baggage to Build a Thriving Life
To build a thriving life, the first step was to believe I deserved it. Now, I want to walk you through how I unpacked all the baggage that told me I didn’t.
I walked away from organized religion.
I walked away from organized religion in stages. When I was in high school, my whole family decided to attend a different church that had a much more positive message about identity and well-being.
While I still attended a church in college and immediately afterward, I started seeking out resources for support outside of religion. At the time, this consisted of therapy. I started to feel less and less like being part of a church actually helped me. There was simply too much baggage (much of it from religion in the first place) to work through.
When I moved to Boston, I found that I didn’t want to find a church. So, I never did. I focused on building strong communities of support elsewhere.
This doesn’t mean to say that I’m against organized religion and that I’ll never go back (even though it feels unlikely at the moment I’m writing this). Now, I simply have a much broader perspective and have found communities that feel much kinder and more supportive than I ever felt in a church.
I had a severe mental health crisis in 2018.
I’ve always dealt with depression and anxiety. Part of it is genetic (many of my ancestors have dealt with similar mental health challenges). The biggest challenge is that it took me so long to actually deal with my issues.
I started seeing a therapist in 2010, and I was in and out of therapy for 8 years before my mental health crisis. Looking back, I realized that I’d been using therapy when things got really bad to just get back to my previous baseline. Since my previous baseline wasn’t actually a very good place, therapy served as a bandaid for a period of time before things got bad again.
Why did I use therapy to get back to my previous baseline?
Because I didn’t believe that I deserved better. It’s as simple as that.
When I had my severe mental health crisis in 2018, I knew I needed to make some radical changes. It was as if my body told me, “If you won’t make the changes needed to get better, I’m going to force the issue.”
It was around the same time that I saw a quote, “The goal of therapy should never be to help people adjust to oppression.”
I realized that this was how I had been using therapy. I didn’t think I deserved to live a better life, so I was using therapy to help me adjust to toxic situations (rather than change them).
I decided that I wanted to believe I deserved better. My body (and panic attacks) forced me to take the actions as if I believed that were true. I ended up taking 6 months off of work on medical leave.
During the 6-month medical leave, I went to therapy twice/week. I participated in group therapy aimed at helping people understand and manage intense emotions like anxiety. I saw a psychiatrist and got back on anti-depressants. Most importantly, I allowed myself time for self-care and recovery. I meditated, swam at my local pool, took my dog for walks, read books for fun, and slept more than I could have ever thought possible.
As I mentioned above, my mental health crisis felt like a dam bursting open. To rebuild it, I needed to remove all stressors from my life.
By taking action, I actually started to feel better.
I formed a new perspective on what I believe I deserve.
During my 6-months off of work, I started to reflect on what I wanted my life to be like once I returned to work. I was starting to actually feel better for the first time in my life. I wasn’t just getting back to my previous baseline.
I knew I wanted to form a new perspective. Here are the things I now believe:
Put your mask on first before assisting others.
While this might seem obvious to you, it wasn’t obvious to me. I came from an environment where self-sacrifice was praised and the highest virtue I could aspire to.
It was a radical concept that I could still be a good person if I focused on myself and my own well-being before helping others.
In addition to hearing this concept from others, it started to sink in when I did the Kindness meditation series from Headspace. When I started the “Kindness Pack,” I was expecting it to focus on kindness toward others. Instead, the entire series focused on how kindness toward others starts with kindness towards ourselves.
Over time, I started to see the impact of this approach. I realized that when I filled myself up to overflowing, I was a lot happier. And, I could actually support the people around me better. I wasn’t just giving away crumbs anymore.
I imagine myself as a trusted friend (or an honored guest in my home).
Whenever I say something that’s not particularly kind to myself in therapy, my therapist will often say, “Think about a trusted friend, someone you really care about. What would you tell them if they were experiencing what you are right now?”
This question has allowed me to put kindness toward myself into practice. It’s a lot easier to be kinder and provide encouragement to someone else. Why can’t apply those exact same things to myself?
So, when I can imagine myself as a trusted friend (or an honored guest in my home), I realize that I am deserving of a lot more kindness.
This is now a question I ask myself frequently.
I realized that I can incorporate what I LOVE into what I do.
I used to believe that I needed to figure out how the world’s biggest need and my skills intersected. I thought that was what it meant to do good in the world (which involved sacrificing my well-being in the process).
It never even crossed my mind that what I wanted or what I loved to do could be incorporated into this picture! So, when I learned about the Japanese concept of Ikigai, this was a whole new perspective.
Not only did this framework take into account what I was good at and what the world needed, but it also took into account the things that I loved to do and what I could get paid for.
This set the foundation that allowed me to start a passion-based business. I realized that what I decide to do in the world doesn’t necessarily need to meet the world’s greatest needs at the expense of my own well-being. I could figure out how to do something I loved, was passionate about, and felt energized by.
This allows me to serve and share the things that I’ve learned in a way that’s unique to me that actually makes me happy. We all have unique parts to play.
I learned an alternative to guilt as a way to respond to poverty and oppression.
There were many resources that contributed to this realization, but one, in particular, that stands out was an article called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.
I used to believe that I couldn’t possibly deserve to thrive, especially if other people in the world were suffering. I needed to be doing something. I needed to be sacrificing my own needs so that they could have something better.
When I read this article for the first time, I was well acquainted with the idea of privilege and knew I had a lot of it.
The most interesting point from the article for me was how Peggy McIntosh made a distinction between positive and negative privileges. Here’s how she describes them, “We might at least start by distinguishing between positive advantages which we can work to spread, and negative types of advantages which unless rejected will always reinforce our present hierarchies.”
From this, I realized that positive privileges are ones that everyone deserves to have. And, we can choose to use those positive privileges (often unearned) “to weaken the hidden systems of advantage…”
After many years of reflecting on this revelation, I now realize that thriving is a positive privilege. Everyone deserves to thrive. We all deserve to have the conditions in place (our needs met, autonomy, and space to learn) that would allow us to thrive. And, me deciding that I deserve to thrive can only serve to pave the way for others. I can use this positive privilege to bring others up after me and weaken the hidden systems of advantage for the few.
I clearly articulated my new empowering beliefs and continually remind myself of them.
After going through a learning process, it’s important to clearly articulate your new empowering beliefs. I often treat these as mantras that if I say often enough I will start to believe in my heart (not just my head).
Here are the empowering beliefs that I now use as my mantras:
- I deserve to thrive. I deserve this not because of what I can do for others, but because I exist. We all deserve to thrive.
- I deserve to fill up my cup so much that I’m overflowing. Then, I can give my overflow to others.
- I deserve to be treated with kindness and respect (from myself and others).
- Thriving is a positive privilege. If I thrive, I am more likely to be able to help others do the same.
There are many situations where I fall back into my old thought habits. This is why it’s so important to continue reminding myself of what I actually believe now.
Let me share a recent example of how I used these empowering beliefs to remind myself that I deserve to thrive.
Earlier this year, I was dealing with some GI issues. I decided to work with a nutritionist since I knew a lot of the issues could likely be resolved by adjusting what I put into my body.
One notable thing is that I did not try to downplay my issue and act as if it weren’t worth taking care of. It doesn’t matter if there are other people who are sicker than me. That’s a big step! I also know that physical health creates a strong foundation for anything I would endeavor to do. So, I knew it was important to move forward.
But, I also needed to remind myself to treat myself with kindness and respect throughout the process. I was wary to work with a nutritionist because, like most Americans (and people in the world…), I’ve had issues with diet culture in the past. I had previously seen an inverse relationship between my mental health and physical health. When my mental health was at its worst, my physical health was often at its best. Why? Because my body was the thing that I could control when everything else felt out of whack.
So, I was committed to approaching working with a nutritionist in a way that was kind and respectful toward myself.
Instead of doing a food diary in an app that counted calories, we found an app that only needed a list of the foods I ate and the symptoms I experienced. This allowed me to start looking at food in a nonjudgmental way – simply asking, “how did this make me feel?”
Later, we started tracking in an app that did include amounts and, therefore, calories. The main purpose was to look at macronutrients and if there were certain things that would cause issues if they went above a certain threshold (e.g. high saturated fat was contributing to headaches). My nutritionist also shared that the only reason she looks at calories is to make sure I am eating enough. (This blew my mind).
This process allowed me to reduce (and almost eliminate) GI distress and headaches. It was incredible.
But, we didn’t stop there. The nutritionist taught me all about how what we eat can contribute to our health in various ways, such as having more energy and reducing the likelihood and severity of sickness/disease. When I was eventually diagnosed with 2 different GI-related conditions, she helped me understand the specific things I could do to manage and support the healing process.
Trying on these new empowering beliefs focusing on something as external expectation-laden as nutrition was transformational for me. I stopped treating healthy eating as a punishment. I started seeing eating for health as one of the kindest things I could do for myself. And, I deserved this kindness because I deserve to thrive.
Note: This wasn’t meant to overtly be a recommendation to work with my nutritionist, but I do highly recommend her!
This is just one recent example of where I’ve kept these new empowering beliefs in the front of my mind, and it’s made a big difference.
So… What does this have to do with finances?
Wow! You made it through a full post focused on unpacking limiting beliefs that allowed me to thrive. But, this is a finance blog, isn’t it? What does this have to do with finances?
Finances touch every part of our lives, including:
- How we generate income to meet our needs and save for the future
- What we buy to take care of ourselves and our families (and to have a little fun too)
- Lifestyle design options that are available to us based on where we are in our financial journey.
Believing that we all deserve to thrive might help us make different choices:
- We might actually negotiate our salary or raise our rates.
- It could inspire us to spend our money a lot more intentionally (spending more on things we value and cutting costs on things we don’t).
- We could explore different lifestyle design options that would make us happy (because we don’t need to wait until something external gets so bad that we are forced to).
You deserve the thrive. We all do. What would it look like we if all behaved as if this were true?
Thank you for sharing! I too have some similar scripts that still impact me today at almost age 50. Your writing is so clear and impactful – thank you for sharing and allowing me to further explore my own limiting beliefs.
I’m so glad to hear this resonated with you. Thank you for your kind words.
I can imagine how hard it was to write this post, but my goodness, I’m so glad you did! I’m also on a similar journey of unpacking my conditioning and trauma, root to stem, as you call it. Anyway, thanks for putting yourself out there in such an honest and vulnerable way. It makes a difference!
Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m so glad to hear it resonated with you.
I grew up in a different community of faith but had a very similar experience. I think there is also an element of gender in there, especially in combination with (many, not all) organized religions. I am still working on dismantling the framework. And as hard as that effort is, even more difficult is: what do I want to replace it with? What framework do I want to build for myself? Appreciate this article and your thoughtful perspective of a difficult, sensitive topic.
Thank you for your kind words. The best thing is that you get to decide what you want to replace it with. I wish you all the best.
Thank you for sharing – I read this at just the right time as I have really been grappling with fears of failure tied to lack of self worth… all coupled with my ability to thrive as a father, community member, business person en route to FI. You’ve given me hope, as well as filled my agency cup, so congrats to you and thank you very much for the inspirational pathway.
I am so happy to hear that this was helpful and came to you at the right time. You deserve to thrive! I wish you all the best.
Thank you for sharing your story Jess. I think many of us have baggage that needs unpacking and hearing that others had similar experiences makes it easier to do.
Thank you for your comment. The outpouring of support has definitely made me feel that it was worth sharing, so thank you!
Wonderful! So grounded in your self introspection. It’s clear you’ve gone a deep self awareness journey, and almost all of this resonates in my life. In fact, it’s why I’m on a 4 month
Mini sabbatical/retirement. Thanks for sharing this ?
I’m so glad to hear it resonates. I hope you enjoy your sabbatical!
Great article. I grew up in a similar religious environment, and it’s quite an adventure unpacking and dealing with that (side note- the Dirty Rotten Church Kids podcast has some good episodes about this too). Here’s to all of us on our journey to unpack and thrive!
Thank you for your kind words. Over the last few days, it’s been amazing to hear just how many people struggle with these things too. I’ll check out the podcast!
“Think about a trusted friend, someone you really care about. What would you tell them if they were experiencing what you are right now?”
Love this and am stealing it. I am not kind enough to myself and could see this as being a way to reframe my self-talk.
Thanks for this post, friend. It’s a good one.
I’m so glad you found it helpful!
I struggle with some of these things too. We live in a a weird society. Where people shame people who are perceived as doing well with comments lie “it must be nice” or your point when exposed to poverty where you should feel guilty.
It goes further than that too with the overall culture adopting ideas like “tax the rich” on a deep level the message is you don’t deserve to be ok if you are we need to take it back from you.
On the opposite side of the spectrum we are also pressured to be perfect. If we miss an answer on a test “You get an F” or if you try something and fail the first time you try it’s “I told you so/ idiot!”
Its hard to train ourselves to do the best we can and be happy without guilt when our hardwork pays off. Good thought provoking article
Adam the friendly Sasquatch
I definitely think it’s possible to walk the line between feeling like we deserve to thrive and also using that privilege to improve society. I don’t mind the idea of “taxing the rich” because people who are wealthy will certainly still be okay – and very likely still have the conditions they need to thrive even if they are taxed at a higher rate. It could help us create a world in which more people have the conditions needed to thrive.
I don’t think people who are wealthy need to feel guilty for being wealthy (unless they made their wealth by oppressing others and they aren’t trying to use their power to change the system). It’s definitely a nuanced perspective that’s both/and for me.
I deserve to thrive AND others deserve to thrive. And, I can use my thriving to create the conditions in the world that more people can take advantage of, so they can also thrive. I don’t know if that makes sense at all, but I hope it does. 🙂
I’ve a friend that grew up with religious guilt and it’s taken him quite a bit of time to try and undo that. I believe he’s still working on it. I think humility could be valuable or detrimental, depending on how one interprets it. I think:
– Unhealthy way of looking at humility is the classic definition: “A modest or low view of one’s own importance; humbleness”. But this unnecessarily suppresses one’s self-esteem and thereby the possibility of things that they can do.
– Healthy way of humility: A realistic, grounded, compassionate, and fair view of oneself free from ego.
The latter allows us to understand how little we mean in the grand scheme of things, yet how important our actions can be and how much it affects others. It also allows us to see our weaknesses for what they are and to be grounded in reality so we can improve upon them.
Thanks so much for sharing this. I love this perspective on humility.
I’ve looked at this from an Asian culture perspective. What religion asks however what ends up happening within the culture you live in.
I’ve decided to completely remove myself from the culture as it doesn’t align itself with religion.
It’s interesting what you seem to see if someone”s article & how it helps you on your own journey.
I feel the culture is completely different to the religion ie ‘I’ll be good at the end. I’ll do whatever I want now be it good or bad’.
What your meant to remember is that you don’t know when you will go (die) so you should be as good as you can on the ‘train journey of life’.
You don’t know when that train will come to a stop permanently. I feel people forget this in ALL aspects of life, be it religious or not.
You should enjoy life and treat everyone with respect. If everyone does this, then majority of society will also follow suit…….
Thanks for the article it made me look at it from a similar/different perspective which was helpful.
I can relate a bit to the changing relationship with religion. There was definitely a narrative of struggling so you could rely on God and testify. Or whatever ills or struggles you cane up against was because you weren’t praying hard enough
It’s rough. But, I’m glad you are working through it.