This is a specific instance of what appears to be a basic human axiom: We accept the [anything] we think we deserve.
In most cases, our worthiness thermostat is set during childhood. We are taught what we deserve, often unwittingly by parents who may have loved us very much and may have had good intentions, but shit the bed nonetheless when it came to instilling self-worth.
Subsequently, our lives more or less follow along these lines of what we believe we are worthy of – Rich Dad, Poor Dad type stuff.
Baby Elephant Syndrome
I have heard baby elephants in captivity can be tied to a tree with a piece of rope, and because they are yet babies, they cannot break free. They are conditioned to believe that they are powerless to escape. Therefore, when they grow to full-size adult elephants who could easily snap a rope or tear a whole goddamn tree out of the earth, they remain captive – now tethered to the tree by their own limiting beliefs.
How many people have surrendered their personal power in exactly the same way? Resigned to a life of poverty, loneliness, addiction, or suffering?
This is it for me – I’m just gonna end up like everyone else in my family.
Learned helplessness is a well-researched and documented behavioral phenomenon. And I believe it’s a major reason people tolerate abuse, neglect, infidelity, gaslighting, narcissism, and all manner of interpersonal shenanigans. They are conditioned to accept what is clearly unacceptable.
Boundaries and Sponges
We can look at all this through the lens of boundaries, which are modeled for us by our parents.
If dad raises his voice one time and mom says, “I won’t be spoken to that way,” and it never happens again, the spongelike child will absorb a healthy boundary around communication and respect.
If dad is an abusive piece of shit and mom never leaves him, aforementioned sponge will likewise absorb a belief that abuse is completely normal and there is no need for a boundary there.
Our caregivers and family members program our default boundaries, which become the guardrails of the roads we travel in life. Without them, we can get way off course – lost, confused, or stuck in a rut.
For those of us who chronically tolerate abuse, neglect, and suffering, we need to 1) learn how to set healthy boundaries, and 2) come to believe that we are both capable and worthy of better.
Barriers To Change
Let’s say you googled “setting boundaries” and read the whole internet. You have all the knowledge in the world. You know what your problem is and how to fix it. But you juuuuuussst can’t.
It’s a little ditty called shame, low self-esteem, and unworthiness. A song that plays on constant loop as the background hum of our very consciousness, but we’ve long since tuned it out. It’s like all the noises in your house you never notice until the power suddenly goes out and you hear actual quiet for the first time.
We cannot create lasting change in our lives until we take a good look at our self-worth.
A Tale Of Two Fears
It seems to me that the two greatest universal human fears are the fear of being unlovable and the fear of not being good enough – both obviously fears of the worthiness variety. It’s been suggested that these fears evolved because human survival has always depended on being an accepted member of a tribe. It’s also apparent that love and connection are biological imperatives for our species.
Presumably, this is why self-worth is so often experienced as an unrelenting existential threat and why people are quick to settle for BTN relationships (Better Than Nothing).
It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism that ensures our basic needs are met, even at the expense of our happiness.
This is why the child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.
Joy, unfortunately, is not a biological necessity.
The last thing I’d like to point out about the seemingly arbitrary nature of self-worth and dysfunctional human relationships is the utter lack of an objective measure of lovability.
No matter how rich, kind, smart, sexy, or successful you are, some will love you, and some will hate you. There is no accurate external measure of your good-enoughness, which is an internal quality.
Looking outside of ourselves for validation often leaves us even more confused. With enough mixed messages from our family, peers, society, and the media, it’s only natural to throw your hands up in the air say, “Fuck it! I’m locking down any relationship I can get my hands on.”
We accept the love we think we deserve… but usually because we just don’t know any better.