Net worthiness: what’s the real bottom line?

My bottom line is that I value myself and others for who we are, not what we possess or our annual salaries. I believe we are all absolutely equally worthy of respect, love and self-actualization.

At my first full-time job in 1980 my time was valued at $3.10/hour, the minimum wage. That is when I became officially indoctrinated into the culture of never-enough-money-or-time, although I’d certainly been exposed to the idea as a child. I watched my father collapse in exhaustion on the couch after work. I heard my mother say “we can’t afford it.” From both of them I learned the refrain, “there’s not enough time.”

Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money

Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money

This year I made a pivotal decision. I mentally, emotionally and spiritually began tipping a fat, longstanding sacred cow—I ceased thinking of time as money. I stopped running U.S. Economics, Version 2015 as my default program. I dared to hope the world might value what I felt most passionate about giving: myself, my insight, my caring. I had the audacity to believe there was enough of everything: time, money, love.

A friend offered a transformational idea: exchange an hour of time at my new peer support venture for whatever a client makes per hour. This effectively kicked the cornerstone out of the conceptual structure upon which I had built many of my life’s assumptions. Suddenly my wage had nothing to do with my value; it became simply a logical, agreed-upon rate of exchange for two people with needs to meet.

Since I was offering to build peer relationships in which equality is a central value, the formula made beautiful sense. Still, I watched a few peers struggle with the concept. Some seemed to feel embarrassed by how little they were paid. A few said, “I know your time is worth more than this.” Sometimes I tried to gently explain, but it was hard to effectively communicate that I no longer looked at time or money that way.

Your time is worth more than this

Some peers cannot pay me at all. Others can afford $50, $100 or even $200. Most pay $15-$25. I have been appreciative and hopeful. I am getting comfortable accepting whatever is offered and throwing it in my grandfather’s old cigar box until banking day. I do not adjust my attention or scale my services based on the amount of the payment. Most of the time I can hold my vision that it will all balance out.

I was feeling pretty darn proud of my transformation until this week I tried to experimentally flip the concept in the other direction and uncovered something important hiding in the shadows of my psyche. I was inspired to ask a highly-paid professional if she would be willing to donate her time to me, a seemingly audacious request according to my old mindset. What emboldened me to ask is my firsthand experience of how rewarding it is to freely give my time and talents to persons who cannot otherwise afford what I have to offer. I needed, but did not have the means to pay for this person’s services.

I am deeply grateful she agreed, not only because my needs will be met, but because the situation brought my own hidden unworthiness into the light. Part of the agreement is that I fill out an application for assistance, providing documentation to prove that I was needy, which felt in that moment like the opposite of being worthy. There in black-and-white were all the assessments that hooked me straight back into the economic program I’d recently sought to uninstall. According to that model, I am living well below the federal poverty line this year, earning more like what I did in 1980.

Opposite of worthy

Immediately upon confronting this mundane, scarcity-focused data, I temporarily lost my bold magic-mindedness. Anyone who has ever wholeheartedly practiced living by faith instead of fear will recognize this pitfall. Don’t look down is damn good advice. Filling out that form was the equivalent of looking down.

For a couple of days I struggled emotionally. I felt alone and adrift with no wind in my spiritual sails. Lurking in the depths and rocking my idealistic ship were old feelings of discouragement and unworthiness. After grappling with my beliefs, thoughts and feelings over the last few days, however, and continuing to feel so inspired and purposeful as I met with peers at Insight, something beautiful surfaced in my fertile psyche.

I started imagining a worldwide gathering—my neighbors, my fellow Americans, all the humans on the planet—in which every last one of us appeared as an infant or toddler. No adults whatsoever. I asked myself how I could possibly walk through that undulating mass of playing, laughing, crying, curious, unique, expectant, needy, lovable children and guess at or assign value or worth, higher and lower salaries, different social classes. I asked how I could dare to hold myself in lower or higher esteem than anyone else. And I couldn’t. I could not.

original_lots_of_babies

Next I pictured myself plopped down in a bizarre scene of impending, potentially world-ending doom, stuck in a storm or bomb shelter with the Koch Brothers, Alice Walton and Donald Trump. I looked around and asked myself which would be more valuable in the moment—their money or my inner peace? In that scenario I could easily see my own net worth through a different lens. Or put another way, my own net worthiness. My bottom line is that I value myself and others for who we are, not what we possess or our annual salaries.

I believe we are all absolutely equally worthy of respect, love and self-actualization. While it is unlikely that I can (or would care to) singlehandedly revamp a deteriorating and unbalanced economic system, I can continue to step aside from it and invest my own values and ideals into building something new and more sustainable. The obvious place to begin is upon a fresh foundation. I’ll start with the assumption that everyone on the planet has the same net worthiness, that time does not equal money, and that there is enough of everything that makes life worth our wholehearted investment.

Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, 2012

Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, 2012

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The power to change your world one sentence at a time

Twenty years ago, in my mid-thirties, I started rubbing my eyes and waking up. Until then I’d been asleep and wandering around in invisible pajamas for decades. The deep sleep was a form of mental mesmerism, an assumption, a world view, a default program. I believed my life was happening to me.

If you say, “Hey! Wait a minute! That’s true!” I hope you’ll stick with me long enough to hear a bit of my story.

I don’t know enough to generalize about how common this belief is, but I can imagine that those of us who’ve had traumatic experiences in childhood may be more prone to what is sometimes called a victim mentality. After all, at a time when we were without a sense of power or authority, scary and hurtful things happened in our lives.

From a simple cause-and-effect mindset appropriate to the developmental stage, we make assumptions and create internal beliefs. We naturally develop our own unique ways of interpreting our circumstances, reacting to stimuli, and coping with stress. These perceptions become our reality. As the perceiver, you are indeed the center of the universe. How you perceive the world is your reality.

In a recent peer support training, I learned more about how this reality-creation works:

  • In order to make sense of life experiences, we create beliefs.
  • We nurture these beliefs because they help form and support our self-concepts.
  • We protect our beliefs by selectively filtering out what contradicts them and letting in what supports them.
  • Our mental radar continually seeks out evidence that supports our beliefs and reinforces our worldview.
My scribbles from peer support training

My scribbles from peer support training

This helps me understand what I instinctively began to move toward as I started awakening. With the help of a supportive therapist, I dared to begin questioning my self-beliefs and worldview. I was tired of being sad and in pain and I knew something had to change or there was no good reason to keep living. I started noticing how many default programs were running on my emotional system, especially negative messages about my self-worth and automatic, mindless reactions to external triggers.

I started experimenting with a small but poignant issue, my over-the-top reaction when I spilled or broke things. Since childhood I’d experienced out-of-proportion fear and self-loathing in reaction to so simple an act as accidentally knocking over a glass of milk or breaking a dish. My body would flush with shame. I’d hasten to clean up the evidence, all the while talking to myself (both in my head and sometimes aloud) with incredible disrespect and meanness. Here’s how I set about altering my pattern:

  1. I began by simply staying aware and noticing my reaction. Wow! I was tougher on myself than I would ever dream of being on anyone else.
  2. Next I chose to stop talking shit to myself, a form of if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. The absence of negative messages turns out to be more important for self-image than the presence of positive messages.
  3. The icing on the cake was to come up with some sweet and soothing words to use with myself in place of “you stupid idiot.” Someone introduced me to the idea of treating myself as I would a beloved child. “Oh, darling,” I practiced saying to myself, “this is not a problem at all!”

Spilt milk

The power of resetting this one default was similar in effect to a small amount of yeast causing a big batch of dough to rise. I began noticing other places in my life where my beliefs created stress and unhappiness. The more beliefs I examined and methodically changed, the more exponentially my self-esteem and self-acceptance rose.

As my awareness and compassion for myself expanded, I began to build a different mental model based on how my beliefs influenced my reality. I noticed my point of power always rested in the present moment and not in the past or future. I saw I had the power to choose beliefs that began building me a roomier, zoomier, happier world.

I no longer believe I am a victim of my life. I see myself as its architect, builder, inspector and grateful resident. We can theorize all we want about what causes traumatic events to happen in our lives, but in the end our point of power rests in choosing how we interpret and respond right now. 

In my peer support training manual I scribbled this line: change one sentence of the story. I love this. If our beliefs create our story of the world and where we fit in it, a place to start is this simple: change one sentence at a time, maybe even one word at a time. Darling.