Friday, December 4, 2015

Self-Worth and Fuckwithability

One of my former professors and Facebook friends recently posted an image with a word and a definition. The word was 'unfuckwithable,' defined (loosely - I'm paraphrasing) as not being in any way affected by the opinions or thoughts of others about one's self. I understand the sentiment, and think it's awesome that some people reach unfuckwithability in most areas of their lives. I have an element of unfuckwithability in my life; if someone makes some dumb comment about my appearance these days I'm not going to give it a moment's notice. I did enough noticing of other people's opinions in my 20s. However, when it comes to my PhD, and my future career prospects, I am utterly, despairingly fuckwithable.

I've been pondering this idea lately, wondering about how people can push on, even when they feel fuckwithed. How do people pursue new challenges, even when they think they might fail? What makes someone think that they and their ideas are worthwhile even when they do fail? My quarterly bout of PhD-related panic about the future and about failing at publishing things, not becoming an academic, or ever being employed again (though according to the Current, 1 in 5 Canadian PhDs will get a tenure track position - thanks CBC, I feel weirdly optimistic about my odds now), dovetailed nicely with some reading I've been doing and some conversations with friends.

Another Facebook friend, someone who I was friends with in elementary school but hadn't seen or spoken with for over a decade until we saw each other at a mutual friend's funeral a couple of years ago, sent me a message after reading my recent post about black belt training. With her permission, here is an excerpt of her message and our ensuing conversation. Remarking on the things other than money that our parents can give to us when we're growing up, she commented:

It was an interesting conversation, because even though neither of us came from affluent backgrounds, we had very different experiences growing up. My family placed a lot of value on education, and my sister and I were raised into the idea that we would attend post-secondary schools of some kind, even though no one in my family (minus my grandfather, who died before I was born) had gone to university. I say 'raised into' because there is no moment that I can recall being told that I would go, or I should go, to university; there was just a kind of assumption in the air around us that after high school we would do more school, like a natural next step.

We were expected to do well in school, so good grades were met with approval and some praise, and not-so-good grades (for me, OAC physics.... ouch) were met with questioning looks - because my parents thought that, fundamentally, we were capable of success in all things. My friend said that she was not raised with these expectations, nor the idea that she was capable of success in whatever she was doing. Rather than just leave her without the motivation to push herself forward, she took the lack of these positive attitudes into herself and believed herself to be lacking.

People like Natalie Stojar, Carolyn McLeod, and Paul Benson do a lot of thinking and writing about how a person's self-esteem is influenced by others. Self-esteem, and feelings that we're valuable and worthwhile, does not come from inside us - at least, not originally. We get our self-esteem from other people throughout our childhood, and maybe even into our 20s. We have to learn from other people that we are valuable just because of who we are, and others show us that we are valuable through the ways in which they speak to us, listen to us, and expect certain things of us. This, to simplify, is why some people can gain systematic power over other people - tell them (individually or in groups) that they aren't worthwhile from a young age or over many generations, and they could largely come to believe it's true, even though I suspect that each person always carries deep within them a nugget of positive self-regard. Large parts of humanity live in a constant state of ultrafuckwithability, but we can resist being fuckwithed, we can protest the messages that undermine us, and we can redefine who we are.

It seems to me that my family's belief that I was capable of success in things, even when I wasn't showing success, shaped my sense of who I am and what I can do. At this point in life, failures sting my pride and poke my insecurity, but can't cut into my feeling of overall competence deeply. After a few days of wound-licking, I tend to realize that I'm a worthwhile person, that I know how to work hard and not get lazy, that I'm interested in my work, and because of that I realize I'm driven, and deep down I think that I'm capable; I near unfuckwithability. These self-regarding feelings start with other people, and if it wasn't for my family teaching that I am a valuable person, no amount of skills training could have gotten me where I am at this moment, having done all the things I've done.

One line from my friend's message stands out to me: no one encouraged her to go to school, or to do anything, really. So she thought she wasn't good enough. As she says, imagine growing up with that. Why would you even try something? Why would you even risk showing that you were interested in trying something? Just expressing interest can be enough to get you made fun of by people who don't think you're capable. Those kinds of comments about one's abilities and aptitudes sink in deep, and shape a person's sense of self.

However, my friend is also at a point in her life where she's becoming unfuckwithable. The nugget of self-regard that has always lived deep inside has woken up, and her sense that she really is capable of things - things she didn't previously think were possible - is newly alive. She's taking new risks, she's finding her passions, and she's got a lot to give. She's valuable, she's capable, she's worthy.


  1. It strikes me though too that it is only your friend deciding she will pursue and do the work to succeed that genuinely makes her worthy. She surely has had the potential for success for a long time since she is exhibiting it now, but at some point potential is merely that and whether we are going to be/come worthy or not stops being about whether we were encouraged or not and instead rests simply in our choices and our action. It's hard to get over those childhood influences but we can and we must choose how we want to live because we are the only ones who can.

    1. That's an interesting view, because I was thinking of 'worth' as a kind of unearned feature of people, and I still think that's true though I understand your point. I think we're all worthy of certain things, like having conditions present in our lives that let us realize our potential (ie. capability theory). There's definitely something crucial about a person deciding for themselves that they are going to put in the work to reach their goals, but it seems like a person may not even recognize that they have a decision to make unless they have a sense of their own worth as an agent in the first place.