By Isabel Joy
The world preaches about self-worth, with self-help books and talk shows, motivational courses, religious conferences, et cetera.
But what exactly IS self-worth?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a feeling that you are a good person who deserves to be treated with respect”.
Personally, I’ve always defined myself through my achievements and approval of others, so I lived my life collecting accolades from an early age.
From my school days to my mid-20s, I’ve gone through life accomplishing things I set my mind to so I feel like I’ve “made it”.
I’ll admit — that was naive of me.
I wanted to prove myself to the world.
Since 2009, I’ve travelled to other countries for studies and for work. Each time, I felt torn because I loved Malaysia, this place I call home.
And yet, I felt a terrible need to prove that I, a millennial woman, can be independent and strong alone in this big, wild, world.
In 2014, while studying for my Master’s Degree in Spain, I came home for a week to complete my paperwork.
In that one week, Fate decided that I would contract dengue. I went back to Spain suspecting nothing, only to be critically ill by the end of the week.
I checked into the hospital on my own. The doctor told me that if I went any later, she’d meet me in Heaven — my platelet levels were low enough to be considered critical.
Since then, I felt like I could conquer anything and everything. After all, I cheated death!
I came home a graduate, and that was another imaginary badge I’d gained.
Christmas, 2013 in Spain
In Chase of the Proverbial Success.
I then spent the next half of my 20s going to different places for work. I’d leave my beloved home again and again in search of that proverbial success.
After graduating in 2015, I started my first official job in Penang.
I thought it was an amazing opportunity. I was stationed in Mexico City on the other side of the world to pick up the skills and tasks for my job.
However, due to the night shifts and the gruelling hours, I started falling sick.
Team at Teotihuacan Pyramids, Mexico City
Shortly after, I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).
My gynae told me to either change my working schedule or find something else that wouldn’t worsen my situation.
In mid-2017, I left the job — which to me, was my first chip in my armour. I had left without gaining anything, when I had given everything I had.
Shortly before the year ended, I moved to Singapore for work. I thought that I’d be able to earn more and come back a Somebody.
Again, I was naive. I worked as a contractor in a company for two years, only for the company to be discontinued.
I found another job — but barely 5 months after that, I got laid off.
Caught in the mindset of “You are what you earn.”
It was during this time that I realised that I got caught in the mindset of “You are what you do/earn/have.”
In my short career, my whole world was upended over and over again.
Each time, I couldn’t find a job quickly enough. Each time, I’d have to uproot and readjust again, jobless and dependent.
The first few months following my layoff were difficult; everything I tried was futile.
I felt like a complete failure. Being jobless meant that I had nothing, and I was brought to a dependent state, again.
My world felt empty and my future felt bleak; being in my early 30s and back to square one, yet again.
A new way of thinking.
Lunar New Year dinner with family
It was during this time that I was re-introduced to a new way of perceiving my self-worth.
Friends and family spoke to me openly about their personal failures that changed their perception of life.
They listed down the things that I could be thankful for, the mindsets I could replace from my previous ones.
One even told me: “The fact that you are alive and well means that you could have new dreams — many of them.”
I wasn’t without hope if I didn’t stop hoping, I wasn’t a failure if I didn’t quit, and I won’t be without help if I didn’t stop asking.
It sounds cliché and idealistic, and to some of you, probably something that everyone should know.
I didn’t, obviously. But now, I do.
Mom and I, shortly after my return
I started listing down things to be grateful for.
With the extra time at home, I’ve started spending more time with friends and family.
Though we have our arguments from time to time, I realised that my being at home now allowed us to understand one another better.
I was the child that had gone away for the longest time. That meant both my parents and I have gone through many changes without even realising it.
My parents have aged. I’m really thankful that I’m able to spend time with them meaningfully, while they’re still strong and healthy.
The more I list down what I can be thankful for, the more my perception of my self-worth changes.
Previously, I’d be pushing myself to reach the next thing on my list of goals. Goals which I’d set for myself so I’d be proud of achieving that goal.
Now, I’ve learnt to be more self-compassionate.
I’ve learnt to see that everything is a season and that life would only be richer with the ebbs and flows and the highs and lows.
I also learnt that my self-worth is only defined by me.
in whatever circumstance I’m in, I can always be confident, because I know that it’d be different after that season passes. I can be proud of myself for the intangible things I have that makes me, me.
This season, I’ve learnt to be more gratitude-focused than goal-focused.
Sometimes, it does take losing something you value to learn a valuable lesson. This season in my life taught me that I can have stable self-worth only by defining it apart from my possessions and accomplishments.
Not too bad for a change, huh?
For more stories like this, read: Single at 30: What the ‘No Plus-One’ Life Taught Me and I Was Broke and Divorced at 38. Here’s How I Survived.