What can we do when we start to question our self-worth?
Finding the Path to Self-Worth
What can we do when we start to question our self-worth?
It was a cool morning and daylight was beginning to peek out from the naked trees. For a few seconds, I paused and admired them standing uniformly in a row next to one another. The winter brings about much change as the leaves begin to fall. As the trees begin to shed their leaves, they look contrastingly different to the lush green of the summer. Some may wonder what benefits the trees bring during this time of year. Nonetheless, whether the trees are producing foliage or not does not deter their purpose on this earth. Trees like everything else are Allah’s creation and no matter what the season, they are valued simply by the fact they are a creation.
Every human being on earth will also go through their own seasons and moments of darkness and light. As the creation of Allah, we experience the highs of life as well as the lows and this ebb and flow tends to feed our inner dialogue. If life is going our way we love and accept ourselves, we deem ourselves worthy of the blessings and feel a sense of achievement based on the external events of our lives. However, the opposite tends to happen when things are not going as planned.
When we experience grief, hardship, or are struggling in one or more areas of life disempowering thoughts and uncomfortable emotions will come to the surface. There is an inner critic within all of us that tends to reveal itself more in our moments of weakness. The Nafs or the ego likes certainty but when the road ahead is uncertain emotions such as sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, or fear can dominate.
On a conscious or subconscious level, this can then lead us to question our self-worth because Allah tells us by default humans base their worthiness and value by attaining wealth, success, popularity, beauty, intelligence, relationships, power, and by how others see us. If this external world is taken away or not attained one’s sense of worthiness can be questioned.
What metric then does Allah use to measure us? Can we truly base our self-worth on material things and the environment around us? I have written this article based on my own experience and challenges. I found myself questioning my own self-worth because life had not turned out the way I had envisaged. I found that I had based my worthiness on everything outside of me because over the years I had believed this to be true.
As my thoughts took a negative turn I began to question Allah’s will and whether I was ever deemed worthy of such things. I was uncomfortable with these thoughts and the associated emotions, so I became curious about them. It led me to understand myself and Allah on a deeper level and provide a different perspective than the one I already had.
A Higher Purpose – Allah’s Love for Us
Whenever a human being is tested by their Lord through His generosity and blessings, they say: ‘My Lord, has honoured me.’ But when He tests them by restricting their provision, they say: ‘My Lord has humiliated me.’ [Quran 89:15-16]
In these verses of the Quran Allah explains the human condition. When life is meeting our needs and expectations, we think good of Allah, and when life is one difficulty after another our perspective changes. During the low moments, we can doubt whether Allah has any love and mercy for us because as we sit through discomfort and confusion our minds and our ego tend to make up their own stories and conclusions. We may feel abandoned by Allah especially when we feel like things will never get better and the sense of hopelessness can overwhelm us. However, these feelings tend to be based on how we view ourselves and have little to do with reality and how Allah perceives us.
When the beloved Prophet ﷺ first began to receive revelation there was a pause in the verses where nothing was revealed to the Prophet ﷺ for a period. During this time the Prophet ﷺ felt a sense of rejection and experienced some doubt in himself. He wondered whether Allah was displeased with him. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Allah had honoured the Prophet ﷺ in ways in which he could not imagine, and this period of silence was part of His wisdom.
And indeed we have honoured the children of Adam and carried them on land and sea, and provided them with good and lawful provisions and privileged them far above many of Our creation. [Quran 17:70]
We have certainly created man in the best of form; Then We return him to the lowest of the low, Except for those who believe and do righteous deeds, for they will have a reward uninterrupted. [Quran 95:4-6]
In these verses Allah uses the words ‘we have honoured the children of Adam’… and ‘… ‘We have created man in the best of form’ to describe mankind. Words have power and Allah has used specific words to convey His faith in us and the potential we possess. He has created us as worthy souls honouring us on earth and does not base this metric on whether He grants, removes, or withholds something from us.
If we measure ourselves based on the value and worth set by our environment and the external events of our lives the question to ask yourself is am I defining myself by my own and society’s standards or by Allah’s words?
Self-Compassion for the Soul
There is much truth to the Dalia Lama quote ‘We are human beings, not human doings’. Consciously or subconsciously there are times when I still question my self-worth even though Allah has provided me with evidence against my thinking. When we begin to change an old narrative there is resistance in the mind and the ego because these entities are trying to protect us from the unknown and prefer the familiar ways of thinking and acting.
Moreover, society has encouraged us to have faith and be resilient at all times and to keep going but in reality, humans have weaknesses and sometimes it is better to embrace our imperfections without feeling like there is something wrong with us. This is where self-compassion steps in.
Psychologist Dr. Kristin Neff describes self-compassion as the process of turning the same kindness, understanding, and empathy we have for others inwards. Rather than judge or criticise ourselves when we ‘trip up’ or make mistakes we recognise our shortcomings and accept them. It also means taking responsibility for your actions and acknowledging them from an objective lens rather than becoming self-critical. This kinder behaviour to ourselves motivates us to change our thought process and consequently our actions and how we view ourselves.
When I connect this back to Allah to understand Him better, I think about His Mercy and His compassion being found everywhere – from the gentleness of the birds chirping in the morning to the subtle changes in the seasons all done so gently by Al-Lateef (The Subtle). He is loving to all of creation and specifically to mankind. Therefore, when I practice self-compassion, I know that Allah is ever more compassionate, and perhaps I ought to apply some compassion during times when I am questioning my worthiness.
Once I’ve applied some self-compassion, I begin to break the habit of my previous way of thinking and use various techniques to move through unhelpful thoughts. One technique is movement. In order to break the cycle of habitual thoughts and emotions moving the physical body will move the mind.
This requires having enough self-awareness to bring yourself back to the present moment. The mind and the body are not separate and both the physical and emotional wellbeing are closely linked. Therefore, when you are moving mindfully it impacts your thoughts.
Abu Dharr reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said to us, “If one of you is angry while he is standing, let him sit down so his anger will leave him; otherwise, let him lie down.” [Abī Dāwūd 4782]
In this hadith, the Prophet ﷺ is teaching us about the power of movement to change an emotional state. His ﷺ solution is simple yet effective and it is something we can practice ourselves.
Allah has created us in a way where our bodies are meant to move and not be still for long periods of time therefore, physical movement supports our body and our nervous system to help return it to a more balanced and calmer state. In scientific literature, this is known as the parasympathetic nervous system. Think of salah and the way we are moving through qiyam, ruku and sujood all helping us to feel more at ease with our bodies whilst we are connecting with Allah.
Other forms of physical movement can be any type of movement such as cooking, cleaning, shopping, playing with children, gardening, and all forms of sport and exercise, stretching and walking. Even walking from one room to another will change an emotional state. The key is to become mindful of your thoughts and emotions and then use movement as a way to alter them.
The Path Forward
Many of us will be inclined to generate value and worth from outside of us by attaining the external. The struggles of life can colour our lens leading us to question our own self-worth. True self-worth is based on Allah’s words and our connection to Him.
Adversity if viewed differently, can help us let go of beliefs and feelings of unworthiness which then begins to reveal a more accurate version of who we truly are. Changing this narrative in our heads and thinking differently can take time because most of our thinking is based on past experiences and conditioning. There are practical tools that can be used such as physical movement to alter one’s emotional state when these feelings arise.
The journey to discovering your true nature is not an easy one but it is up to you to recognise and find the way forward so you can continue to evolve your soul and become a better version of yourself.
Self-compassion – Dr Kristin Neff
Sunan Abu Dawud