Have you ever felt worthless? I know I have. Most of us…all of us…know the feeling - worthless or unworthy, inadequate or inferior, unwanted, unloved.
I had a revelation just the other day…we are born to feel this way. It was liberating, in a way! So let me just explain what I mean, and how this idea can help us soften those feelings of worthlessness.
Compassion focused therapy incorporates an evolutionary-based model of the mind. In other words, the human brain, and the resulting “mind”, is a product of millions of years of evolution. Our brains were designed for us, not by us. And the mind was something of a mystery for people until the mid to late 1800s when Charles Darwin proposed the idea of natural selection. The theory of evolution made a whole lot of sense out of the mind, the way it works, and how it came to be.
In a nut shell, how evolution works is that, for certain organisms living in certain environments, certain characteristics will be functional and adaptive, in that the characteristic will make it more likely that the organism with survive long enough to reproduce and pass down those characteristics to its offspring.
Given enough time and enough generations of the organism, this process of natural selection will shift the whole species, such that all members of the species will acquire those characteristics. In this way, evolution is all about survival and reproduction, and the characteristics that are most likely to help achieve that are passed on and embedded.
The problem is that adaptive characteristics that evolve as a result of natural selection come along with trade-offs. An often cited example is the birth canal in humans. It is thought that the birth canal narrowed because of the advantages of walking upright on two legs. However, the trade-off is that humans experience more difficult births.
The tight fit of the human birth canal relative to the size of our babies has resulted, especially historically, in relatively high rates of birth-related morbidities and deaths of mothers and babies.
A super-interesting paper published in October last year by Stansfield and others in the open access journal BMC Biology proposed that not only the size but also the shape of the birth canal is subject to functional and evolutionary trade-offs.
Their paper, titled The evolution of pelvic canal shape and rotational birth in humans, described how human childbirth typically involves a baby rotating through something of a twisted birth canal, with first the baby’s head, followed by the shoulders and then rest of the body, rotating their way through the birth canal. Their conclusion was that the size, and also the shape of the pelvis from inlet to outlet, is an evolutionary adaptation not only for walking upright but also for pelvic floor support and spine health and stability, with the trade-off being more difficult births.
Ok. Humans have evolved through natural selection over millions of years. Various physical characteristics have evolved, of course, but the brain has too! And highly functional and adaptive parts of the brain, just like certain physical characteristics, also come along with trade-offs.
I mentioned in my video last week, Compassion as an evolved human motivation: The archeological evidence, that humans are a highly social species. We form groups, collaborate together, and look after each other! This is where compassion comes in. We have evolved to be sensitive to suffering in ourselves and others, and committed to try to alleviate and prevent that suffering. In fact, there is a great book by Professor Dacher Keltner called Born to be good: The science of a meaningful life that is well-worth reading and outlines the evolutionary evidence for prosocial behaviour in humans.
But there are trade-offs.
In amongst all this, humans evolved to ally themselves with others who are the best collaborators. We want to work with people who will participate, contribute, pull their weight, be valuable for the greater good of the group. It’s reciprocal! And yet we also don’t tend to expect it of those who are suffering and need our help. We are compassionate.
But, like a narrow birth canal that makes birth more difficult, we have evolved to be good collaborators and at the same time deeply concerned with what others think, how they might be viewing us, judging us, whether we are approved of and valued, or whether we are seen as not good enough, whether we are worthy, or whether we are worthless.
This functional and adaptive characteristic of collaboration comes along with the trade-off of feeling worthless. We evolved to always err on the side of assuming worthlessness, and therefore trying harder and harder to be worthy, rather than letting ourselves get too comfortable with our place in the group and missing the fact that others do in fact see us as unworthy and therefore kick us out.
We know that some of the earliest humans had these characteristics based on some of the archeological evidence described in my previous video, and so after goodness knows how many generations now have this tendency towards worthlessness built in to our genes and the resulting brain we are born with. We are born to feel worthless.
Did you notice how I am phrasing that? Born to feel worthless. Not born to be worthless. And this is where an opportunity starts to present itself.
I was talking to a fellow the other day and he was saying to me, “I just feel so worthless, but I don’t know why.” And this is often the way. A person might have a good job, a nice home, a loving spouse, and yet there it is, “I feel worthless.”
Now, of course life experiences complicate things. We are born with these evolved brains that are designed with a tendency towards feeling worthless, but then things also start to happen. We might be born into poverty or disadvantage, or we might experience hardship or trauma. And we might have caregivers who judge us, criticise us, shame us or abuse us. And all of this further compounds feeling worthless. Ultimately, we might struggle with finding a job, or having a home or happy family.
But here’s the thing, and I want you to listen very carefully to this, you are not worthless. That feeling that you have, that is just your evolved brain erring on the side of caution, watching out for social threat and trying to keep you safe by motivating you to be a good collaborator. And it evolved that way because it helped our species survive and reproduce. But it didn’t make us happy, not then and not now. That’s the trade-off.
We are born to feel worthless, but we are not born to be worthless. As Dacher Keltner said in his book, we are born to be good! And we are born to be good collaborators who need each other.
So here’s a little something to say to yourself whenever you feel this way:
Right now, I am feeling worthless.
But I know that this is just my evolved brain.
Feeling worthless was adaptive for humans because it kept us focused on, and motivated towards, always trying to be good collaborators and therefore staying safely in the group.
So, like everyone else, I was born to feel worthless. But that does not mean that I am worthless.
In fact, paradoxically, feeling worthless proves that I am a good and decent person doing my best to be a good collaborator, and a positive participant in my social world.
So, given all this, what could I do right now that would be most helpful, rather than harmful, towards myself or others?