Cultivating Unconditional Self-Worth: Adia Gooden (Full Transcript)

Full text of clinical psychologist Adia Gooden’s talk: Cultivating Unconditional Self-Worth at TEDxDePaulUniversity conference. In this talk, she shares from her life experiences on how to break negative thought patterns and live more freely.


Adia Gooden – Clinical psychologist

I have struggled with feelings of unworthiness for as long as I can remember.

From the outside, my life looked pretty perfect when I was growing up. My parents had a happy marriage, were supportive and earned enough for us to be more than comfortable.

I was mostly happy.

But I also had a deep sense that something was wrong with me. My most painful moments were at parties.

When I went to black parties my friends made fun of me because I was rhythmically challenged and I couldn’t get my awkward middle-school body to mimic the latest dance moves.

As the only black girl at parties associated with my predominantly white school, I was never chosen to dance. I was never the object of anyone’s attention. I felt like I didn’t belong.

So around age 12, I decided that the way to cure these feelings of unworthiness was perfection. Simple, right? If I was just perfect then I would fit in, I would be chosen, I would really be happy.

So I threw myself into formal dance classes, worked hard in school, and tried to be a supportive and selfless friend. My self-esteem was high when I got good grades and felt included, but crashed when I didn’t do well academically, or was left out.

In college, busyness became my key strategy for trying to feel worthy. I juggled classes and tutoring in the Black Student Union and the student government is already a gospel choir, a step team… barely – giving myself time to breathe, to think, to be.

After college my attention turned to trying to find a relationship to feel the void. The anxiety, and ups and downs, I experienced in this quest were exhausting. I remember going out to bars and clubs and just like in junior high was rarely the one chosen to dance. I began to question my attractiveness with my brown skin and kinky hair – be accepted by a potential partner.

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Despite these questions, I held on to the hope that if I could just find someone to love me, then I would finally feel worthy.

I’ll let you in on a secret. None of it worked!

Not the perfectionism, the busyness, the relationships…. Well! Maybe some of it did for a moment. Right after starting a new relationship or getting a good grade I felt worthy.

But soon enough my feelings of self-worth slipped away and I was on to pursuing the next thing. As soon as I reached the bar I had set for my worth, it was raised. Have you ever experienced that?

I’m standing here today because after several years of therapy, spiritual growth and a PhD in clinical psychology, I have begun to cultivate an unconditional self-worth. I’m shedding the belief that ‘I’m not good enough’. The anxiety that not doing things perfectly, or meeting the right person means that ‘I’m not okay’.

I’m embracing myself – quirks and all. And this new path is liberating, enlivening and life-giving.

Let me share what I’ve learned with you in the hopes that you’ll join me on this journey to unconditional self-worth.

You may be wondering if this is just another talk on self-esteem. No. Self-worth is distinct from self-esteem.

  • Our self-esteem is derived from our abilities, accomplishments, social positions and things we believe, we can achieve. We can bolster our self-esteem by improving our skills or performance; and our self-esteem goes up and down depending on how we’re doing in various aspects of our lives.
  • In contrast, unconditional self-worth is distinct from our abilities and accomplishments. It’s not about comparing ourselves to others. It’s not something that we can have more or less of.

‘Unconditional self-worth’ is the sense that you deserve to be alive, to be loved and cared for to take up space.

As a clinical psychologist, I believe that pervasive low self-worth is a root cause of mental illness. And over the last decade, we’ve seen a rise in mental illness throughout the US and the world.

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According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of ill-health and disability worldwide.

Think about that for a moment?

The leading cause of illness and disability is not diabetes, physical injury, or cancer. The leading cause of ill health and disability throughout the world is depression.

Additionally, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million people over the age of 18 suffer from anxiety disorders. That’s almost five times the number of people living in New York City!

Low self-worth can lead to anxiety and depression. It can lead people to opt out of life and numb out on drugs and alcohol. Even attempt suicide. Because the pain of feeling unworthy is too much to bear.

I have sat with hundreds of students at one of the top universities in the country and when we explore their concerns and dig to the root, we often find that they are struggling with a deep sense of unworthiness.

  • So how did we get here?
  • How do we get to a place where so many of us struggle with low self-worth?
  • A place where more and more people are living with mental illness and addiction?

I believe there are many factors that cause us to feel this way.

  • Advertisements tell us that we need to buy things to be loved, accepted or to succeed.
  • Our educational system teaches us that our worthiness as students is based on our grades or test scores.
  • Our parents may have implied that they’d love us more if we made the honor roll or the varsity team.
  • Those of us, who have experienced abuse, sexual assault and trauma, may question our personhood and very right to exist.
  • And as social media pervades our lives, we have begun to feel that our worthiness is based on the number of followers we have and likes we get.
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Whatever the cause for many of us, our self-worth is tied to our accomplishments and possessions. And as soon as we fail or lose approval we experience low self-worth.

Unconditional self-worth is the antidote to low self-worth. Unconditional self-worth is a way out of self-criticism, shame and unhealthy behavior. It is a way out of depression, anxiety and substance abuse. It is time for us to base our worth on the fact that we are human to cultivate a worth that persists even when life does not go as we hoped.

So what keeps us from cultivating unconditional self-worth?

Some people may fear that if they get too satisfied with themselves, they won’t be motivated to grow and change. Others may feel that accepting themselves as worthy would be arrogant. And some may simply believe that feeling worthy is impossible.

I often wonder…

  • What the world would look like if we all cultivated unconditional self-worth?
  • What would you find the courage to do if you knew you were worthy?
  • What would you dare to dream if your self-worth wasn’t at stake?
  • What would you stop doing if you knew you were already worthy?

I believe people would resolve conflicts without violence that more people would dare to do amazing things. I believe that if our self-worth wasn’t on the line, the world would look a lot better and more peaceful for all of us. Now that’s a reimagining worthy of our consideration.

So how do we make this vision real?

Cultivating unconditional self-worth is an ongoing practice. Here are four ways you can begin to feel more worthy starting right here, right now!

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