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Break free from Conditions of Worth

As children we have a strong primary need to belong, to be loved and respected by our caregivers, and to feel accepted for who we really are. However; the love we receive comes in two distinct forms… It can be either ‘conditional’ or ‘unconditional’.

Unconditional love is when we are loved for who we are, no matter what we do.

Conditional love is when we are loved as long as we meet other people’s expectations or standards or when we are behaving the way that other people want us to.

At this point, maybe you are already thinking about a particular relationship where you felt you were loved either conditionally or unconditionally. Of course, in an ideal world all we would have is unconditional love and unconditional acceptance, but sadly the reality is we are surrounded by conditional love and conditional acceptance.

We receive conditional love from our care givers who only seem happy when we are quiet and not expressing any 'negative' emotions such as anger or fear, parents who send us to bed for not finishing the food on our plates, teachers who chastise us when we don't know the answers, or other authority figures e.g. sports coaches, religious leaders or even the media and television who continuously give us messages about how or what they want us to be.

When a child's parents react with anger at a poor school report, or a girl is continuously told by her mother how proud she is of her beauty, or a boy is shouted at by his coach for missing a kick during a match, it sends a powerful message. These children quickly learn what they must do to please others, to be valued by others: do well at school, always be well behaved, always smile, be beautiful or be athletic and strong, for example.

  • So…what happens when all we have or what we rely on is conditional love?

What happens is we develop something called 'conditions of worth'. This term was coined by the psychologist Carl Rogers in the 1950s. He recognised that external factors could affect the way that we measure our self-worth. Conditions of worth lead us to measure our worth based on our ability to meet certain conditions that we believe to be essential. They are the messages we take on board about what we have to do (or not do) to be valued or to feel that we are OK, acceptable to others or ‘good enough’. They put pressure on us to behave in particular ways, even when it goes against what we want and how we feel.

Conditions of worth are often very subtle in that we are often unaware of their presence and influence on us. This can make them all the more powerful as without an awareness of them how can we challenge them or reduce their influence?

Each of us has our own unique and varied conditions of worth which come from our experiences and interactions with others. So, what are yours? How would you complete the following sentence?

If I am to be of value, I must......? ....Typically people say things like:

· Work hard

· Be successful

· Please others

· Be attractive

· Never cry

· Not get angry

· Never let others see weakness

· Do as I’m told

· Not argue/answer back

· Be strong

· Be clever

· Be silent

· Be small

· Be the best

Do any of the statements above sound like things you have either had said to you or are things you actually say to yourself? Are there any others you can add to the list from your own experience?

Interestingly, a person’s conditions of worth can sometimes propel them towards greater achievement and success, as the person may experience a sense of pressure to achieve certain things - which actually spurs them on to do so. But because conditions of worth are reflections of other peoples’ dreams and expectations rather our own, they don't necessarily match up with our actual talents, interests and abilities. It is therefore more likely that they will lead to a life of unhappiness and a lack of fulfilment as they result in a continuous attempt to please others rather than meet our own needs and desires.

  • So, what can you do about conditions of worth?

Firstly...Learn to recognise what your own conditions of worth are and where they came from if possible, so that you feel more able to control them rather than them controlling or influencing you.

Don’t let your conditions of worth prevent you from listening to your own mind and deciding what’s best for you. Challenge your conditions of worth...What do YOU think or feel? What's importnant to you?

If we can free ourselves from the control of our conditions of worth we can more readily learn to be ourselves and feel that we have worth just as we really are.We can be free to be our true selves!

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