:: I’ve spent most of my life not feeling good enough. Like I have something to prove. You might feel the same, but the good news is, we don’t have to live this way. 

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I’ve spent most of my life not feeling good enough. Like I have something to prove.

To whom? That’s the hard question to answer. But I’m not the only person on our lovely planet who feels this way. I’m not the only one with a hole inside me that I keep trying to fill with accomplishments in order to feel more valid, more worthy.

Only recently have I begun to look into that hole and realize that it is bottomless. No matter how much I toss into it, it will never be filled. The hole was created by past pain, and I need to leave it behind me. Accomplishments aren’t what determines my self-worth.

I’m going to say that again:

Accomplishments do not determine our self-worth. 

Examples help. Here are a few that may or may not be personal.

✤ Winning every tennis match does not determine our self-worth. (Besides that, the task is impossible.) Playing our best does, and treating our teammates with respect does.

✤ Publishing a book a year does not determine our self-worth. Writing a perfect book does not determine our self work (another impossible task.) Writing a book we love does, one that helps people or makes people happy.

✤ Racing after a better job title or a bigger salary does not determine our self-worth. Doing work we find fulfilling does. Figuring out our life’s mission and making the wold a better place does. (This one is steeped in privilege, so let’s keep that in mind.)

What happens when you try to fill an unfillable hole with wins in order to feel worthy? You never feel worthy. When you lose, you feel like garbage. And when you win, you feel terror that next time, you might lose.

Never do you get to savor your accomplishments. Those wins? You toss them right into the hole, and they’re gone.

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Let’s talk about law school and the high rates of depression among first year students.

Some background: At most law schools, all first-year courses are graded on a curve. That means that in any given course, there can only be very, very few As, very few A-s, a few B+s, mostly Bs or B-s, and so forth. So, no matter how much students learn, even if everyone masters the material perfectly, the vast majority, mathematically, cannot earn As.

I earned my best grades in my toughest courses with professors who weren’t the best—because I had to rely on myself to learn the material, and I was good at that. I earned my worst grades in courses with professors who were great, where I really mastered the material. That’s a ridiculous way to give students feedback on their learning.

As you can imagine, this grading system creates a competitive environment in law schools. You aren’t being graded on your knowledge of the material, but rather against how much better you are compared to your classmates.

This environment messes with the mental health of law students. After their 1L (first) year of law school, and estimated 30% of law students have developed depression.

Why so high? Here’s the kicker: All law students, those who do well and those who do poorly, develop depression.

Students who do poorly feel poorly about themselves. Why?

(1) They were good students before law school, and now they’re getting kicked in the teeth by a capricious grading policy. They study hard, master the material, and their grades do not reflect their work.

(2) And boy, do they work—they overwork.

(3) Plus, it is hard to build a community in an environment where you are, in the end, pitted against your fellow students (although law students try their best to foster community).

(4) You have no control over your courses, professors, or schedule your first year. You are just handed your schedule and that’s that.

This list? It’s ticking all of the boxes for burnout. And burnout, if not addressed, leads to depression.

And the students at the top? They aren’t feeling joyous about their good grades. No. They know that the grades they received are capricious as much as the students who earned low ones do. Why do the top students feel poorly?

(1) Their good grades make them feel as though they’re standing on a very high cliff, and at any moment the lightest breeze will blow them off. They know that they’re one small error away from tumbling down. A cliff’s edge is a terrifying place to be.

(2) (3) and (4) apply to them as well.

And so they also burn out, bottom out, and end up depressed. As a law professor, it’s awful to watch.

(Incidentally, the students who do best, mental-health-wise, are the ones who have vibrant lives outside of law school. They form good relationships, do not overwork because they have other, better things to do, and their grades do not determine their self-worth.)

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For me, it is a constant struggle to stay away from activities that will feed the Validation Demon as I’ve started calling it. These are activities where I’m tempted to compare myself to other people rather than just being proud of doing something well. I’m competitive by nature, and that is not, in itself, a bad thing. But the validation demon doesn’t accept anything but perfection.

For example: I love sports. LOVE them. I’ve played sports my whole life, and I’ve never had a good relationship to sports. Losing has always cut me deeply.

I know now that winning or losing cannot be the only metric by which we judge success in sports Unless, I suppose, we do sports for a living. But even then, there are plenty of tennis players, say, who make a good living never winning a Grand Slam tournament. In 2020, if you lost in the first round of the U.S. Open you made $58,000. You are doing fine.

Not too long ago, I had a tennis season where I was, I think, 12-1 in regular season play. I won my playoff match. At the state championships, I won the first four matches.

The thing about winning that much is this: You become the law student at the top of the curve. You’re the person standing at the top of the cliff, waiting to be knocked off.

When you win so much, everyone expects you to keep winning, including yourself. Failure, as they say, is no longer an option.

That mindset nearly killed me.

The endless seeking of validation, the endless seeking to prove my self-worth, the validation demon, put me in the hospital. It traumatized my body and my brain. I was out for six months.

And when I came back, I came back different. I just didn’t know it until now.

I was no longer willing to do anything for tennis, let alone die for it.

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But I didn’t come back different enough. I didn’t learn how to transfer my new knowledge to other aspects of my life.

Last year, I wrote a book on a brutal, self-inflicted deadline. Why? Because I wanted to write…more books. I wanted to have one out in 2023, and then my NEXT book out in 2024. Maybe two books. This self-inflicted pressure backfired, and I had to stop writing altogether for a couple of months. I pushed myself so hard doing a thing that I couldn’t do the thing anymore.

It was tennis all over again.

I had to stop writing because I crashed. There were no more words because my brain was nonfunctional. If you have bipolar disorder, a crash can either be depression or mania. This time, last December, it was the second. I had to take horrible but necessary drugs to stave it off.

The drugs are horrible because of the side effects. One of them is weight gain.

And now I have a new struggle.

Now, I’ve gotten the writing under control. It feels good. But I feel terrible about my body because, four months later, I’m still carrying that extra weight. My body image is trash.

Sure, I tell myself that I need to lose weight because it’ll help my joints and whatever. But really, that’s not it. My BMI is still in the normal range.

No, what I’m feel is about meeting society’s expectations of what a woman is supposed to look like. It’s about feeling validated—that my belly is flat (or at least, flatter), that I can wear certain clothes and still “look good,” or whatever.

Look good to whom? To whom?

Most of us are constantly seeking validation. We just don’t know we’re doing it. 

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So what are we going to do about it?

We’re going to make a list.

Write a list of the things you want the most. You biggest, most bodacious goals. Include timelines. Include everything about the goal.

Then, for to each goal, write the answer to this question: “Why do I want this?” Start with the answer that comes off the top of your head.

But then dig deeper. Dig down to the ugly places. Because the question is also this: Is there a validation demon hiding under there? 

  • You might first say, “Because it will advance me professionally.”
  • You might then say, “Because it will impress my boss.”
  • You might then say, “Because I think it will impress my boss, but I’m not sure, but it’ll make me feel like I’m doing something that makes me look good.”
  • You might then say, “I don’t really need to do this at all. It’s extra work that I’m doing because I think it will make my boss like me more, but it won’t work because my boss is a capricious jerk.”

Right now. Make a list. What do you want most? Then ask, Why?

I’ve done this work. It was hard. But it was also incredibly freeing. I have shed an enormous number of things that I was doing because I felt like I needed to validate some aspect of myself to people who would never, ever accept me.

After talking with her about my validation demons, my therapist once asked me, “How long have you felt you aren’t worthy of love?”

And that, my friends, is the heart of the matter.

We are all worthy of love, just because we are.

Suggested Reading: Unraveling Faculty Burnout by Rebecca Pope-Ruark.

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