I once knew a girl who enjoyed embroidery, and spent hours at end on a chair— needle, thread and fabric in hand. She’d create elaborate pieces that I thought showed immense talent and effort, while simultaneously being, to put it kindly, ghastly. She favoured affirmations and clichés (think: 'If you can dream it, you can do it!'), generally sewn in cursive with a floral explosion as decoration. She was one of the kindest people I knew and I was glad to call her my friend, so when on my birthday she offered me a custom embroidered cushion cover, I was more grateful than I was uncomfortable.
She had created for me, on a soft pink background, daisies (my favourite flowers) clustered around the words “you are more than your accomplishments”. It was lovely, and I wondered where I could place it so it would be at home in my room. Perhaps by the black wall with a Bunny Suicides calendar? Or maybe between the poster of My Chemical Romance and the cartoon of a boy urinating? I fussed, plumping the cushion and placing it from sofa to chair, to bed, to be balanced precariously on the bookcase, and eventually it found its way to the bedroom cemetery—under my bed, the home of dust bunnies and Hades himself. It sat there, on occasion dragged into the light by a frustrated dog for years until I came home to sort through my things.
Ten years later I freed the discoloured cushion from purgatory, and rang my friend with a couple of questions that now occurred to me about the gift. I was assuming that the cushion was made specifically for me, what with the addition of my favourite flowers and some gorgeous book spines along the edges, but was the little quote a pithy little statement customised to me as well? Of course, it was, she laughed, and I sat there on my tiny single bed, sunlight glinting off shelves of trophies and medals, laughing in wonder at the precocious and intuitive teen she had been.
A large aspect of my life had, and to an extent, still is, about achievement. I was 10 when I won an actual medal (the non-Kudos for participating kind)—it was for a 1500-metre race in school. I ran as a lark, and as I jogged down a curve, unbothered and jovial, the 17-year-old head of my house (Go Taxila) was screaming in my face to move faster. And I did, pushing my spindly legs to the very limit. As I crossed the finish line, miles ahead of everyone else, very confused, and a little uncomfortable with the noise, this 17-year-old swept me up in an excited hug. I think of that as my first hit of the addiction that would be my defining trait—validation.
I spent the next 15 years constantly aiming to recreate that high. I would put myself under an incredible amount of pressure to win—it didn’t matter what or when, as long as it brought with it some positive reinforcement: a pat on the back (literally or figuratively), words of praise, even a smile. I built my entire identity, and my self-worth around achievements that now hold little to no meaning. It started small, and grew to a point where I began to feel worthless at the smallest setback. A hunk of metal painted silver (instead of the one painted gold) would have me devolve into an abusive dialogue with myself, and an intense need to run even longer, or read even more. The adults around me called this behaviour ‘driven’, and rewarded it, offering me stick after stick to build my rickety self-esteem. I was the product of a few good races/debates/tests and I rose and burned like a phoenix. I was, as future therapists would explain, an individual who valued nothing but external validation. And it was only another 16-year-old who thought to warn me of the wolf coming to blow my stick house down (though, I argue, she could probably do better than embroider a warning on a cushion with pretty flowers.)
The concept of external validation is, to put it very simply, where you draw your sense of self-worth from people and things other than yourself. It is rife in Indian families, where your family’s need for you to be a rich and married lawyer/doctor/engineer is a defining feature of your childhood. In these situations, we are only worth something if we accomplish these goals. The idea that you are, (and I cringe), more than your accomplishments is one that does not come naturally to us, and it definitely did not to me. I was allowed free reign over my career, I was allowed to do whatever I pleased, but I had burdened myself from the age of ten with the need to achieve. And after the strictly regimented world of school, things for you to achieve get slowly more obscure and fuzzy. The market for coddling and validation shrinks incredibly, with no contests, no little races, no shiny trophies. Just a labyrinth where nobody knows what the end looks like or how to get there. My relationship with my self-worth was painfully fraught and on a downward plunge until I began to carefully build it with more stable materials—swapping straw and sticks for bricks.
Building self-worth is probably a life-long task, and not a linear one at that. For most of us, it is the careful unlearning of behaviours and ideas we have held onto all our lives, ideas with deep, knotted and grasping roots. For me, my education in self-worth has been enormously taxing with the constant questioning of beliefs that have been bred into me, but the payout has also been huge. As I write this, I work a retail job at minimum wage while attempting a PhD, with a stomach that is probably too squishy and with absolutely no trophies won in the last five years.
At one point, I would have been crushed at not being a high-earning, Hilary pantsuit wearing household name. And to be utterly honest, I often lapse into self-loathing for one (or more) of these aspects. But in general, I find myself oddly pleased and comfortable with my life. While I may not have that cushion around, I absolutely do have the message embroidered on my gyri (tattoos are too passé), albeit with a * and some caveats. I’ve rebuilt my worth by rebuilding my idea of accomplishments, and my idea of what consists of an achievement. In a world very obsessed with Instagram filters to cover blemishes, LinkedIn bullet points and #travel, I’m choosing to reject the need to be anything other than a good person, calculated on a very strict basis known only to me. I’m the referee and the only player of this game known only to me.
The writer is a student, bookseller and mother of two dogs and a cat in Bournemouth.