What to do when you think you’re undeserving


I have struggled with thinking I’m undeserving for much of my life. I haven’t had a chance to check with all of you yet, but from a small survey, this seems to be fairly universal. And it doesn’t matter what you feel deserving of, though for some unknown reason it seems to correlate pretty strongly with what you want the most.

Anyway, I wouldn’t be so bold to say that I can change your mind on this, but I want to offer what is perhaps a different way of thinking your way out of this tangle. After all, I say worthiness is a thought, not a feeling, and while you can’t directly change how you feel, you can most certainly change how you think.

It feels scary to want

What do you want most? Do you want to find love? Do you want to feel wealthy? Do you want to get that one job? Do you want to quit your existing job and move to New Zealand?

Take a moment to think about this desire of yours.

(Oh, and if you’re one of those people who won’t even let themselves think about the thing they really want and therefore picked something safer instead, I just caught you. Try again.)

Now, you may have two separate feelings about this, being both energized and deflated. The energized feeling is for when your imagination places you exactly where you want to be. The deflating feeling may partially be the realization of the distance between where you are and where you want to be, but usually it’s the response to a thought: I don’t deserve it.


You may rationalize your fears by asking the following question: “Why would I deserve it?” If you could only come up with some reason, some indisputable thought process to get you from here to what you desire, then you would be able to more forward with so much less resistance.

For some reason, I bet you’re not able to do this. And this just lends more ammunition to your belief that you don’t deserve it. “I can’t come up with a single reason why I deserve it, so I guess I don’t.

I don’t believe there is any way for you to empirically prove that you are deserving of anything. Luckily for you, you can exploit this to your advantage.

Why not?

Notice I didn’t ask you “why do you think you’re unworthy?” The reason why is twofold:

  • It will focus your thoughts on the negative, which is unproductive.
  • You’ll never convince me.

I’ve become quite enamored with the phrase “citation needed“, cribbed from Wikipedia. I tend to use it in conversation when people make an unverified (or unverifiable) claim.

And the problem is, all the reasons you’re likely to give on why you’re not deserving need citations as well. I’m not just speaking in theory here. I once spent months with a therapist trying to explain to him why I was undeserving. Believe me, I tried. But at our final session, one of the last things he said was “sorry, but you’ve failed to convince me.”

Reverse the argument

All this leads me to my larger point. You may be going about this all wrong. You may have been trying to think of why you are deserving, and come up short. But you are assuming that the default is “no”, which is itself another unverifiable assumption.

It turns out that just like there isn’t any way to prove that you are deserving, there’s also no way for you to prove that you aren’t.

So I charge you to flip it around: now you need to come up with a convincing argument on why you’re not deserving. Verify all your citations. (“I’m a bad person” is a good example of an invalid citation.) And if you can’t think of a reason why you’re not deserving, then I guess you are.

But enough about me. How have you struggled with thoughts of being undeserving?


  1. mpinard

    I see a “Citation Needed” stencil coming soon to a Portland wall near you. Yes? Great post, especially the first section talking about it being scary to want. Maybe this also relates to our need to compare ourselves with others, and get validation. If we compare ourselves unfavorably, or don’t get the validation, we feel like we’ve been vulnerable for nothing. But if we refute our need to do these things, we are free in our own minds to validate ourselves! Whadyya think?

    • Mike @ Unlikely Radical

      Stencil eh? Not bad. I see that XKCD sells stickers, which are now on my to-buy list.

      Validation is a tough case, because I feel that there is a certain type of validation that only we can give ourselves, and also another kind that we can really only get from others. Both are important, and it feels too wishful to say that we can or should purely self-validate. But even so, validation is not comparison; that’s a whole other issue!

      • mpinard

        Hmm, interesting take. I’d like to hear more about the two types, and what functions they both serve. New post?

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