How do you define your self-worth?
This post has been waiting to be written and published for nearly three years now.
A few weeks ago, I grabbed lunch with a friend at one of my favorite vegan restaurants. We had a great talk, as usual–about our lives, about our romances, about our attitudes toward life more broadly. About halfway through our lunch, though, my friend said something that stopped my breath short and almost made me drop my fork straight into a bed of dressing-drenched iceberg lettuce.
“When I look in the mirror these days,” she said, with a radiant smile, “I see a friend. And I say to that friend, ‘Hey girl, do you want to grab dinner? How about going to watch a movie?”
Then she added: “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.”
As far as I can remember, I have never said anything like that to myself. Back in the blissful days of high school, when I was utterly content with my life and self-image, and pulling out on top in most aspects of my life, I had no reason to tell myself that I loved me, and wanted to take me out for some awesome treats. I simply did it. Feel like having 3 Haagen Daas bars before dinner? Go for it! Play Final Fantasy for 14 hours today? Sure, why not? You earned it, girl. And even if you haven’t, you do it because you’re your own human being.
The first time I remember being aware of a different feeling was in my junior year of college. That year, I did two things: a) stopped taking great care of myself, body and well-being, and b) became a much harsher critic of my own value as an individual. Though I was never crazy critical of my own body, I was definitely suffering from extreme stress (in my living situation, in my extracurriculars, in my coursework), and a part of me turned instinctively to regulating the only things I felt I could still control: food, and sleep. In short, it was everything about my health and my physical body on which I felt I needed to clamp down.
To be clear: I wasn’t anorexic, I was never underweight, but I was clearly bent on depriving myself of necessities because I hadn’t “earned” them or worked to my full potential yet. Sometimes I would wake up at 6 and wouldn’t let myself leave my room until 4 in the afternoon because, damn it, I wasn’t going anywhere until I had finished writing my entire piece-de-resistance. That year, I wrote a play for a creative writing class that was later performed by students in the theater department for our class. It featured two characters: a boy journalist who was lurking in the girls’ bathroom trying to get a story about eating disorders, and the girl in the stall next door, who used bulimia as a source of maintaining some semblance of control over her life. Looking back at the story several years later, I began to realize the unconscious identification that went into writing that play, even though I didn’t see it at the time. Control was the name of the game; self-destructiveness was, sadly, incidental.
Think back to the first time you learned that generosity isn’t always reciprocated by those who receive; that perhaps kind people do get the short end of the stick sometimes, because the most deserving person you know in life was suddenly taken away from you; that fairness isn’t a rule for living, it’s a guideline and a hope. You can’t undo the experiences that have opened your eyes, and during that year I grew harshly critical of myself in every way imaginable. I hated feeling like a victim who stayed out all the time because I didn’t want to go home, nothing I did seemed good enough or grand enough to warrant praise, and I certainly did not want to eat or leave to use the bathroom or do anything but throw myself down on my bed and cry during the times when I felt compelled to keep myself locked up in my room because I didn’t want to face my roommate situation.
Life sucked. It was sucky. It all sucked, and I felt completely alone drowning in that suckiness.
I had never defined my self-worth according to my physical image because to be honest, I had always been comfortable with my athletic, petite build. Body types were incidental, not definitive. But when I started slimming down during these months of avoiding the kitchen (because then I’d have to go home) or grabbing dessert instead of real meals to last me the 0whole day because my body craved sugars, I noticed that my build shrank and started resembling something that looked (according to the fashion magazines) kind of appealing. It was at this point that I started thinking, “Huh, maybe if you pull harder on the rein, you’ll actually be able to take control over something for once!” It sounds scary now, but it felt like the only reaction to have at the time.
The same went for sleep: I began sleeping less and less, which made my body even more fatigued than it already was. I became a work-o-holic with a drive to prove that I could accomplish things. Outcomes I couldn’t control, but sleep I could. It was like somebody had pulled me aside and said to me, “See? You can make yourself do these things, no problem. You’re the head honcho here. You don’t need to do normal people things like sleep.” What had started as a desperate attempt to regain authority over my own life turned into both a physical and psychological battle. Probably the hardest part was explaining my constant exhaustion and unhappiness to the people in my life who noticed, especially my family and certainly those involved in my living situation. I wanted to scream to the latter, “It’s your fault I’m this way! If you would just stop pigeon-holing me into this spiral of helplessness, maybe I wouldn’t endure this gnawing feeling in my stomach and actually step out of my room into the kitchen again and eat something!”
But one thing I’ve always been known to do is brew. It’s a terrible, and terribly self-destructive, mindset. Sure, I was unhappy as heck. But I would rather have others notice how unhappy I was and maybe do something about it than concede and have people think I was maybe more okay with things than I really was. If you step out of your room and go to the kitchen, my depressed brain told me, you’ve lost. They’ll think you’re fine with it again. Well, maybe if you stay in your room for fourteen hours without coming out once, they’ll notice something’s wrong! Maybe they’ll actually begin to feel BAD. It was not an easy time, and it was not a happy place to be.
As it turns out, the situation didn’t begin to reverse itself until I moved out two years later and away to grad school. To say that things have healed would be an overstatement–they’ve been bandaged up very well, though, and I’m still working every day to make it work better. But remember what I said about not being able to un-know something? Since that time, the nagging perceptions about my body and my self-worth began snaking their way into my consciousness. Suddenly, I became aware that I had a figure, and it didn’t match ‘pretty.’ It didn’t say, “I’m in control of me.”Even now, as I’ve been able to embrace myself more and more, I have had to fight tooth and nail to do it. I have a lot more trouble sleeping nowadays under stressful periods (no matter how minor) than I used to have.
If I am a person who brews, though, I am also a ferocious fighter. And this past year in particular, after the end of my grueling qualifying exams and what seems like the naissance of a very happy period in my life, I have been fighting like a momma bear defending her cubs, because I only get one life, and my health and well-being are worth that. These were all of the thoughts that raced through my head when my friend said that simple phrase: “When I look in the mirror, I see a friend.” Today, as I write this post, I realize that this is the phrase I have been missing from my life for quite some time now. In addition to my Wall of Smiles, I’m making an effort to tell myself every single day, “Girlfriend, how’s it going? Let’s go sit down and have a meal!”
Though I know some people cope in different ways, I haven’t stood in front of the mirror to tell myself that I’m beautiful as many do as they begin to heal. That’s because deep down, I don’t think my friend–that is, myself–needs to be told that, just like I don’t need my friends in general to tell me what they think of my physical looks in order to have a blast or just relax. Like any friendship, I simply want to take me as I am, move on, and do something fun because I know I deserve it. I want to be concerned for my own health and for my well-being, which both suffered incredibly during those years and are paying the price even now (though hopefully less so), in sicknesses, in anxiety, in a weakened body, in inadvertently damaged relationships.
But it’s worth noting that today, I really am at one of the happiest and most confident points in my life that I remember being, period. Maybe as great as (or even better than) my happy high school days, which I was lucky enough to experience so positively. I try very hard not to inflict physiological damage on myself by depriving myself of things in favor of being the “best”–I’ll catch those hours of sleep and wake up to keep working again. Sure, I am still prone to lots of anxiety I didn’t feel before my drastic experience, but I think the body image part of the equation has improved significantly since I started thinking of it as an incidental part of my existing lifestyle (as I had in and before college), not a ruling force of self-worth and self-control.
One thing I did notice was that after I bought my own web domain for Wallflour Girl and really began taking over it as my own project, whose every aspect I could tweak and tinker with–and as I began bouncing back from the post-exam haul with more energy than I remember having in a long time–I began feeling liberated. I started getting in touch with a group of beautiful, amazing bloggers from around the world. I began reaching out to companies and earning their recognition–and trust–in return. In spite of the stress and in spite of the uncertainty, I felt great.
I felt, in the words of a spider named Charlotte who wrote about a humble pig: Radiant.
And that’s where I’m at right now, ironically penning this post into the wee hours of the night (but this time because I wanted to, not because I’m trying to prove a point to myself). I am eternally grateful to my friend for our conversation, which got me thinking in a way I never thought I’d express in my blogging until now. This post only scrapes the very tip of an entire life story and history that (trust me) has many more details and less angelic commentary on my part, but I’m glad to have written it.I’m posting it in the hopes that anyone else reading who feels like their life is out of their hands or lonely or too much to handle can hear what I should have heard a long time ago, and what I’m so happy I’ve learned now: When you look in the mirror, look for a friend.
Thank you, friends and family, for all your support–and thank you, dear readers, for all of your thoughts: please know that I’m doing a silly little thing like beaming at my computer screen as I push the Publish button right now, thinking of you all. <3 Things really have come a long way since then.
I’m leaving you today with these Salty and Sweet Compost Cookies–filled with the usual sweet things like chocolate chips and Oreos, but some pleasant surprises like potato chips and pretzels–because that’s what life is about; a mix of things the most hodge-podge things that might not seem to belong together. But often you have to take the salty with the sweet, and most of the time, it will turn out beautifully. For all those other times, know that you still have one heck of a batch of cookies waiting in the wings for you, cheering you on one bite at a time.
PS I contemplated cutting my face out of this gif because I was wearing my grubby, have-not-showered-all-day hair and clothes, but decided it would be against the spirit of this post to do so. So here I am, grubbily shown and all 🙂 I promise I wasn’t trying to look grumpy, I was just concentrating really hard on not getting my lens smattered with bits of flying food.
PPS I ultimately learned the hard way that throwing greasy potato chips at the lens of your expensive camera is not a very bright idea…
Salty and Sweet Compost Cookies
You'll love that moment when your friends sink their teeth in and their eyes go wide--this is not your average chocolate chip cookie! With a perfect balance of salty and sweet, this is my favorite cookie to date, and uses my favorite CCC as a base. Perfect for those who need to change up their cookie repertoire!
- 3/4 cup butter or margarine
- 1 cup brown sugar (I used dark--light will also work)
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 1/4 cups flour
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
- 1/2 cup lightly crushed hard pretzels
- 1/2 cup lightly crushed potato chips (original flavor)
- 1/2 cup lightly crushed Oreos (optional)
- In a microwave-safe bowl, heat your butter on HIGH until it is halfway melted. What this means: half of your butter should be pooled into a buttery liquid, while the other half of your butter should be incredibly soft but not quite melted down. (If you accidentally melt your butter all the way, don't worry! This will also work, but in this case you'll want to make sure to chill your dough extra well.)
- Transfer butter into a large mixing bowl. Add both sugars and beat in until combined.
- Mix in egg, egg yolk, and vanilla.
- Add flour, cornstarch, baking soda, cinnamon (optional), and salt. Stir into wet ingredients until just incorporated.
- Gently fold in chocolate chips, pretzels, chips, and Oreos.
- Chill your dough in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours before baking. Note: I am the world's most impatient person and have made these cookies after chilling the dough in the freezer for 90 minutes. Whenever possible, though, give your dough a chance to chill until completely firm.
- After your dough has chilled: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a cookie sheet.
- Scoop out generous rounds of cookie dough (approximately 3-4 tablespoons). Mound them high rather than wide on your cookie sheet so that when they spread, they will remain nice and thick.
- Bake in preheated oven for 8-10 minutes, until outside has just set (light golden brown) but centers appear slightly gooey and underbaked.
- Remove from oven and allow cookies to cool on cookie sheet, on the stovetop. They will finish baking up, so make sure you don't skip this step!
- Sink your teeth into these a la Dracula. Enjoy with a cup of milk if you wish.
As an exercise after writing this post, I wanted to try reflecting on my own principles about self-worth so I can work on diversifying and really recognizing what matters to me about myself, and I wanted to be completely honest doing it. So here is my honest breakdown, as of June 2014:
My Current Standards for Defining My Self-Worth:
Academic success: 25%
Professional/career-oriented success: 20%
Social and/or extracurricular affirmation: 15%
Body image: 15%
Relationship status: 5%
How do you define your self-worth? I’d love to hear your thoughts and your stories in the comments!
31 Replies to “Salty and Sweet Compost Cookies–And Defining My Self-Worth”
Such a beautiful story about learning to be in the moment…with ourselves! And a “few” exquisite Compost Cookies to brighten the roads we travel!
Thank you so much for your kind words, Deb–learning to befriend ourselves is an incredibly difficult thing to (re)learn, but incredibly rewarding as well, I think. Have yourself and your friend a fantastic week.
beautiful reflections Ala! love the cookies also 😉
Thank you so much, Sarah & Arkadi–I’m glad you could stop by to read, that means a lot!
Terrific post. Many people suffer with these issues and there aren’t any easy answers, or at least none I know. One suggestion, though — and this is going to sound weird, because I’ve always been very goals oriented — is to focus less on where you want to go, and live more in the moment of the journey. If you don’t have goals it’s easy to slack off and go nowhere, so I’m not saying don’t have them. But the process of achieving your goals is so much more interesting and satisfying than actually realizing your goal (in most cases; there are exceptions). Way, way too often I’ve achieved something, and then thought, “This is it? This is all there is to it?” Usually arriving at a destination is nowhere near as much fun as the pure pleasure of the journey.
John, THANK YOU for this comment–I completely agree that the journey really is the most rewarding (and often most difficult) part of the self-learning process. Your message almost reminded me of Miley Cyrus’s song The Climb (I actually think it’s not bad!), which talks about the climb and not the destination being the part we learn the most from. This was a great reminder to start of my week. Thank you for helping me think through things in perspective–I hope you have a week as wonderful as yourself!
Your story is so beautiful Ala – beautiful because it is a story about your life and your accomplishments and your acceptances. We all go through something and no matter what it is or how bad it affected us once we have realised self worth it will turn itself around as it has for you. The mind is a powerful thing and I’m amazed at how it can turn us against ourselves, but I am so happy to see that you are in great stages of immense recovery. The truth is, there is no easy way to deal with any of this, but you’ve already accomplished so much with just self-realisation and the progress you’ve made. Also, these cookies look very yummy :).
Jess, I can’t emphasize enough how much your message meant to me when I read it today. It’s definitely been (and to some extent, still is) a process, and I thank you so much for your kind words of encouragement about the journey so far. You’re such a strong woman and I admire that so much. Thank you, thank you, thank you for reading and leaving a lovely smidge of your thoughts for today, it was so needed.
Great post and so happy that you published it. It’s so easy to get caught up in worrying about what others think and thinking that it’s okay to not be good to our bodies and our minds, especially when things are as stressful and require huge exams like the ones you are dealing with (amazing that you do that btw, because I don’t think I know how to read a textbook anymore at all). You’re gonna shine so hard! And love these cookies too – they remind me of Momofuku 🙂
Shikha, your comment was exactly what I needed to read today! Good thing I already have the exam out of the way, but I noticed as this conference approaches that I’m getting more and more nerves (again), so I really do need the reminder once in a while to care for myself, as I’m sure we all do. I’m so glad you enjoyed the read–thank you immensely for your kind words…and oh my goodness, I still am dying to get my hands on some Momufuku treats!
This brought tears to my eyes. *hugs you tight* I have been there, that dark place when I measured my self worth by the thickness of my thighs. I never, ever want to get to that stage again.
M, THANK YOU for your comment. It must have taken courage to write it, and I am so glad to hear that you feel the same way. It’s tough to remember that we are so much more–I know that you most definitely are worth that much. Thank you!
Oh Ala girl, so wise you have become.
The cookies look so good, I think I will try to make some, though I haven’t baked in a while.
I apologize for not answering back to your sweet response to my last comment. The last several weeks have been a mess of falls, where I lose track of where my feet are; and doctor visits that have not been encouraging. Am going to have to see a neurologist for testing for Post Polio Syndrome. Or else the neuropathy has just gotten worse exponentially, that’s not too good either. Of course I can’t see the neurologist until the 3rd of July!
Your post came at a time when I do feel more out of control than I ever have…so I went to the mirror and smiled at myself and said, ‘OK kid, let’s not break a hip, and let’s do use this down time to catch up on things like sleep, reading and watching all the things that are on the DVR’. I shall put birdseed out morning and evening and watch the scrappy little sparrows and the sweet cardinals. I will still go and work at the food pantry, it feeds my soul. And I will say no, when the body needs me to say no.
So my Wall Flour girl I am saving your post and will be going back to read it when I need to. Thank you for your wisdom and the super great recipes!
love to you Leila the Elder
Leila, this comment made me tear up. I’m sorry to hear you’re going through so much these days–physical problems cannot be fun, and it must be so difficult grappling with all of these feelings of uncontrollability. I hope you have someone to whom you can turn and on whom you can rely. I’m wishing you the very best of luck and prayers for your quick recovery. I love your approach to smiling and taking the time for yourself–I do hope you’ll really slow down and take that time. I am personally guilty of setting those goals and rushing through them too quickly, but I’m sure it would be so good for your well-being. Especially those birds! I found that so moving. I’m humbled to think I can offer even a smidge of insight to your courageous, strong determination, and I hope you won’t hesitate to come back and read anytime you need it, Leila! Very best!
The ingredients in this are genius, especially the chips and pretzels! And on another note, I absolutely love reading your blog. Your honesty is so refreshing.
Matt, your comment made my day just a little brighter–thank you for those kind words! I am so humbled by the chance to share these experiences, thank you so much for reading!
What a fantastic post. It is terrible that you had to go through all of that heartache and hatred towards yourself. It is a deep, dark place, but life on the other side is SO good. I think all of the positive thoughts about oneself come with age and maturity. There are things, like the body, that are hard to control and can take too much out of you if you try to control it. Breaking free of yourself, is really important and I am so happy you could do that! I love the quote about the pretzel 🙂 So true!
I define self-worth as being true to my self, what I like, don’t like, and being able to surround myself with ppl that are good for me. And not feel bad about if I don’t talk to someone anymore if they don’t fit in my current life. It’s about being self-aware!
Thanks SO much for this comment, Allison–I am constantly amazed by how not alone I am, even though it’s the easiest thing in the world to simply believe that we are because the experience can be so potent and all-encompassing in the moment. And I LOVE your definition of self-worth. I was floored to read it and completely inspired to believe in it. I am slowly learning that I need to surround myself with positive folks as well, and it has become much more real these days. Thank you, thank you, and thank you–I’m sending so many warm hugs your way right now <3
Girl, I read this last night before bed and it hit me, hard. I needed the time to properly digest everything you wrote here which is why I waited until now to comment. Bravo, dearest Ala, for writing this raw, honest, eloquent, heartfelt, painful post. You always inspire me and make me stop, contemplate life, and really think about these important issues. I’m sorry you went through such a tough period but like many of the other commenters stated, everyone goes through some variation of this. I’m glad that you were able to pull through and realize your inner strength. Self worth is a tough one to nail down. As you can tell from the posts on my own blog, my sense of self worth isn’t very high or strong. I often feel like I’m a piece of garbage, failing in all aspects of my life. It’s ridiculous but it’s true. I think about these things all the time, how my career, my weight, my self control, my family, my friends affect me. Thank you for writing this. It shows me and everyone else who’s going through these issues that we’re not alone and that we can get through it. I haven’t written about it (but probably will in the future ) but what you went through is very similar to an experience of mine from a few years ago (let’s just say I dropped 25 pounds by not eating or sleeping for about a year. NOT healthy and something I couldn’t control. I looked like a 12 year old boy!) Stay strong, my friend! And send me some of these cookies <– I'm serious 😉
YOU are amazing, Nancy–though I’m getting myself out of the rut of thinking that other people’s amazingness excludes my own or even more people’s awesomeness. I think that’s really the best approach to thinking through these complex moments, and I always love reading about your own experiences because it reminds me that what seems fine on the exterior may be very much akin to what I feel all the time–and that’s comforting in an odd, community-oriented way. Hitting the Publish button was not as difficult as I expected in this case–but part of it is because I’ve been working up to this post for such a long time, and have allowed myself to actually heal with such sincerity, that I really do feel like I’m in a different place than I was when it was most painful. I say I wasn’t anorexic because I didn’t necessarily perceive myself in terms of bodily concerns, but I also lost 25 pounds in a short period of time, which (I’m not deluded) is also not healthy…it’s terrible to hear that someone as sweet and deserving as you also went through this. I really, really hope you get a chance to write about it when you feel comfortable, because your posts about tough issues definitely helped inspire me to write this out, finally finally finally. You totally deserve a bajillion cookies for this one <3 I'll getcha back when you come visit me, k?
I saw this post when you first put your cookies on instagram but I felt like I was encroaching on some pretty private stuff as someone who just started reading your blog >.< But these are experiences that we (sadly) all share and I just wanted to throw in my word of support. I too miss my fairly carefree high school days (!!!!!!!) but you are right, life is too short and too much fun to be worrying about every bite we put in our mouths. And I'm starting grad school in september, so…really hoping I will be able to have your strength to approach it as well as you clearly have.
fyi potato chips in cookies = WHY HAVE I NOT DONE THIS BEFORE. I know this is probably kooky, but maybe I will do it with salt and vinegar chips XD
Shelley, I was completely electrified by your comment–thank you so much for reading, and I hope you never ever feel like you’re encroaching, whether you’ve been reading for five seconds or two years. I love reaching out and being touched by the lives of so many amazing people like yourself–I wouldn’t put it out there if it wasn’t to be read, and I’m so glad you did finally decide to leave your support in this wonderful comment. It’s really reassuring to hear your story, and hey–why not help each other achieve a happier journey, right? So on a totally unrelated note, YES THESE COOKIES. omg Shelley you would love love love them so much, and they make everything better. Salt and vinegar would probably be so good–let me know how it tastes so I can try it too! THANK YOU, Shelley <3
Ala, this post touched my heart. It’s incredible how long and hard the road can be towards self-awareness and self-acceptance (and how different but interconnected those two things are!) Like others have said, it’s an experience most of us have had trouble with, so I know I’m not the only one who appreciates you sharing your journey with such honesty.
And I LOVE these gifs!! So totally unique (maybe worth it for the grease on your lens?) Those compost cookies sound ridiculously good, too. The best kind of life hodgepodge 🙂 Thanks for sharing, Ala!
Thank you SO much, Cynthia. It’s been insanely reassuring and wonderful and crazy all at once to hear an entire community telling me their stories or just chiming in with their empathetic support–your comment really warmed my heart and made my day. It’s tough to hear that others go through the same, but I’m glad you found something to appreciate in this story. And thanks for the kind words about the gifs/cookies! They really did offer support for what has been a difficult past few months <3 have a wonderful weekend, Cynthia.
[…] recipe sound scrumptious, I love what Wallflour Girl had to say about her relationship with food in this post. It’s not easy to open yourself up like […]
And I look at you and see the beauty and energy of youth! You write so well and with passion. We all have those inner doubts and demons, but by the time you get to be my age, you’ll say “what the hell”…and be content with who you are. It is a journey.
Liz, those kind words–I really did melt in my seat. I cannot thank you enough for your (youthful!!!) words of wisdom, because it’s so reassuring to know that growing comfortable in one’s own skin is part of the process. You just made this tough day that much more smile-worthy. I am smiling crazily in a cafe as I type this response. <3 sending so much love your way!
[…] recently connected with Ala from Wallflour Girl, a Berkeley alum (go Bears!) who balances blogging, cooking, and grad school like a boss. When she […]
Great post and so happy that you published it. It’s so easy to get caught up in worrying about what others think and thinking that it’s okay to not be good to our bodies and our minds, especially when things are as stressful and require huge exams like the ones you are dealing with (amazing that you do that btw, because I don’t think I know how to read a textbook anymore at all). You’re gonna shine so hard!
Thanks so much for the kind words! Agreed–it’s tough, but an important balance to find nonetheless. Here’s to us (and a great new year)!