My boss assaulted me but I stayed

Now I feel worthless. How do I regain a sense of value?

Published March 25, 2011 12:30AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I was sexually assaulted by my boss, and I stayed working for him, despite constant terror, for over a year partly because the job (ideal for my chosen field) gave me a sense of value. I know that sounds a bit twisted. That was a few years ago. I've been to therapy, feel I'm getting over that whole period of my life, have a brilliant loving partner, have renewed relationships with my family, and am taking baby steps back into my dream field of creative work. I always did extremely well at school, got promoted at work, and recently went back to school for 12 months on a scholarship, again, in part, because study and working hard made me feel valuable and worthwhile in a measurable way.

Now I've tried to set up a business but it hasn't been very successful and I've also found the work a bit boring. In my free time I've been taking long walks, reading novels, playing my guitar, drawing, writing fiction, all of the creative things I love. But I feel very un-valuable. I feel like I've failed. But more than that, I just feel worthless. I'm considering doing a Ph.D., in part because I know the achievement will make me feel worth something. I know that I've felt like this for a long time -- before the assault even happened -- but I thought that once I got over the assault, and ongoing harassment and controlling behavior of my boss, that I would automatically start feeling valuable again, start feeling like I had a contribution to make, and that I am awesome.

But I don't. So, can you tell me, how do I start noticing my own value? What makes me valuable, just for me, not for what I do or how I appear or my grade?


Dear Unvaluable,

I think this question is not so much about value as about love. I mean self-love. I mean unconditional self-love. I think the reason this is so vexing for you is that you are seeking a signal that the world values you but what you need is self-love and self-forgiveness.

It's nice to get praise. But no amount of praise will give you self-love.

I'm sure it's more complicated than this. And you've probably talked about the details in therapy. But the outlines of it seem simple to me: The kind of self-love you need is the kind of love we give to children. We don't demand that children earn their love. We give it freely. We must give it to ourselves as well.

What opens the door to that self-love is self-forgiveness.

You have to forgive yourself for staying in this work relationship as long as you did. In spite of the cost, you needed what that job was giving you. So you made a choice. A part of you may feel it was sacrificed in the bargain. The innocent in you may feel that you failed to protect her. You have to forgive yourself.

How do you get there? Perhaps you could do it through therapy. Perhaps it would involve grief work -- that is, allowing yourself to feel deeply past losses in order to arrive at some compassion for yourself. Whatever self-love I have, I got by doing a fearless and thorough moral inventory of myself and sharing it with someone else. I wrote down all the terrible, sickening, secretly shameful things I had done over the years -- not a narrative, just a list. And I shared it with a trusted person according to some pretty simple guidelines.

This is what is referred to in the Twelve Steps as the Fourth Step. I also shared it with what I will refer to as the universal nameless other.

So I did that. I did as instructed. As you might expect after a housecleaning, much was swept away. What remained was a conscience less burdened and a head less noisy with self-recrimination.

I wept for those I had harmed. (It's not required that you weep. That was just me. Maybe I was being dramatic.) The important thing is writing it down and sharing it with someone else, and with the universe in some sense. And then where possible, I made amends.

This has become pretty standard for people who get into a 12-step program. I don't like to talk about it much in print. I walk a pretty fine line. It's best for people to discover this sort of practice for themselves, in a way that works for them. But I do suggest you consider this kind of approach. For instance, there is a 12-step program for children of alcoholics and for people who are codependent.

You have to be loved as a creature, not for your qualities but for your being. You can love yourself in this way. What stands between you and your love for yourself. For me, it was all the terrible things I felt I had done. When we fearlessly review all the "terrible" things we have done -- and incidentally some of them turn out to be not quite so terrible as we thought -- we see a pattern emerge in which we have certain human frailties; we may appear to be weak, inconsistent, selfish or whatever; these motives can be understood and empathized with: We were afraid, we were foolish, we were hasty, we acted badly, etc. When the full picture emerges, then we see ourselves with some compassion.

We love ourselves because we are flawed and in need of love. We love ourselves because we can't help being who we are. We did not create ourselves. We did not choose to be who we are. We are just left here in charge of this strange hotel. We do the best we can under the circumstances.

Is it our fault that we need love, like we need oxygen and food? I don't think it is our fault that we need the things we need. Regardless of how the world tallies up our value, we must love ourselves deeply and fiercely.

I would like to say more but do not want to confuse the issue. For instance, is helping an old woman across the street equivalent to winning the Nobel Prize? Which will give us a greater sense of self-worth? And at what point does self-love verge on narcissism?

But that kind of discussion is not necessary right now. What I feel sure about is that if you can take a good look at your life, you can come to see yourself as the beautiful and deserving soul that you are.

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By Cary Tennis

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