conditions of worth

What is the one thing everyone should know about their family?

I love being a counsellor because I learn so much about human relationships. I also love sharing this information because it’s highly relevant to daily life.

So that’s why I am sharing the single most important thing I have learnt about families: it’s a concept called ‘conditions of worth’.

What are conditions of worth?

They are the beliefs and values that guide what is considered good, moral and acceptable within a family group. They are the conditions that – if adhered to – will result in inclusion, appreciation, acknowledgment, trust and respect.

This can be anything from shared religious beliefs, to understanding how your family behaves during the cricket. For some families, this is the same thing (kidding!).

A huge source of grief, anxiety and stress for many people is that they feel as though their family doesn’t understand or appreciate them. They feel excluded – like the black sheep or ‘loser’.

One thing to understand is that you are genetically different to your parents. Those genetic differences result in you expressing different traits.

You might have Aunty Norma’s flat ass or Grandpop’s cheek bones but you will also have a bunch of traits that are exclusively yours. Some of this is because of epigenetics (environmental conditions that switch genes on or off) but some of it is simply due to the magical soup of genetic variation.

Beyond that, everyone has unique life experiences. Even if you are raised in the same ‘nest’, you and your siblings will have varying – sometimes wildly varying – takes on your upbringing. Factor in birth order, separation and divorce, disability, neurodiversity, addiction or health problems, and you wind up with beautifully individual beings.

It’s crazy to lump a group of different people together and expect them all to conform to the same set of values but that’s what we do in families all the time.

What are some common beliefs?

Beliefs around what is and is not acceptable are deeply ingrained in us.

These beliefs can relate to things like academic performance and employment expectations, as well as financial performance and asset accumulation.

It can also include things like what you eat and drink, how much you exercise, how much you weigh, what you wear, how you groom (or don’t) groom yourself, who you socialise with, who you partner with (or not) and how you live your life (.ie. having children or not, your sexual orientation, etc).

It’s a deeply nuanced set of ‘rules’ but I guarantee that you can outline at least ten things that are essentially ‘terms and conditions’ for membership in your family of origin.

The dark side of this is that failing to meet certain expectations can lead to shame and a sense of failure, guilt and loneliness.

When we feel that there is something wrong with us because we don’t live up to what our families expect from us, it’s painful.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Why? Because you can step back, observe and question your family’s conditions worth. Are they true for you? Do you agree or disagree with them? Are they meaningful and relevant to you or are they cultural relics?

We all want to be loved and included but at what cost?

Some common conditions of worth are as follows:

  • You will buy a house
  • You will do well at school
  • You will get a trade or a degree
  • You will succeed professionally
  • You will get married
  • You will have children
  • You will be thin/tall/strong/healthy – both physically and mentally
  • You will have a driver’s license and drive a decent car
  • You will travel
  • You will share political views
  • You will share religious beliefs
  • You will read/watch/listen to this kind of book/magazine/newspaper/podcast/TV show/movie
  • You will eat/drink these things
  • You will celebrate these holidays in these ways
  • You will clean your house like this
  • You will follow this sport and barrack for these teams/people
  • You will be friends with these people (but not those people)
  • Men/women behave like this in this family

The list goes on …

Some of this stuff is insidious. Racism, misogyny, persecution, homophobia, snobbery and plain old ignorance.

Why do families reinforce these beliefs?

Families – even dysfunctional ones – generally want to protect us. The faulty belief when it comes to conditions of worth is that if you follow <insert these steps>, you will be safe, included and accepted.

And that is ultimately what most families want; a sense of connection, psychological safety and benign conformity. People like us do things like this.

And that’s great if you genuinely want to live like that.

But what if you don’t?

You need to back yourself and your choices. You might need to practice radical self-acceptance, foster a sense of unwavering self-love, and stand up for what YOU believe in, in spite of the consequences.

That shit ain’t easy but it’s worth it.

You can decide what’s important to you and you can choose to live your life the way you want, without shame, guilt or the need to live up to someone else’s expectations.

The starting point for most of us is understanding your families’ conditions of worth and figuring whether or not they’re right for you.

What are some of your family’s conditions of worth? Have you had to set some of your conditioning aside to live the life you want?

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