The secret to reclaiming your life from anxiety - The Self-Worth Experiment

The secret to reclaiming your life from anxiety

By Dr Berni Sewell | Overcome your fears

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Aug 10
The secret to reclaiming your life from anxiety

In 2003, my life had shrunk to the size of my one-bedroom flat. I was stuck in a prison of my own making. Paralysed by fear, insecurity and anxiety.

I felt like life was running away from me. As if I was standing behind a giant window, a one-way mirror, watching other people move by. I witnessed their adventures, failures and successes. I saw them laugh, cry, love and grow.

They had happiness and fulfilment. They had fun, enjoyment, freedom. They lived.

They were oblivious of the pathetic, shivering creature observing them from the dark back room. The terrified bundle of misery that envied them, wondered how they did it. How they could be so care-free, light and joyful.

To me, every aspect of life was a threat. I was traumatised by the past, horrified by the present and petrified of an uncertain future. Fear, anxiety and panic determined my every move. They dictated my routines and limited my experiences.

I could never travel because of my fear of flying and my tendency to suffer panic attacks in cars. And the thought of spending hours in a crammed train carriage with masses of strangers made me feel ill.

I was unable to go to the cinema, hike up a mountain or queue in line without immediate bathroom access. My toilet anxiety would have triggered a fight or flight response that made my stomach cramp and caused dizzy spells.

Even simple things like going for a coffee with a friend became unsurmountable challenges full of dangers, risks and complications. They caused avalanches of worry, dread and overthinking. Endless spirals of worst case scenarios, potential catastrophes and visions of unavoidable humiliation.

I felt so guilty because I knew I inconvenienced my family and friends. They had to accommodate my fears in every plan and action. I didn’t want to bother them or cause trouble.

So I convinced myself that I didn’t really want to go out. I stayed home, in my comfort zone. Alone, isolated, behind my wall of glass. Watching life, but unable to participate.

I was a hostage of my fears. And it had to change.

My hopeless battle against anxiety

My deepest desire was to become a confident, happy, outgoing person with an infectious personality. I wanted to believe in my abilities, know who I was without doubt, guilt and shame. I wanted to be free to make my own choices, without compromise.

I wanted to have a life. I was tired of all the regrets. Sick of my weakness. Fed up with feeling like a miserable failure.

And I wished I could introduce myself to new people without sweaty palms and a tight chest. Talk to my boss confidently without panicking and forgetting what I was saying mid-sentence. Join a conversation at a party without a knot in my stomach. And without lying awake all night, overanalyzing the reasons why I made a fool of myself again.

I was determined to do whatever it took to escape the clutches of fear and claim my ticket to happiness.

So, I absorbed an entire library of self-help books, did daily affirmations and gratitude journal entries. I practiced mindfulness and mediation whenever I could. I reasoned with my frightened inner child and tried to silence my fearful mind.

I attempted to overcome my fears in every way I knew, discovered in books and found online.

After a while, I could even see some improvements. But the techniques and exercises were time-consuming. I couldn’t incorporate the routines in my busy life in the long-term. And progress was slow.

And so, in 2005, I found myself back where I had started. I had worked on myself for years and still every day was a struggle. Fear and anxiety were still integral parts of my life. I was still a prisoner.

I had resigned myself to the thought that I would never conquer this hurdle. I had accepted that panic and anxiety were my fate. Maybe some people weren’t destined for happiness, fulfillment and free expression. Maybe I was one of them.

But I would soon discover that I was wrong.

A life-changing secret is revealed

I looked out of the small window onto the Austrian mountains, meadows and grazing cows. The scene was peaceful, serene, calm.

But my heart was racing, my breathing shallow and fast and my mind sprinted in unproductive circles of worry and dread. Everything was new, unfamiliar and frightening.

The energy healer was behind me. Her name was Sonja. I couldn’t see what she was doing. I felt out of control, intimidated by her silent authority. And horrified that she might judge me for my weakness.

I didn’t want to be there. I had only agreed to seek holistic help as a favor to my Mom. She was worried. And who could blame her.

At that point my anxiety was crippling. It confined me to my flat. And sometimes even this was too much. So I spent whole days hiding under my desk. My life didn’t feel worth living any longer. So I reluctantly agreed.

And now I regretted it. The new situation was too overwhelming to bear. I wanted to get out. Back to my comfort zone. Please, make this end now!

But just as I felt the first familiar signs of a panic attack, Sonja touched my hand and said: “You only have one problem. Resolve it and you will be fine.”

I stared at her. Startled, stunned, in disbelief. Years of unsuccessful attempts to overcome my anxiety had convinced me that everything was wrong. That I was a lost cause. Too damaged to fix, too broken to recover.

But what Sonja said next changed my life forever. It gave me the key to unlock the shackles of fear. It provided me with the knowledge I needed to reclaim my life. And it was only one sentence.

“You have no self-worth.”

 The eye-opening reason why I could never overcome my anxiety

At first, my eyes filled with tears. I felt hurt, criticised. How dare she tell me I felt worthless! I generally liked myself, I knew that I was valuable and had much to offer. How could I lack self-worth? And what in the world could it have to do with my anxiety?

So I set out to prove her wrong. I read up on the topic, meditated over the question, was mindful of my emotions, thoughts and reactions. I watched my every move. I focused on my self-worth.

And what I discovered shocked my deeply. Sonja was right! I really lacked self-worth! It had never occurred to me!

But I did feel inferior to others, less relevant, acceptable, special. Somewhat unlovable. So I constantly worried what other people thought of me, imagined how they considered me an embarrassing laughing stock. And was terrified that they could reject me at any time without notice or reason, leaving me abandoned and lonely for the rest of my life.

I also didn’t believe in myself. I thought I was incapable, incompetent, quite unremarkable. And way behind in my life compared to other people. I was scared of being exposed as a fraud. I was frightened that I would disappoint my bosses, colleagues and family. And I was petrified that I would never be able to achieve my dreams or be a success because I wasn’t good enough.

I felt too small, insignificant and powerless to cope with life. So I feared the unknown, dreaded the future and was horrified of any change. Because, deep down, I didn’t believe I was strong enough to deal with new situations, challenges or problems.

Low self-worth really caused my anxiety! And I finally knew why all prior attempts to overcome my fears had failed.

The “antibiotic” approach to healing anxiety

Trying to overcome anxiety without healing low self-worth first is like fighting pneumonia with cough syrup. You are merely treating the symptoms.  You might improve slightly for a while but the underlying bacterial infection rages on undisturbed. And sooner or later you feel worse than ever before.

If you want to rid yourself of pneumonia, you need to eliminate the root cause of the infection. You need to kill the bacteria that induced the symptoms of coughing, fever, shortness of breath and heart palpitations using intravenous antibiotics.

Yes, it is necessary to manage the individual symptoms to aid recovery. But it is imperative to eradicate the true source. Because the symptoms cannot continue without something that causes them!

The same applies to anxiety and low self-worth. Anxiety, insecurity, lack of confidence, self-doubt and self-loathing are symptoms. They can only exist while they are fuelled by lack of self-worth.

All those years I only treated the symptoms. I never touched the cause. And while every new fear-busting exercise, technique and tool brought some relief, the inevitable setbacks left me increasingly anxious, disheartened and depressed.

But now I had finally found the key to freeing myself from my anxious existence. I was determined to reclaim my life. Once and for all. I would treat the true cause of my anxiety rather than the symptoms alone! I would heal my self-worth.

And I soon discovered a way that worked for me.

The impossibility of increasing your worth

For many months I searched for an effective method to boost my low self-worth. I dressed smarter, dieted and exercised and worked harder to prove my worth and increase my feeling of deservedness.

I tried to think positively, journal my successes and stop comparing myself to other people to gain more value and feel better about myself.

I took a self-defense class, empowered myself with knowledge and kept reminding myself to walk tall to boost my confidence and feel stronger and safer.

And while my self-image improved, my anxiety, self-doubt and feelings of inferiority continued. Despite all my efforts, I still hadn’t uncovered the hidden secret to healthy self-worth.

Until, one early Sunday morning, the answer came as a simple but eye-opening realisation. I was going about it all wrong! Our definition of worth and self-worth was all wrong! I could never increase my worth! It was impossible.

And the true solution was so much simpler than I ever imagined.

A powerful new way to heal low self-worth

We grow up believing that our worth depends on our accomplishments, successes, qualifications. We think we are worth more if we earn more money, have a highly respected job, or better general knowledge. And we only feel worthy of love and acceptance if we are perfect, popular and attractive.

So we spend our lives stressing about ways to gain merits, worrying about losing our fleeting sense of worth that comes from the approval of other people. Horrified that others will uncover our darkest secret. That we, in fact, are worthless.

But the truth is that worth is our essence. We are made of it! We cannot gain worth. Nor can we lose it. Because it is who we ARE.

Have you ever marvelled at a newborn baby? Aware of the magnificent worth of this tiny creature? Yet, the baby has no money, expensive clothes or business wins. She doesn’t care what others think about her, whether her thighs are too chunky or her learning progress too slow.

She just knows that she IS worth personified. Inherently, infinitely and unconditionally so. And everybody around her can see it too.

Somewhere during childhood we lose this awareness of our true worth. But we never lose worth itself. It is who we are. And the best way to heal low self-worth is by remembering, internalising and believing this one crucial fact.

We ARE worth. No matter what. Now and forever. No exceptions.

Back to life

I spent so much time treating the symptoms, trying to overcome my anxiety and fears, attempting to strengthen my confidence by fulfilling society’s expectations.

But nothing brought healing and relief until I discovered the hidden key of self-worth. Until I became aware of the fact that we ARE worth.

Once this truth sunk in and my mind started to accept the new way of thinking, my self-worth skyrocketed while my anxiety levels plummeted. The progress was remarkable, the speed of recovery breathtaking. Just through one simple truth.

Now I travel without worrying about everything that could go wrong. I drive my car anywhere I want without panic. I interact with strangers without shyness, overthinking and a tight throat. I can see a movie and go for a walk without obsessing over the location of the nearest toilet facilities.

I am free. I live my life on my own terms. I make my own decisions, without limitations and compromise. Without constant fear and anxiety.

And I am so looking forward to everything that’s still to come!

Because I know I can cope. I know I am capable, lovable and strong. I am the only power in my life and I can deal with everything that comes my way.

I don’t need to be scared any longer. I don’t need to worry and overthink. Because I AM worth!

And so ARE you. You just need to remember it.


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  • mary beth says:

    Your presentation, Dr. Berni, takes my breath . . . Indeed, ‘being’ worth is where the true ‘rubber hits the road’ . . . How beautifully your work also illustrates here how someone truly so ‘gifted’ is also ‘gifting’. You paid a huge price for the ‘priceless’, every second thereof itself now ‘worth’ it all . . . Thankyouthankyouthankyou for the countless such lessons/blessings you share and empower us with!

    • Thank you so much, Mary Beth for your lovely (and beautifully poetic) words! Knowing that sharing my experiences and insights now encourages and motivates others makes the years of imprisonment by anxiety a worthwhile experience (as odd as this may sound). As long as something positive comes out of it, nothing is ever wasted.

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