We have all heard of and seen a cow- whether we saw it in a photo or at the zoo. However, many of us have not discussed cows in the context of mental health. Carl Rogers, a psychologist who used a humanistic approach to therapy, developed the concept of conditions of worth, also abbreviated as COWs. COWs are conditions individuals believe they must meet to gain acceptance, love, and validation from others. In other words, they base their worth on external considerations or factors outside of themselves. This is opposed to knowing and understanding that humans possess intrinsic value and are worthy without production or performance.
COWs often develop in childhood, when children learn what behaviors elicit approval from parents, caregivers, teachers, and peers. In turn, the child internalizes what makes them worthy and continues to carry out the behaviors. COWs may also offer a sense of safety, as they are conditioned responses to protect parts of ourselves we deem as unworthy or unlovable. Perhaps a child was conditioned to believe parts of themselves were negative.
Eventually, these repeated behaviors also become unconscious values, which are ways of unknowingly behaving based on the expectations of others. In adulthood, these expectations may eventually clash with a person’s worldview, personality, and overall needs, leading to distress. An adult may unconsciously behave in a way that breeds resentment internally. These patterns may take place at work, school, or in relationships.
So, how do we unlearn the behaviors we are engaging in that keep us in a space where worth is conditional? First, identifying our COWs is a helpful way to begin to see our patterns. This may lead us to a healthier and more whole existence. What would your COWs be if you answered the question: “In order to feel worthy I must….”? See below for some examples and journal prompts:
- To feel worthy, I must keep my opinions to myself to keep the peace around me.
- To feel worthy, I must always be available to help and please others.
- To feel worthy, I must never burden others by asking for help.
- To feel worthy, I must ensure my choices don’t upset another person.
- To feel worthy, I must say yes even if I don’t want to do something.
- To feel worthy, I must repress my own needs to maintain my image of being helpful.
- To feel worthy, I must rationalize my negative emotions to obscure my true feelings.
- To feel worthy, I must avoid vulnerability to appear strong.
- To feel worthy, I must work hard to produce results. Rest is not an option.
COWs often guard our egos but keep us from stepping into our values and personhood. The practice of leaving behind COWs involves removing our masks, walking away from ‘shoulds,’ and moving away from people-pleasing. When we reject these conditions, we move toward connection, self-trust, and flexibility.
Disclaimer: In consideration of systemic issues and trauma, it is not always safe to abandon our COWs. COWs may be needed in spaces where safety is not present. For example, a person may need to base their worth on their financial income to provide for their family and work toward leaving a dangerous living situation.
Counselling Tutor. 2017. Conditions of Worth Explained. [Handout]. Available from: https://counsellingtutor.com/conditions-of-worth/
Doe, L. M. (2021). Fawn healing tip. The Career Therapist. https://www.thecareertherapist.co/fawn-healing-tip
If you would like to speak to a professional counselor about topics, such as the one featured in this blog, and are in the Chicago area, please contact Olive Branch Counseling Associates, Inc. at 708-633-8000. We are located at 6819 West 167th Street in Tinley Park, Illinois 60477.
Written by Liz, Mental Health Counseling Master’s Level Intern