A good friend of mine from out of town recently asked me what we do at Signal Hill. I get this question a lot, but I was particularly happy to answer it this time because we had updated our mission statement this past fall.
Excited to share, I told him that we shift culture by “equipping young people to become thriving influencers who value every person.” I then told him how we accomplish this - upstream, relevant, and dynamic presentations, retreats, and support resources for high school students.
It was encouraging to see his interest in what we do spark to life, but then he asked me a follow-up question.
“So Derek, why are you personally bought into Signal Hill’s mission?
It was a good question and, perhaps surprisingly, one that I don’t get asked very often. It made me pause. Why do I personally care so much about Signal Hill’s success in the achievement of our mission? What makes me invested in our work? What inspires my leadership as the organization’s Executive Director?
I’ve spent a good deal of time lately reflecting on these questions and, after much inward searching, have found my answer.
My personal why? Because in my own little way, I know what it’s like to feel that my value is conditional on my ability to “be enough” – to be good enough, strong enough, smart enough, successful enough – and to conclude that I am not.
The feeling that I need to be “enough” for others is one that I’ve known on-and-off for much of my life. The first time I remember experiencing it was when my parents separated, and my father moved away. For years I would silently ask him: Why did you leave me? Did I do something wrong? Was I not enough?
In high school I felt it too. I was bullied on the bus to and from school, and sometimes at school, by an older student who decided to choose me to pick on. I hated it and came to deeply resent him. Why me? Why not someone else? Do you think I’m weird or abnormal and therefore fun to torment? Why do I stand out?
Throughout my university education and my time as a postgraduate student, my belief that other people would only love me if I met their expectations intensified. I tried to please anyone and everyone and present myself as confident, put together, dependable, and wholly respectable, thinking that if people saw my mistakes and imperfections they wouldn’t want to be my friends. I became consumed by the deep seated fear that if I lost my reputation, I would lose my place in my community also. I had experienced felt abandonment before and I would do anything to prevent myself from feeling it again.
Despite all my efforts, however, the stress and fear I internally held would eventually become too much for me. It was during the second semester of my master’s program when I finally crashed and fell into a serious depression. It was a difficult time for me. Of my four semesters, I had to get extensions for final exams and paper for three of them because I couldn’t function. I could barely get out of bed. Looking through an old journal entry from that time, I found an attempt of mine to describe my experience with depression.
It feels as if all the happiness in the world has been sapped out. It’s not sadness per se that I feel, but rather the total lack of joy. Sitting in my depression, I feel no desire to smile or laugh or enjoy the company of my friends. I just want to be alone.
It was terribly debilitating and no way to live. And of course with the depression came my fear of mental health stigmas. People, I thought, would think I’m too emotionally difficult to deal with or that my depression is just an excuse to get free passes in life.
Thankfully, with the help of very persistent friends and counsellors, I was eventually able to feel better and to manage it, though depression is still something I wrestle with to this day.
To be sure, my life has been full of great friends, amazing opportunities, and more blessings than I can count. And yet, behind my façade of confidence, strength, and tactical indifference was a powerful fear of being rejected by others for not being “enough.” I became obsessed with managing my reputation and keeping anyone from knowing the real me – the me that’s not perfect, the man who doesn’t have it all together, and who makes plenty of mistakes.
As psychologist and researcher Brene Brown writes:
Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimise the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.
It’s taken me years to trudge through my insecurities and learn real vulnerability, a process that could only have taken place with the determined love of others. With the help of those whose belief in me was greater than my own, I came to learn the difference between strength and fear. I also came to see past the superficial difference between peace and quiet in how people express themselves. Positivity and the lack of noticeable struggles in our lives does not mean we feel peace and wholeness inside. Indeed, sometimes the very opposite is true.
My story is my story, but I think many people can relate, especially today’s young people who are growing up in an unprecedented time where social media – which, in essence, are communication tools of curation and comparison – informs their self-worth.
The reality is that we are living in a value crisis with many people struggling to feel their worthiness – the belief that it matters that they show up in life the next day. And of course it doesn’t stop there.
When we feel so low that we would rather sleep our days away instead of being active and seeing our friends, we begin to search for ways to cope. We self-medicate to make ourselves feel better, often through unhealthy means and with only temporary success. It’s not hard to think of destructive coping habits: over- or under-eating, forced-vomiting, self-harm, excessive drinking, drug use, abortion, pornography, cyber addictions, and, in particularly extreme cases, suicide.
The evidence is certainly not hard to find. In my final year of university, I drove a good friend to the hospital after he consumed 24 sleeping pills. When asked by the triage nurse why he did it, he said, “because I didn’t want to wake up.” No one should ever feel the need to say that.
When your value is conditional on something or someone it can lead you into all sorts of scary possibilities and places.
When we say we are upstream at Signal Hill, what we mean is that we go after the root issue behind many of the challenges people face today: the internalized belief that our value is conditional. If we can eliminate the cause of our society’s value crisis, we can prevent its effects.
So why am I bought into our mission of helping young people become thriving influencers who value every person? Because, I care and know what it’s like to be afraid. Because not only have I despaired in feeling that I’m not “enough,” I’ve seen that same despair in the eyes of countless others and I won’t stand for it.
It is my personal mission, my life promise, at Signal Hill and beyond, to light the fire of hope in the hearts of young people so that they would know not despair but the joy of being fully alive as themselves.
As long as I live, I will not give up or stand aside. Why? Because every person, including myself, is worth it.
Derek Scott is the Executive Director of Signal Hill. He holds a Master of Theological Studies from Duke University and is passionate about Signal Hill’s goal to shift culture so that every person is valued and able to thrive.