You don’t feel very good about yourself. You search for a boost everywhere. In relationships. On the scale. At a job you don’t even like. Even at the bottom of a shot glass.
You feel the need to earn your self-worth, as though it were a bulletin board with gold stars; stars you earn by performing certain deeds and achieving certain accomplishments.
What you forget—or what others helped you forget—is that you are inherently worthy.
Self-worth is “the ability to sense and be aware of one’s innate value,” said Colleen Reichmann, a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders and body image in private practice in Williamsburg, Va., and a staff psychologist at the College of William and Mary. It is the idea that by simply being born, we are already worthy and enough, she explained.
The Roots of Low Self-Worth
Many things can interfere with our ability to recognize our innate self-worth, Reichmann said. Maybe environmental circumstances are to blame. Bullying. A difficult or unpredictable childhood. Lack of support. Maybe you were brought up in an invalidating home, where self-worth was measured by getting above-average grades and winning games, she said.
Maybe you learned to value external things. Money. Appearance. Achievement. “It is so easy to get caught up [with] putting our energy into chasing those things, while forgetting the internal things—the ‘soul stuff,’ I like to call it,” Reichmann said. This includes connecting to your spirituality, deepening your relationships, volunteering, and participating in hobbies (“that you do only for fun”). “Once a person gets caught up in chasing the external, their ability to acknowledge or even remember the importance of the soul stuff can recede.”
What Sabotages Your Self-Worth
Thankfully, you don’t have to live with a sinking, shaky self-worth. You can solidify your self-worth. You can recognize your innate value. Of course, there are no quick fixes. But there are ways you can start.
Reichmann suggested starting by acknowledging that our society actually hinders the growth of our self-worth, so it’s understandable why yours might be low (or non-existent). She also stressed the importance of acknowledging the personal situations and experiences that have hampered your self-worth along with the behaviors you’re currently participating in that might be sabotaging it.
For instance, according to Reichmann, maybe you’re stuck in a cycle of dieting and bingeing that keeps you fixated on food and weight—and off of the soul stuff. Maybe you’re using alcohol to numb your emotions and yourself. (Even one glass of wine a night can become an unhealthy escape.) Maybe you’re dating someone who makes you feel terrible about yourself.
Maybe you’re shackled to social media, and every time you scroll through the shiny images and words, you convince yourself that you’re coming up short. We turn to social media when we’re bored or lonely (i.e., when we’re not feeling our best), Reichmann said. “So we go on social media when we are emotionally vulnerable, only to then view the best parts of other people’s lives. This leads to comparisons and overall lower self-worth.”
Strengthening Your Self-Worth
Once you identify the behaviors that are draining your self-worth, Reichmann suggested stopping the cycles or replacing the problematic behaviors with positive behaviors. For instance, you stop dieting and work on intuitive eating. You fill in the time you spent focusing on food with self-care activities. Instead of researching different diets, you take a walk, talk to a friend, or savor a cup of tea, Reichmann said.
Instead of turning to social media, you replace screen time with face-to-face time with close friends or family or a support group. Instead of turning to wine, you start feeling your feelings. You start observing them. You describe your specific physical sensations—like a reporter, recording the experience, without judgment.
As coach Rachel Hart noted in this piece, “Sadness for me feels like my body is constricting. My chest tightens making it difficult to take a full breath. I feel my throat closing up. My shoulders start to slump, my stomach pulls in, and I can feel my body wanting to curl up into a ball. If the feeling is particularly intense, I’ll notice almost a buzzing in my chest cavity.” What does sadness feel like to you? How does joy appear? What about anxiety and anger?
The Power of Self-Worth
When you have a solid self-worth, you not only realize that you’re inherently worthy (because you’re human); you also integrate this belief into the decisions you make and the actions you take, Reichmann said. Which means you put yourself in safe situations with people who support you and have your best interest at heart. Which means you say “no” to anything that is too small for you, and you say “yes” to the things that energize, soothe, inspire and uplift you.
Recognizing our innate self-worth is vital. After all, as Reichmann said, “we have this one life—this one wild, painful, beautiful, chaotic, brutal, hilarious and breathtaking adventure.” Why waste this precious time hating and berating yourself? Why waste this time chasing after fleeting variables, like weight, size, and bank account amounts? Why not work toward realizing that you are worthy precisely as you are right now? Because once we recognize it, we feel lighter, less burdened, and so much more alive.