A sinking self-worth usually starts early. Maybe your caregivers criticized your every move, or maybe they criticized themselves and you learned to do the same with yourself.
Journalist Anneli Rufus struggled with self-loathing for over 40 years. “I hated myself unreservedly, as if it was required,” she writes in her latest book Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself.
“Why? Was I a murderer? A thief? Had I committed genocide or bombed the Prado? Was I mean? Did I have seven swollen, scaly heads? Whose children had I thrown down wells? Which city did I plunder? Had I put soap in a swimming pool or slaughtered fawns?”
No. Rufus’s self-hatred stemmed from seeing her mom treat herself with contempt. Though “meaning no harm,” Rufus’s mom taught her daughter to believe there was something inherently wrong with her. Rufus yearned to be anyone but herself.
Maybe you, too, have yearned to be someone else. Maybe you, too, have spoken vicious words to yourself. Maybe you, too, have avoided looking at your reflection.
When you have a shaky self-worth, the last thing you want to do is treat yourself well.
“When we do not see worth in something, we often treat it poorly. Self-worth is the same way,” according to Brooke Lewis, a registered clinical counselor who specializes in self-harm, eating disorders and addictions in British Columbia. You truly believe you aren’t “worth caring for.”
This might translate into engaging in self-destructive behaviors, she said. Or it might manifest in staying in toxic relationships, which only confirm your belief that you’re unworthy. It might mean isolating yourself. It might mean ignoring even the basics of self-care, such as getting enough sleep and seeing the doctor.
But you can foster a positive self-worth. “Our brains and mindsets are flexible, not fixed,” Lewis said. It just takes time. Because feeling worthless is a complex issue, seeing a therapist can help.
“Often people with low self-worth have never experienced a relationship of unconditional acceptance or have ever felt ‘heard.” The therapeutic relationship is unconditional and judgment-free, she said.
In addition to therapy, there are small steps you can take to begin building a healthier relationship with yourself. Here are several to try.
1. Contribute to your community.
“One of the main ways a person can begin to build a sense of self-worth is through contribution to the community,” Lewis said.
This may include small gestures, such as holding the door, giving a compliment and smiling at others, she said. It also can include bigger gestures, such as volunteering.
Contributing to your community provides you with a sense of purpose and connection, she added.
2. Practice gratitude.
Gratitude boosts our sense of well-being, Lewis said. “By focusing a person’s attention on the positive aspects of the day, a person is focusing on areas of worth.”
She suggested recording five things you’re grateful for every day. “The more specific the better.”
3. Acknowledge your accomplishments.
Recording your daily accomplishments “focuses the brain on ways a person is achieving purpose, rather than being without purpose or worthless,” Lewis said. “The brain will store this information away and begin to shift the ‘I’m worthless’ cognition to ‘I’m a person with worth.’”
Record anything that’s meaningful to you — from taking a walk to finishing a project at work, she said.
4. Practice positive self-talk.
According to Lewis, people with a low self-worth find it challenging to speak kindly to themselves. She suggested collecting inspirational quotes online, saving them to your phone, and then reading them throughout the day.
This teaches you how to generate positive self-talk, so that over time, you might start telling yourself similar kind statements.
These statements, she said, can be anything that helps to soothe and reassure you, such as “It’s going to be OK,” and “You did your best.”
Reminders also help. In Unworthy Rufus includes a powerful reminder:
“You are astounding just for being human, merely for belonging to this species that is capable of language, laughter, creativity, and love. With just one hand, you could soothe a child, play a tune or stitch a wound. With just one eye, you could signal warning or friendship, read the entire contents of a library, or find your way out of the woods. And your brain is the universe’s greatest creation.”
Remind yourself of these facts regularly.