You don’t need to prove your worth. It is there and always has been. In my definition, self-worth is the value you have by virtue of being you. We are no better or worse than one another in this regard. Your worth always exists, no matter your income, vacations, relationship status, number of friends, religious or political orientation, or waistline. Why is it important to recognize this? Recognizing your own worth will help you brave the inevitable storms that occur in life, as well as appreciate and savor the good times. Awareness of inherent self-worth also highlights our interconnection and shared humanity. This awareness can help develop a compassionate perspective. Hugh Downs sums it up nicely: “To say my fate is not tied to your fate is like saying your end of the boat is sinking.”
However, it is easy to lose sight of one’s inherent self-worth or perhaps never really have this awareness in the first place. In modern industrialized societies such as ours, people often focus on external achievements and financial success as markers of an individual’s value and worth. It is so embedded in our culture that one of the first questions people ask of one another is what they do for a living. Additionally, many people have told me that they feel pangs of jealousy or a strong sense of inadequacy simply by scrolling down a social media feed. Or vice versa – the opposite is felt at receiving a lot of feedback after posting about a wonderful vacation or picture-perfect selfie. This is social comparison at work.
Social Psychologist Leon Festinger developed social comparison theory in the 1950s. The main idea is that humans look to comparisons with others in order to develop an identity. We look to others for information on a variety of things from where to go on vacation, what restaurants to eat at, what latest fad to participate in (fidget spinners, anyone?), and what kind of clothes to wear. It is natural for us to compare ourselves to one another and we humans are naturally wired for connection and attachment. However, getting caught up in social comparison comes with some pitfalls one of which involves either negatively evaluating others in order to boost ourselves or negatively evaluating ourselves and feeling badly (Festinger, 1954).
It should be noted that self-worth and self-esteem are often used interchangeably in common usage. For current purposes, I would like to differentiate between the two. Self-esteem is feeling good about and even proud of oneself. This is not necessarily a negative thing, but there’s an element of social comparison involved in this, which causes a yo-yo effect — up one day and down the next. Too much self-esteem can tip over into unhealthy narcissism which prevents the development of an authentic self, the ability to realistically assess oneself, show accountability, and a tendency to negatively evaluate others in order to maintain high self-esteem. Dr. Kristen Neff in her research touches on the backfiring of the self-esteem movement from 1990s and how this may have created a wave of narcissism due to something called the self-enhancement bias, which is basically a tendency for us all to consider ourselves above average on a number of dimensions (even if it is statistically impossible for all of us to be above average) (Neff, 2015).
When you recognize your inherent self-worth, you know that everyone is on even playing ground and yet everyone is an individual with a unique life story. Author Neil Gaiman in his Sandman graphic novel series writes: “Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.” When we recognize this, we can stop trying so hard to be likable and relax knowing that we can operate from a foundation of worth and value. Everything else is extra. Think of external achievements as icing on top — sweet but not completely essential to who we are and our inherent worth.
Besides the yo-yo effect of tying your worth to your external achievements, happiness gained from external factors simply doesn’t last all that long. Dr. Martin Seligman in his book Authentic Happiness writes about the concept of the hedonic treadmill: “As you accumulate more material possessions and accomplishments, your expectations rise. The deeds and things you worked so hard for no longer make you happy; you need to get something even better to boost your level of happiness into the upper reaches of its set range. But once you get the next possession or achievement, you adapt to it as well, and so on.”
Additionally when self-worth is tied in with the way others perceive us, a strong sensitivity to rejection can develop. Neuroscientists reveal that when people feel social rejection they experience pain in much the same way they experience physical pain. As a rule of thumb most folks try hard to avoid pain (Eisenberger, 2011). I believe that a strong awareness of one’s inherent self worth allows one to better handle social exclusion and rejection by more easily viewing these instances not as tell tale signs of lack of worthiness but rather as signifiers of a lack of compatibility at the moment. Awareness of your worth allows you to manage rejection by looking elsewhere for connection and compatibility, without doubting your worth.
You may be wondering and thinking “okay, but now what?” The first step is creating an active awareness. It involves coming to an awareness and acceptance of your inherent self-worth. It then involves treating yourself with love, respect, and compassion through self-care. I will outline some ideas for helping you amend any limiting beliefs about your self-worth and to incorporate positive acts of self-care:
- Keep a journal of positive quotes that remind you of your inherent self-worth. If you are a fan of literature, it could be a favorite quote from an author. It could be in the form of a letter to yourself serving as an affirmative reminder of your self-worth. It could be a list of positive affirmations. If you’re spiritual or religious, this could be your favorite scripture or passage.
- Surround yourself with a positive support system. Don’t worry if this isn’t the case currently but know this is an important goal. A positive support system can be a great help in supporting you in your personal growth and continued awareness of your inherent self-worth.
- Be mindful of social media intake, just like with everything else you consume. It can be beneficial and positive, but with awareness you can recognize when social media usage has crossed the line towards negativity and overconsumption. Also, remember Facebook is not an accurate depiction of reality. Think of it as the edited highlights. No one’s life is perfect. That is another reality we all share — imperfection.
- Develop an attitude of self-compassion. This is a relatively new field of research in the psychotherapy world, led by the work of Dr. Kristen Neff. Her work is rooted in the idea that we all share a common humanity and inherent self-worth, and that one way to continue to recognize this is to develop self-compassion. One way to develop self-compassion is to adopt a kind manner with yourself and to simply treat yourself the way you would treat a dear friend. Self-compassion is not synonymous with letting yourself off the hook or not being accountable for your actions, but instead it is a kind recognition of your pain with the goal of treating yourself with love and kindness so that you can more easily move forward, learn, and grow (Neff, 2015).
- Spend some time in nature or outside every day. This is an important part of self-care that is often neglected in modern life. Studies show that watching beautiful scenery like a sunset, ocean, or mountain view can produce feelings of awe which help boost overall mood and well being. It also helps with overall perspective and can be a reminder that there is more to life than every day stressors (Keltner, 2016).
- In spite of all of the above, it is inevitable that at times you may be caught up in the pitfalls social comparison simply because you are human. Use your awareness to practice self-compassion in these moments and give yourself a gentle reminder of your inherent worth.
- Take time each day to focus on gratitude. Counting your blessings has been shown to be beneficial to mood and well-being and is another important part of your self-care (Wong & Brown, 2017).
- Remind others of their inherent self-worth. Reminding others not only helps them but also helps reinforce this awareness within you.
Eisenberger, N. (2011, July 6). Why Rejection Hurts. Retrieved June 6, 2017, from https://www.edge.org/conversation/naomi_eisenberger-why-rejection-hurts
Festinger, Leon. (1954). A Theory of Social Comparison Processes, Retrieved June 6 2017 from https://www.humanscience.org/docs/Festinger%20(1954)%20A%20Theory%20of%20Social%20Comparison%20Processes.pdf.
Neff, K. (2011, June 26). Why Self-Compassion May Be the Antidote to Narcissism. Retrieved June 6, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-self-compassion/201106/why-self-compassion-may-be-the-antidote-narcissism
Neff, K. (2015, June 23). Self compassion: the proven power of being kind to yourself. New York, New York: William Morrow Paperbacks
Neff, K. (2017). Stop Chasing Self-Esteem and Start Developing Self-Compassion. Retrieved June 6, 2017, from http://self-compassion.org/why-we-should-stop-chasing-self-esteem-and-start-developing-self-compassion/
Keltner, D. (2016, May 10). Why Do We Feel Awe? Retrieved June 6, 2017, from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_do_we_feel_awe
Seligman M. E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York, New York: Atria Paperback: A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Wong, J. & Brown, J. (2017, June 6). How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain. Retrieved June 6, 2017 from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain