Reclaiming Your Inherent Self-Worth
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.