When it comes to your relationship with yourself, you can be your own best friend or biggest enemy. It doesn’t matter how many people you know. You will always be in attendance, making it the most important one on the list. But do you know why?
It all comes down to self-worth. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines worth as “the value of something measured by its qualities or by the esteem in which it is held.” In short, worth equals value.
Self-worth is not the same as self-esteem, however. Although they’re often used synonymously, New York City social worker Amanda Wetzstein Frey, LMSW, says that “self-esteem is more about confidence and healthy admiration for one’s self.” And healthy admiration is more about self-respect. Self-worth, on the other hand, is the leading lady in the big picture of mental and emotional health. Without it, your general well-being can (and will) suffer.
Because self-worth ultimately comes from within, the value you place on yourself is the only type of worth you can control. You determine how outside factors influence your inner sense of value. These are the actions, judgments, and reactions of other people. They’re the expectations from our loved ones and the demands of our job. From society’s unspoken standards to the rules written on paper, everything outside of your body is an external source. When you base your self-worth on external sources, you tread down a risky path.
Why? For one, outside forces are always in flux. That’s not to say that they can’t be motivational springboards for personal goals. It also doesn’t mean that an emotionally healthy person doesn’t acknowledge the influence of such sources. A bit of humility in your self-perception can go a long way. But when your primary source of self-worth is everything around you, there’s a lot of room for disappointment and confusion.
“If you look to external sources for validation, you’re more likely to make unhealthy decisions,” Frey says. “It blinds you from seeing your own strengths, blocking you from reaching your full potential.” A study in the Journal of Social Issues found that college students who based their self-worth on appearance, academic performance, and approval of society were more likely to be stressed and frustrated. These students also had more relationship problems and academic issues, as well as higher use of drugs and alcohol.
The same study also found that students who placed their self-worth on internal aspects—such as sticking to their morals—were generally happier and healthier. “If you have an internal support system that allows you to see that you are worthwhile, you’ve got yourself a solid foundation upon which you can achieve your goals,” Frey says.
This concept can be tricky to grasp, especially when there isn’t a blueprint for valuing yourself. To get you started, here are four ways to think about—and improve—your self-worth.
01. Compare yourself to no one.
Defining your worth from outside sources is a subconscious way of comparing yourself to specific standards set by others. Comparison is a foolproof way of ignoring the awesome things you have done or can do. When you compare yourself to others, you’re measuring your worth by their terms. But what about your own?
“Your own terms are the only ones that matter,” says Mackenzie Gelina, academic adviser at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. “Every person has walked a different path to get where they are today,” she adds. This can be difficult when social media sites such as Facebook provide a constant reminder of the achievements of others. Not surprisingly, a study by the Public Library of Science found that increased Facebook use undermines subjective well-being. The more individuals saw the achievements of their peers, the less satisfied they were with their own lives. Sound familiar?
Instead of measuring your worth based on another person’s scale, concentrate on what is meaningful to you, whether that’s being balanced, being a kind person, or living a faith tradition. “Make your own standards,” Gelina says. “They will matter to you longer than those of anyone else.”
02. Embrace your mistakes, and learn from them.
It’s normal for people to cringe at past blunders and faults. For most, these mistakes elicit feelings of shame and regret. But like most things, it depends on how you look at it. Though we can’t change the past, we can control how we handle those mistakes.
Gelina suggests using each slip-up as an opportunity to ask yourself some questions. Why did I react that way? Where did that comment come from? What was my reasoning? She explains that doing this gives you a chance to catch yourself and pinpoint where the mistake stemmed from.
Our life is full of opportunities. One can even say that life itself is one big opportunity. Remember those personal standards? When you sweep up every chance to grow and develop, you’ll be well on your way to meeting those terms, and you’ll be proud of yourself for the work you put in.
03. Take opportunities to develop yourself.
It can be tricky to find opportunities for development. Gelina says that the key is to simply pay attention to what is around you. For starters, read books and blogs on topics that are meaningful to you. Seek out events, lectures, and workshops on subjects you care about. Find time to practice a hobby, no matter how busy you are. Write a stream of consciousness, and don’t even stop for punctuation. Meditate and reflect on what you’ve done well (or not so well), and continue to pave that path. Whatever it is that you decide to do, it will fuel your sense of self and ultimately your self-worth.
“It’s always useful to explore these aspects of yourself with the guidance of a therapist,” Frey says. For those who are unable to meet a professional, Frey suggests the following: “Make small goals. Really, really small. Write down each goal, and then write down two to three direct actions you will take to achieve these goals.” These can be anything from fully making your bed to wrapping up a deadline. Frey adds, “Once you see that you can achieve the goals you set out for yourself, you can gradually move on to tackling bigger goals because you have a wealth of experience to draw from.”
04. Share your journey with someone you trust.
After all this talk about focusing on one’s self, the thought of sharing seems counterintuitive. Gelina points out that offering help, compassion, and thoughts is a way of taking charge of positive opportunities. Much of it has to do with constructive use of those external sources.
For example, students often approach Gelina with academic concerns. Instead of trying to change the system, Gelina encourages them to voice their worries. She asks them to reflect on why they think they’re having difficulty and what they can do differently in a way that works for them. The more they discuss the situation, the more they are able to learn about themselves. It helps them delve into their personal stashes of morals and attitudes, letting them flourish accordingly. “When you share yourself, you see yourself,” Gelina says.
Regardless of where you are in life, it’s essential to remember that the quest for self-worth never ends. There will always be room to learn more. We hope these tips will help you create the path to a healthy sense of self-worth that works for you. After all, it’s the best thing you can do to honor yourself and your invaluable, unique person.