Self-worth is a complicated topic.
A lot has already been written about it. From the Vine of the man on the side-walk chanting "love yourself– accept yourself" to the thousands upon thousands of pages of books that have been published on the topic, there are a cacophony of voices ready to help you improve yourself self-worth and tell you why you should be kinder to yourself.
Unfortunately, those messages often fall on deaf ears. I've found that it's not uncommon to see content that encourages you to improve your sense of self-worth, or actionable guides that outline the steps you can take to feel better about yourself, only for us to either not act on the advice or to abandon it rather quickly.
Confessedly, the idea of self-worth sometimes feels too ambiguous to be something to which I should pay much attention. It's such a broad, general topic that it can even feel like a waste of time. My general attitude can often be something along the lines of "why waste my time on this vague sense of self-worth when I could be investing my time in some specific activity that will come with certain rewards that will make me feel better?"
Here's are some specific examples of what this looks like:
- One of my main goals in life is to publish a novel, so my energy would be best spent writing.
- I want to get in shape and maybe even have a six-pack, so my energy would be best spent exercising.
- I want to be a millionaire and not have to worry about money any more, so my energy would be best spent on starting my own business.
- I don't want to feel so lonely any more, so my energy would be best spent finding a relationship.
In each of these situations, you have a specific goal in mind that you believe will bring you happiness (hell, each of these probably would make you quite happy!) rather than reaching for a general sense of contentedness with yourself.
Unfortunately, each of these goals comes with a potent shadow side. If your book never gets published or your writing time gets interrupted by something avoidable, how can you be fulfilled if your self-worth is tied to publishing your book? If you've always wanted to look conventionally masculine and have a six-pack but your genetics dictate that that's going to be virtually impossible without surgery, how can you have a healthy body image when your focus is on one specific way of looking? If your business crashes and burns, you get rejection after rejection after rejection, an unexpected medical bill sets you back, an injury takes you off the field, or an unforeseen illness intervenes– if any of these get between you and the goal around which you've structured your very identity– how will your view of yourself change?
But consider for a moment what it looks like when your contentedness and the pride that you take in yourself doesn't come form specific, quantifiable achievements. Imagine that you just wake up in the morning and know that you're important and that you matter. That's what self-worth is all about– that's how you can shrug off the constraints of shame.
What is Self-Worth?
I want to be very clear about what I mean when I talk about self-worth since one of the pitfalls of self-worth content is that it tends to be quite ambiguous, often to the point of not feeling like it's applicable.
Self-worth is the state of mind in which you actively choose confidence and optimism instead of shame and regret. It allows you to focus on the journey, not the destination.
It's italicized, so I hope you emphasized the phrase "actively choose". One of the core misconceptions about cultivating self-worth is that if you're good at it, it becomes second nature. Some even present it as a sort of shield so that if you have a strong enough sense of self-worth, you're completely free from emotions like guilt, regret, and shame.
That, dear friends, is not possessing a strong sense of self-worth. Not experiencing those emotions would make you sociopath, not a guru of self-worth.
By its very nature, being human means that you experience a wide array of emotions. It's guaranteed that there will be ups and downs no matter how mindful you are or how long you've been working on enhancing your self-worth. That's one of the ways that people fall off the wagon when it comes to nurturing their sense of self-worth– as soon as they start to slip down the slopes of negative emotions, they see themselves as not being good enough at thinking good enough about themselves and things start to feel rather futile. It's easier to distract ourselves with mindless activities or throw ourselves full-throttle into a specific endeavor in which the results are quantifiable than it is to avoid tying our value to our emotions.
Yet emotions are fickle things. They change rather quickly, and most are quite temporary. Medical conditions like depression may make some more intense or linger longer, but they're still temporary things. Even though it's easier to do so, it's quite odd that we often associate our sense of self with whichever emotional state we're in. It's easy to love ourselves when we're standing on a mountaintop, just as it's easy to resent ourselves when we feel trapped in the valleys.
It's much more difficult to take a step back, regardless of your temporary emotional state, and recognize that it will pass– and that however long it takes it to pass, you are no more or less valuable.
Possessing a sense of self-worth means that you see yourself as a person who is worthy of happiness, success, and inner-peace regardless of passing circumstances. It doesn't demand that you hit quantifiable bench marks or put in a set amount of work in order to be worthy. I'm not suggesting that you should excuse yourself of all responsibility or that you'll achieve all of your goals just by recognizing that you're deserving of doing so; instead, I'm suggesting that it is through having the sense of self-worth that allows you to be kind and patient with yourself, you'll be better equipped to achieve those goals and grow into the person you want to be.
Investing in your self-worth enables you to have a growth mindset rather than a fixed one. It gives you the opportunity to invest in yourself fully without fearing failure or beating yourself up when you're having those in-the-valley moments. Your self-worth is your permission slip for enjoying the process of growing and learning, even if it doesn't lead to the things we're told we should always suffer for, like money or prestige.
In a nutshell, self-worth doesn't have to be some nebulous concept to occasionally think about. It should be your means of remaining resilient and hopeful in a world that demands of you to be hardened and harsh.