Self-worth and Self-esteem

Published February 16, 2012 by matchsoul

What is self-worth?

Self-worth is as it sounds: how much we feel we’re worth. How good we are at certain sports, how easily we make friends, how much we weigh, how good we are at our jobs etc.

Self-help psychology tends to assume there is an intrinsic link between self-worth and self-esteem, and that the key to bettering a person’s self-esteem is to change that person’s perception of his/her self-worth. If you believe that you’re worthy and valuable in all sorts of regards you’ll feel better about yourself.

While this can be the case it can also be much simpler than that, provided it’s realised that emotional well-being and self-worth don’t have to be linked.

When self-worth is linked to self-esteem (how good we feel about ourselves) the relationship is pretty proportional. If we have a sense of little or no self-worth we feel terrible about ourselves and if we have high self-worth it’s the opposite.

Our sense of self-worth can fluctuate with our changes in circumstances, and I doubt positive mantras and visualisation exercises are always enough to combat the simple knowledge that in some areas you really do suck. There’s an alternative to trying to change your perception of self-worth to weigh up the scales well.

Understanding self-worth

Your self-esteem is likely connected to a sense of worth and value – it’s the same for almost everyone. But that sense is down to the value and worth you can be to others and not necessarily are to others.

Alone on a desert island, what are you worth? A lot? A little? In that situation you are completely worthless – you are of no use to anyone. But would that sense of worthlessness on that island bother you? Could you imagine any lone castaway battling with a sense of self-worth? That would be ridiculous. As Tom Hanks taught us, ice skate dentistry and argumentative footballs will always take priority.

In a more direct example: what might people suffering from low self-worth worry about when they wake up: whether they will contribute value to their work today or whether they can contribute value?

Our concern for self-worth is in our capacity, not in our contribution. Marooned on an island, unable to be of value to anyone, we just get on with surviving. Throw us back into civilisation and the business of self-worth appears again. The key to self-esteem is not necessarily in boosting self-worth, but simply in detaching our self-esteem from our self-worth.

Just as self-worth isn’t an issue when it comes to survival on a desert island so it need not be an issue in civilisation when you’re just trying to achieve happiness.

People doing very well at what they do…

Most people who do really well aren’t in the media at all, if ever. In the following examples I’m going to refer just to celebrities though, as it makes for easier writing and reading.

When you see celebrities on TV, especially in interviews, have you ever noticed how some seem very big-headed and others seem rather humble? They all know they ought to look modest, of course, but you can often tell when some are putting on an act and others genuinely have no interest in tooting their own horns.

Such celebrities can have equal levels of success in their different fields, yet behave very differently.

People with low self-worth which is linked to self-esteem

Some celebrities are very successful at what they do, yet have low self-worth. Maybe they’re worried that their fame comes from hype and not their accomplishments, maybe they feel really worthless in some other area…but somehow or other despite the glow of the media spotlight they still feel not quite worth enough. Such people can strike us as cocky, boastful, big-headed or even just narcissistic – using pride to cover up a deeper-seated feeling of worthlessness.

They’re better off with high self-worth.

People with high self-worth which is linked to self-esteem

Some celebrities have high self-worth…and they can still strike us as cocky, boastful and big-headed, but they’re obviously better off than those with low self-worth.

It’s still not ideal though as it doesn’t offer much security. The world’s best ballerina may have soaring self-worth (as in literally her worth as a dancer) but that would vanish if she became paralysed. If these people lose the thing which makes them valuable to others, they will emotionally crash down into low self-esteem – and it will be a long fall.

They’re better off not thinking in terms of self-worth, thus having no link between that notion and self-esteem.

People who don’t think in terms of self-worth

There are also plenty of celebrities who don’t seem to think in terms of self-worth and these are perhaps the easiest to name.

Tony Hawk, Jackie Chan, Warren Buffet, Stephen King, Will Smith…they’re very down to Earth and quite humble. It’s not so much that they have high self-worth but that they don’t apply any level of worth to themselves – low or high. As mentioned earlier, we can all easily not think in terms of self-worth in various situations, the challenge is to think like this consistently – irrespective of our circumstances.

Transcending the self-worth model

The better cure for self-worth is just to leave that system rather than try to win at it. In the system of self-worth you’re either low on it and you need more to feel good about yourself, or you have plenty and you’re happy with yourself – but that happiness can be taken away in an instant if you suddenly lose the thing which makes you valuable.

If you opt out of that mentality you’ll always have self-worth (literally a level of value to others), but it can simply have no emotional relevance to you and won’t be something you give much thought to.

How to do this…

I’m not a perfect example when it comes to thinking beyond self-worth (though the guy I share my blog with is…damn him) but I find as time goes on I get better and better at disregarding self-worth by doing one particular thing and avoiding another:

Remembering self-worth is a construct

Simply reminding myself of what this article is about is usually enough to kick myself out of thoughts of self-worth. Self-worth isn’t a mental model I’d have to deal with alone on a desert island and I don’t have to deal with it in my present circumstances here in civilisation either.

Not ‘faking it ‘til I make it’

I’m not sure I’ve ever done this. I hope I never do. ‘Fake it until you make it’ is such a business thing and it really promotes the self-worth mental model. Pretending to be more successful than you are until you reach that level of success for real…well it might be good for business but until you get the success for real you’re really stirring up self-worth troubles.


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