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What is Self-Worth and How Do We Develop It?

Why relying on others for your self-esteem causes problems, and how to get your sense of worth from within instead
What is self esteem worth

Jennifer came into my office feeling anxious and lost. She wasn't sure if her life was worth living anymore. Her boyfriend of 4 years had recently left her, and she assumed it was because she wasn't good enough. Jennifer's entire sense of value and worth as a person was tied to being in a relationship; when she didn't have a significant other, she felt like a nobody. In her mind, the fact that they broke up was further proof that she had no inherent worth as a person. Our self-worth is our sense of value, and Jennifer's was completely dependent on what her ex-boyfriend thought of her.

How do we assess our personal worth?

We assess our personal worth in various ways, some more beneficial than others, in an attempt to assign value to ourselves. In a world filled with so much opportunity, why are so many people, like Jennifer, lacking a sense of worthiness? And if we don't feel worthy, how do we change that? Does worthiness just appear one day out of nowhere, or do we get it from our achievements and the validation we receive from loved ones? Jennifer isn't unique in her feelings of unworthiness; most people depend on external sources to confirm their self-worth. However, that's a setup for a lifetime of insecurity. The problem with relying on external sources for our sense of worthiness is that we end up measuring ourselves according to other people, rather than paying attention to our intrinsic value.

Recognizing our inherent worthiness

When we recognize our inherent worthiness, we develop a solid and unwavering sense of security. The source of our self-worth affects practically all aspects of our lives, so when we constantly rely on others for security, we wind up dependent on external circumstances. Living this way, we give up the reigns of our own lives and hand them over to others. Even if she knew she was worthy, Jennifer would still have been upset about her breakup; but it would not have led her to question whether her life was worth living. Her sense of value as a person would not have changed based on her ex's opinion.

Getting self-worth internally vs. externally

One fundamental difference between getting our self-worth from external sources and getting it from within is the level of our confidence and security. When we choose the path of reaching outside ourselves for our value, we constantly seek acceptance and self-worth from others, ensuring that we remain insecure and self-conscious. Since we depend on others who are out of our control, we have no way of securing our self-worth, and thus feel insecure a lot of the time. We often wonder, "How did I come off in that conversation? "What will people think of me?" "Why didn't that person smile at me?" We become self-conscious, as we measure everything people say and do according to whether it fulfills or denies our inherent need for self-worth.

When we seek worthiness from within and become aware of our inherent value, we become emotionally healthy and strong. Basically, we become unstoppable, only relying on our inherent selves to know who we are and what kind of life we're meant to live. We become more focused and attuned to our personal value and purpose. We ultimately become calm and centered creators of our own destiny, living in a world that's controlled by internal forces rather than external circumstances.

When we seek worthiness from outside ourselves, we depend on the people, things, and circumstances around us to tell us we're worthy. We become dependent on everything and everyone, hoping they'll soothe our internal struggle. We worship people, material objects, and financial success like false gods, hoping they'll provide us with the worthiness that we so desperately crave. Relying on external rewards as motivation keeps us beholden to the people around us. When we can find ways to internally derive our worthiness, we feel better about ourselves and are much less likely to strive for meaningless relationships, stay in jobs we hate, or act in ways that don't reflect who we truly are.

Where does self-worth come from for you?

One easy way to assess where our self-worth comes from is to observe our actions, words, and thoughts. I recommend beginning by taking a close look at your actions. Ask yourself, "Is my life spent reacting or responding to others? Do I spend more time answering to the people around me, or am I more intentional with my responses? When I'm part of a group discussion, do I offer my opinion regardless of the outcome, or do I heavily react to others' opinions?

There's a great deal of good that comes from self-knowledge, awareness, and reflection.

Knowing this, I suggested to Jennifer that she take a closer look at where she was deriving her sense of self-worth. Only through self-awareness can we think objectively and consciously live with a sense of our value. When we form a strong sense of self-worth that allows us to know our value, we can develop happiness and connect with others and the world in a different way. The paradox is that once we become more self-aware, strong in our knowledge of self, we can minimize our desire to personalize and make everything about ourselves.

How to gain a sense of self-worth from within

Jennifer was able to realize her worth and value after becoming more self-aware and working on gaining a sense of her worth from within. Some of the behaviors and perceptions that Jennifer worked on, which helped in her journey of accepting her worth as a person, included:

  • Become less of a people-pleaser.

  • Respond to life more objectively, instead of taking things personally.

  • Become more self-aware and focused on your needs.

  • Connect with your emotions, your triggers, and what brings you joy.

  • Show up in your relationships.

  • Be vulnerable about your mistakes.

  • Be honest, even if someone isn't going to like what you have to say.

  • Take responsibility for the part you play in your relationships, and for your lack of self-worth.

  • Own your emotions.

For more support, join our empathetic community, chat with an emotional support listener, or start affordable online therapy today.


Posted: 01 August 2019
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Ilene S. Cohen, PhD

Ilene S. Cohen, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist, professor, blogger, and author of the popular self-help guides, "When It's Never About You" and "It's Within You."

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