First, I want to thank all who have joined the discussion on self-esteem and self-worth. You’ve had a lot to say, and I still do too!
I’ve received several questions over the past couple of weeks, so, to ensure we’re all on the same page before we move on, today’s post is a Q & A. If you haven’t read the first two posts, “5 Reasons Self-Esteem is a Myth,” and “If Self-Esteem is a Myth, then what is the Truth?: Understanding Self-Worth,” I suggest you do. And be sure to watch my “Self-Esteem vs. Self-Worth: 3-Minute Therapy” video, below–I ask a very important question that will make it worth your 3 minutes!
What’s the difference between “high self-esteem” and a sense of self-worth?
Self-esteem is what we think and feel and believe about ourselves. Self-worth is recognizing “I am greater than all of those things”. It is a deep knowing that I am of value, that I am loveable, necessary to this life, and of incomprehensible worth. It is possible to feel “high self-esteem,” or in other words, to think I’m good at something, yet still not feel convinced that I am loveable and worthy. Self-esteem doesn’t last or “work” without self-worth. That’s why I believe the pursuit of self-esteem is a myth.
But having self-esteem means “feeling good about ourselves.” Isn’t it good to feel good about ourselves?
It’s definitely a good thing to think and feel good about ourselves. But, what happens when we don’t? Does that mean we’re no longer valuable? Absolutely not. Yet many people believe, at least on some level, that it does. Buying into the lie that my “self” is based on those good thoughts or feelings is the problem. Rather than trying so hard to just “feel good” about ourselves, isn’t it better to actually know our “self” is good? That’s what self-worth is: a deep knowing.
Everywhere I look I’m being told to work on my self-esteem. Isn’t it a good thing to work on increasing self-esteem?
When we focus on building self-esteem, we work on being better at this or that—at losing weight, becoming healthier, thinking more positively, developing healthy personality traits. And all of these things are good. But what happens when we place our entire value in them? What happens when those “good” things change or come crumbling down? Our value crumbles right along with it. I’ve seen so many people who have gotten caught in this trap; never seeing the fruits of their labors, they determine they have absolutely no value and believe they never will. That’s the worst lie we could possibly believe. Focusing on “increasing self-esteem” alone, unfortunately, reinforces that lie. If, however, I know that I am of great worth–no matter what I think, feel, or do–then, whether I “succeed” or “fail,” that core knowledge does not change. Even though I feel the pain of failure, if I have self-worth, I still know I am valuable, capable, and “good”. That’s why I believe we need to work on knowing our self-worth rather than increasing our “self-esteem”.
Are you saying that all those “self-esteem techniques” and books out there don’t work?
Self-esteem techniques can and do help, but only if there’s already a foundation of self-worth. What I see all the time in my practice is people–women and men–who have worked hard on “self-esteem,” have found great success in their work, but go home each night feeling like they’re not good enough. Or, they feel great about their talents and abilities, then get in a relationship and can’t let the other person in because they don’t believe they’re worthy of love. That’s the trouble with self-esteem techniques. They only work once we really know and embrace our true worth.
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When you define “self-worth,” you say we need to understand “who we really are.” What exactly do you mean by “who we really are?”
Think of a child. You know how they just believe they’re good and loveable and valuable? They “know who they really are.” I was at a field trip yesterday and the leader asked, “Are there any artists in the room?” Almost every hand went up. That’s not because they have had experiences that tell them they’re good artists or even because they’ve somehow proven it to the world—they’re only 5! They believe they’re artists because they simply know they are of worth and have great potential. They haven’t had a chance yet to believe otherwise. We need to get back to that childlike sense of who we are, that deeper knowing that we matter just because we are.
You’re right. That’s what I’ve struggled with most as a psychologist: “How do I help someone feel their true value when they don’t feel it?” As I continue to write on this topic I hope to share several of the ideas I use to help people not just hear they’re of worth, but really feel and know it.
What would you say to those who have a history of abuse and struggle with self-esteem and self-worth?
I say it’s completely understandable why you would feel this way. When you’ve been abused, you’ve been given the message that you’re “not of worth” way too many times. It’s hard to counteract a lifetime of hearing that message. However, I also say that it’s possible to discover your true worth. Your value is not based on someone else’s misuse of you. It’s not based on their opinion of you or their words about you or their wrong actions. You are of deep, infinite worth. You may not feel it yet, but you are. And discovering it for yourself starts with simply opening up to the possibility. Ask yourself, “What if I really were of worth? What if I could feel that I am valuable and lovable and good, deep down?” It’s not easy, but don’t let someone who hasn’t been living up to their potential prevent you from living up to yours. Let yourself begin to believe. (There is a lot more to be said on this topic and I hope to address it in a future post).
Don’t get me wrong.
I agree that it’s valuable to learn to think positively, to create positive emotion, to go for our dreams and believe in ourselves. If you’ve read any of my other blog posts or articles, you’ll know I believe in this. But I believe we sell ourselves short when we base our worth on anything external and changeable. Our goal shouldn’t be to “feel good about ourselves.” Our goal should be to be able to know and say, like this man I admire greatly: “I believe in myself. I do not mean to say this with egotism. But I believe in my capacity and in your capacity to do good, to make some contribution to the society of which we are a part, [and] to grow and develop. … I believe in the principle that I can make a difference in this world, be it ever so small.”
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Related Posts/Articles/ Videos:
 Gordon B. Hinkley, I Believe, in Ensign, Aug. 1992. http://www.lds.org/ensign/1992/08/i-believe?lang=eng