There are certain words and concepts that are so overused in our culture that they end up meaning everything and nothing at all. Self-esteem is one such concept. Poor self-esteem is thought to be the cause of everything from childhood behavioral problems to adult interpersonal difficulties. Esteem for oneself is surely a contributing factor for a host of issues; however, many researchers are beginning to question the concept of self-esteem and the importance of it in successful adult identity and relationship formation. Instead, the idea of self-worth is emerging as a more helpful concept for explaining the sense of value in self and relationships that is so often missing in people’s lives.
Self-esteem is considered a person’s sense of their own value or worth. It is basically one’s attitude about oneself, whether positive or negative. This sense of self-value is formed by a complex interweaving of factors including genetics, personality, life experiences, age, health, thoughts, social circumstances, the reaction of others to us and comparing ourselves to others. Self-esteem fluctuates throughout one’s life and can be influenced heavily by interactions with others with whom we are in relationships.
A sense of poor self-esteem can result in a lack of value for oneself. People with poor self-esteem are often found sacrificing their own needs or seeking self-worth in relationship to others, even if that relationship isn’t healthy or mutual. They may continually compare themselves to others rather than celebrate their own accomplishments. They may claim success was a result of good luck rather than acknowledging the work that went into a project or endeavor. They may repeatedly apologize for things that aren’t in their control or their responsibility.
Self-worth is a concept that has emerged from the understanding that self-esteem doesn’t capture the innateness of our value as humans independent of our achievements or relationships. “Self-worth is the more global recognition that we are valuable human beings worthy of love,” shares psychologist Christina Hibbert. She further explains that self-worth is “a deep knowing that I am of value, I am loveable, necessary to this life and of incomprehensible worth.”
To illustrate the concept of self-worth, Hibbert shares a story about being on a field trip with a group of 5-year olds to an art museum. When the docent asked the children to raise their hands if they were an artist, all the children raised their hands. Self-worth is akin to that childlike sense of who we are; our value and potential just for being a unique person.
YOU ARE VALUABLE
How do we uncover and experience that innate sense of self-worth, without the external trappings of familial, social and community expectations and judgements? Begin the practice of identifying and acknowledging your own self-worth:
1. Assess how you currently feel about yourself. What do you value or appreciate about yourself? What are the accomplishments of which you are most proud? What are your strengths? If you need help getting started, ask a trusted friend to share. Sometimes friends can help us see our true selves in a way that isn’t marred by our own judgements. Reflect upon and acknowledge all your perceived imperfections, self-judgements, self-recriminations and disappointments.
2. Take a moment to ponder how you feel about a loved one. Do you love that person unconditionally? Why? Is there any blemish, misstep or condition under which you wouldn’t love them? For most of us, we understand unconditional love toward another. What if we allowed that same unconditional love for ourselves? Take a moment to go through your list of perceived imperfections and feel the same level of self-acceptance and compassion that you would offer your loved one.
Terri Allred is SE Regional Coordinator for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.