Inherent self-worth?
November 18, 2009 2:57 PM   Subscribe

How do you develop a sense of inherent self-worth?

I understand that it's a losing proposition to base your self-worth on specific traits or abilities, and you really need to be comfortable with yourself "warts and all". I just don't know how to make that leap. I'm having a difficult time getting myself to believe at a gut level that I have worth independent of my (very imperfect) abilities and actions.

I'm also not having much luck with the old standby advice of trying to judge yourself by the less-demanding standards that you'd use for someone else. For other people as well, for better or worse, I really do seem to treat being smarter, more creative, more energetic, etc., as making someone more worthwhile.

How do you help yourself believe that you (and everyone else) has inherent worth as a person that's independent of abilities and even actions? Thanks for any advice -- this is a serious issue for me.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
After the damage of a horrendous childhood, I'm finding a lot of help in Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

The dialectical part is about accepting yourself where you are now, while acknowledging and working on areas you'd like to improve.

(feel free to read my most recent question to see how done of these feelings play out for me.)

I was feeling very defensive this morning about my position that I am somehow less worthy of resources that I clearly need. Being surrounded by other people (in the Internet sense of surrounded) who were willing to repeat that I did deserve those resources was really positive for me.
posted by bilabial at 3:19 PM on November 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

You'll get bombarded with cognitive behavior therapy recommendations (and they'll be right) but I wanted to share this bit from the Feeling Good book: your worth is constant and immutable. It does not have to be earned. It's always there.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:23 PM on November 18, 2009 [12 favorites]

Sadly, there are no short cuts. You will need to put forth a concerted effort, moment-to-moment, to live the best life you know how to live. There will be setbacks, and dead ends, but keep trying, always, to do the "right" thing. Years.

Then, one day, the thought will bite you hard in the ass that, as A Terrible Llama put it, it was always there.
posted by Danf at 3:38 PM on November 18, 2009

I just tell myself that I am a badass, without reference to specific work or accomplishments (of course, when I do actually execute a badass maneuver, I don't hesitate to remind myself that it was, in fact, pretty damn awesome). It can be tough to tell these things to yourself without letting it slip out to others, but if feel like I absolutely need to say it to someone else, I usually tell my mom (she likes to feel that she did a good job of imbuing me with a sense of self-worth, and while it might border on egomania, she's pretty cool about listening when I need to bolster my self-confidence). I intentionally exaggerate these statements when I'm trying to muster the confidence to do something hard. I know full well that there's a huge bias toward positivity in most people's self-evaluations (at least in the US), and I think that it's adaptive. I don't think it's necessarily wise to tell others how great you are all the time, but it's fine to tell yourself.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 3:50 PM on November 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

I really do seem to treat being smarter, more creative, more energetic, etc., as making someone more worthwhile.

So answer this question: If that smarter, more creative, more energetic person were to one day get into a really bad car accident that left them crippled and mentally disabled....would you then decide that they were less worthwhile? It's the same person.

Okay you're anonymous so you can't answer the question, but the point I'm trying to make is that the things you mention are just qualities a person has, but they are not the person. Looks, creativity, intelligence: these are not constant but the person is. There is no magic logic to why and there's nothing you can really do to make yourself believe it. You have to just accept that that's the way it is.
posted by cottonswab at 4:06 PM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

I would suggest setting small, achievable goals, and then putting forth an honest, good effort to achieve those goals. learn to take pride in either the process or the result, and then build upon those successes to set and achieve more ambitious/more fulfilling results.
You will learn what you are good at, and what you enjoy, both in the doing and the achieving.

Some of these projects will be on your own, but some should be done with others, in order to have a supportive or even competitive environment as you build your creativity, energy, knowledge.

You are the center of your universe, and can very well find what makes you most worthy within it.
posted by OHenryPacey at 4:14 PM on November 18, 2009

How do you help yourself believe that you (and everyone else) has inherent worth as a person that's independent of abilities and even actions?

Answer: Just Because

Really. That's the belief system you need to cultivate. Even if you have to say it to yourself through grit teeth. Even if you have to lie to yourself big-time, while your low-self esteem, overanalytical brain is saying 'I don't believe it' You fire back - I am worth it, Just Because. You can't overthink it, you might even feel you don't deserve to be so audacious. You might feel slimy or egotistical because you aren't used to believing that you deserve worth for no reason other than the fact that you are you. You might think...I need evidence...but if millions of people believe in a sky-god without evidence, I think the least you can do is believe that you are worthy of everything life has to offer simply because you are here and you are breathing. need to realize you have a huge problem. How do you define worth? Is your concept of worth defined by how much you bring to humanity? How are you going to quantify that? Also - You don't owe other people anything. Is it defined by how many people like you? That's low-self esteem garbage - don't ever let your concept of self worth be defined by other people. Is your concept of worth defined by your achievements? Again, how do you quantify that? Number of achievements? Impact of your achievements?

My point is that by trying to pin down how to 'value' the worth of an individual, you will inevitably fall short. Some people are great at one thing, and terrible at another. Some people just so so at everything. Some people may be well respected for running companies...yet they have terrible failings when it comes to personal or family relationships...while others might live a quiet life of private fulfillment as a "nobody" but have the most amazing skill at maintaining a happy family. Be happy to know that when some media personality is heralded as being REALLY GOOD at one thing, they are very likely REALLY BAD at something else. Don't forget this. Something always has to give.

Still need convincing? Fine.

It starts with the basics. First, realize that simply by virtue of being born, you have a right to be nurtured, cared for, bonded to, and rewarded for certain behaviors.

This is a hard point to argue, even if you feel down in the dumps. If you can't convince yourself of that basic've got a seriously warped outlook that warrants therapy. If you can, its a good base from which to start. The point is to at least convince your sad, low-self esteem brain of the BARE MINIMUM rights you deserve - and this alone confers some degree of "worth."

From there you can reasonably convince yourself that you are a unique individual. You have your own thoughts, feelings, proclivities, areas of expertise (or simply enjoyment), skills, quirks and attributes. You might not be Einstein in the classroom, Lebron on the court, or Jim Carey at the party...but you ARE, at the very least, unique. Because you are unique, you are special.

So here you are, this animal, born into the world with a fucking inborn right to, at the very least, eat, live, love, replicate. Whats more is that you are a unique animal with its own unique blend of skills and attributes. The fact that you can interact with others, and have an opportunity to offer your uniqueness to them in some way (in whatever way, no matter how small) - again confers worth.

"But I'm not AS special as [insert some talented person here]" you might say. To this I say you are being a low-self esteem baby. Print this and stick it on your mirror:

1. I am not perfect. I will never be perfect. I am strong enough to deal with this.
2. There will always be people who are better than me. I am strong enough to deal with this.
3. I am better at some things than others.
4. No one is "better" than me. Why? Just because. I am strong enough to deal with this.

Finally...look at it this way. To a Great White shark - you are just as worthwhile as the richest most successful people on earth. You're both food, no matter what your accomplishments.
posted by jnnla at 4:51 PM on November 18, 2009 [18 favorites]

Be kind and loving to other people. a) You'll see your effects on them, and that will make you feel good. b) You'll get practice and with time find it easier to be kind and loving to yourself.
posted by wyzewoman at 4:51 PM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

best advice I ever got on this was from AA: if you want self esteem, do estimable actions. it's hard to feel like shit about yourself (unless you are profoundly depressed, in which case, seek help) if you are helping other people and/or doing other things that you believe are worthwhile and meaningful.

it's hard to feel bad about yourself when you are treating other people well. of course, there will always be some unpleasant interactions, but the more good, socially connecting stuff you do, the better you'll tend to feel.
posted by Maias at 4:53 PM on November 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

I've found that working on generating unconditional love (loving someone regardless of their actions or beliefs) for others allows me to love myself the same way. Removing conditions for worthiness in others allows you to remove them for yourself.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 5:20 PM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Along the lines suggested by The Light Fantastic: you might consider trying loving kindness meditation, a type of Buddhist practice. I enjoy this guided meditation but there are many out there. When I meditate this way regularly, I see a clear difference in how I feel about other people and myself.
posted by PatoPata at 5:45 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I skipped "self-worth" altogether and went directly to telling myself that I am simply fundamentally superior to everybody else around me. This has led to my girlfriend describing me to everybody as an asshole but hey, I'm not interested in what those morons think. Seriously, it's great, and very liberating. The first step is to hold your head high when you are out and about, as though on a mission from God. Everything belongs to you and everybody else is wrong and stupid.

Sure it's not exactly a charitable way to live your life, but once that part of my brain started firing it ripped me right the hell out of the depths of crippling depression. Give it a whirl!

Or just tell yourself that out of all the possible sperm and all the possible eggs belonging to all the possible men and all the possible women that could have come together on of all the possible nights, in all the possible alleyways (I jest!), well, shit, turns out it resulted in you. And that's pretty fucking amazing right there.
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:47 PM on November 18, 2009 [7 favorites]

I have and still do struggle with some pretty serious self-worth issues. What's been most helpful to me is focusing on my actions and committing myself to doing things that have meaning to me and improve my general quality of life - building meaningful relationships with other people, contributing to a sense of community in my neighborhood, doing work that has meaning and importance to me. Accomplishing things that I can look back on and think, "see, I did that, it was awesome" and making plans, etc that I can look at/look forward to and say "see, I am doing this and it is/will be awesome".

This (and therapy! Therapy is good. But when you can't afford therapy, this is helpful on it's own, at least for me) has helped me get much closer to accepting myself, as you say, "warts and all" - my thought process goes, well, I may have (characteristic that I am uncomfortable with), but I'm also the kind of person who does (action that I am proud of).

It's not always easy - obviously it requires actually doing shit and a not-small commitment to building something not just within yourself, but outside of yourself as well. But I seriously do not believe that easy fixes to stuff like this exist. Then again, it's not exactly easy walking around and living every day when you feel that you are fundamentally a worthless entity. Self-worth is, in my experience, something you have to fight for, but it is worth the fight.
posted by ellehumour at 8:08 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nobody is perfect, but everybody is full of potential. That's worth something in my books.
posted by emeiji at 8:36 PM on November 18, 2009

Try looking at yourself from an emotional/empathic perspective instead of an analytical/evaluative one. As a hurting person needing sympathy, as a loving person deserving of love, and so forth. In my experience this sort of perspective can be intimidating because it opens the self up to emotional vulnerability, but for me it has been a key to actually loving and accepting myself. Which makes developing potential a whole lot more effective.
posted by nanojath at 10:32 PM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Why do you want to have self worth? I think studies have shown that self-esteem is uncorrelated with achievement, and that depressed people are more likely to accurately asses themselves, whereas ordinary people are more likely to over-estimate their awesomeness.

If you're feeling depressed, see about taking anti-depressants.
posted by delmoi at 2:13 AM on November 19, 2009

There are some successful people who wake up and wonder how the hell they got to where they are in life. They don't understand how they could have achieved what they've achieved. They have impostor syndrome

Once In A Lifetime, by the Talking Heads kind of epitomizes that kind of mindset.

But you know what? Those people have an unrealistic expectation of the rest of humanity. Don't worry about yourself. Just do the best you can, and don't worry about what other people think. The world's going to keep on turning, just enjoy yourself.
posted by delmoi at 2:28 AM on November 19, 2009

What's the matter, Metafilter? No cognitive behavioral therapy? I don't even know where I am anymore.

This will help OP. We all know it's a dorky title. Many of us live with it, though.

It will help right how you think about this -- not how you feel -- how you think. And you will feel much better. It's helped many people.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:41 AM on November 19, 2009

You're alive -- thus you are, thus you are something, thus you aren't a zero, thus you have worth. It's that simple. In the grand scheme of things everybody is either alive (1) or dead (0).

Everything else is just mental masturbation over artificial constructs we humans have come up with to make ourselves/others feel good/bad/guilty/sad/inferior/superior/tormented/etc. Fuck 'em!

Plus all the 'just because' and 'shark eating you' stuff from above :)
posted by wrok at 4:18 AM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

What's the matter, Metafilter? No cognitive behavioral therapy?

How about an oldie but a goodie, Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman, the founder of the positive psychology movement? I like this book because he explains in detail, with studies, why just telling people they are great doesn't work, and what does work to produce a more positive way of thinking about themselves.

He also has a book called What You Can Change and What You Can't, which I have not read, but sounds like it's right up your alley, OP.

One cure I have found for this problem is to stop dwelling on other people's accomplishments (i.e., stop comparing myself to them), and do something. Anything. Even cleaning the toilet will give you a better feeling of self-worth than sitting around thinking about it.

The other thing that helps is to realize that everyone has their own calling in life. Some are called to be teachers, some musicians, some politicians, etc. I might admire the drive and energy of a politician, but to do that sort of work would drive me nuts, so I'm better served doing jobs within my abilities. How can I serve myself or society if I'm a gibbering mess because I tried to live up to some imagined ideal? How can I focus on my work if I'm busy worrying about what everyone else is doing? I can't. Also, unless I'm breaking the law, no one outside of my immediate family really cares about what I do or don't do. There is no society police looking at you, or me (and if there were, they wouldn't be my friends anyway).

Good luck, OP, take it one step at a time, and if you pick up Learned Optimism, I recommend reading it in small bits to take it in slowly. I think Seligman is on TED talks too if you want to look that up.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:13 AM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

How do you help yourself believe that you (and everyone else) has inherent worth as a person that's independent of abilities and even actions?

By not identifying yourself with either.

Here are two options you can try:

1) Find the lie in your negative thoughts/beliefs with cognitive behavorial therapy (as previously mentioned). Perhaps Dr. Burns' other book would be helpful.

2) Mindfulness. There are lots of books on this. Here's one.
posted by jmmpangaea at 8:55 AM on November 19, 2009

I pound this drum a lot, but the Artist's Way has been really helpful in getting me on that path- it lets me assess my damage and disconnect from it.

And this probably is part of cognitive therapy, but - get out of your head. Get so interested in something that you don't think about YOU but what interests you. View yourself as a stranger, or as your own child to protect. If those around you make sucky playmates, use adult language but let your inner five year old make the decision (I've found five year olds to be fine judges of character, but that's just me.)
posted by medea42 at 11:32 AM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is a really tough question, and one I've been struggling over myself. But, thus far, I've decided that having pessimistic assumptions about human nature is counter-productive and wrong. Therefore, I consciously choose to believe the best about people: that they mean well, that they want to be productive and useful members of society, and that, when they fail at these (and we all fail from time to time), it's usually due to a difficult, underlying problem, or external circumstances that are difficult to control.

After growing up with a hugely cynical family member (whom I love, but whose negativity impacted me significantly, in a bad way), I knew I had to come to this conclusion, and then act on it in my life if I didn't want to become cynical in the same way.

I've therefore made a conscious choice to believe that all human beings (including myself) have inherent worth, just by virtue of their existence. It's a belief I consciously reinforce to myself daily.

One little tidbit that has helped me in believing this was Richard Dawkins' breakdown of the probability of any individual human being ever coming into existence -- that the chances *against* our existence are so huge, that we're all incredibly lucky just to be alive in the first place.

I'm not sure if this will help you, but this is how I've dealt with this same issue thus far. Best of luck to you.
posted by Ouisch at 12:12 PM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh, one more thing: I decided to stop rating myself on accomplishments or talents or possessions, and boiled down the way I gauge my self-worth to just one trait/action/talent: kindness.

I believe I have inherent worth just by virtue of being human, but because my brain continually tries to rate my self-worth based on something dynamic rather than static, I consciously decided that the virtue most important to me, above all else, was being kind to others.

I'm not terribly good at it, but I work on it, and it helps me to remember what's really important about me: not my grades, not my financial situation, not my physical beauty, but whether or not I'm a kind person.
posted by Ouisch at 12:15 PM on November 19, 2009 [9 favorites]

You appear to be searching for a feeling without doing or taking action. Feelings flow from actions, not the other way around. To reach toward a solution [that is, it will take time], get really involved in something you like to do. Make yourself useful to others in some way. There are plenty of groups/organizations/causes that need volunteers. Don't know how to start? Volunteer to help set up/clean up for a meeting - - or just do it, without asking or being asked. Be interested/friendly toward others. Ask them about them.

If you are physically able "just do it," like walking, riding a bike, jogging. Try to find others who are doing the same. Get involved.

It's not that you will find your own self-worth: Let others discover it. In the process you might might be able to experience the self-worth of others.

Still don't have a clue: Call your local American Red Cross Chapter and ask how you might get involved. Works for me!
posted by 77144 at 8:13 PM on November 24, 2009

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