In the first of a two-part series on self-worth, John Niland explains what it is, why it is essential to your success and happiness, and how to cultivate it through a few simple exercises
A legal career is demanding, both intellectually and emotionally. It takes stamina and energy to deal with the workload, the clients and the ever-changing regulations and issues. When all of that’s done, there’s still the finance, the business development and the team to think about.
A strong, intrinsic sense of self-worth is a huge asset when tackling these challenges. If we value ourselves and our work, we rise each morning with fresh determination. However, for several decades, we have been developing a culture of conditional self-esteem, not intrinsic self-worth. And therein lies the root of many problems. In this article, I will explain what self-worth is – and how it differs from self-esteem or other-esteem – and offer some simple activities to help you develop your self-worth. In the next edition, I will look at the role of self-worth in the context of leadership.
Why not self-esteem?
Thousands of books have been written about relationships, particularly our relationship with ourselves. Since the 1970s in particular, self-esteem has sat centre stage in personal development.
But is self-esteem really the ultimate goal? There is mounting evidence that self-esteem – long regarded as the holy grail of personal development – is not delivering on its promise. Instead, the widespread pursuit of self-esteem seems to be nurturing narcissism, addiction to praise and ever-present anxiety about not living up to one’s full potential. Far from producing generations of self-assured adults, we seem to be cultivating even more self-preoccupation, anxiety and depression than ever before. According to the World Health Organization, more than 300 million people are now living with depression, an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015.
In my business coaching work, I see the consequences of self-preoccupation. The incessant question “how am I doing?” is a recipe for weaker negotiators, narcissistic managers and insecure professionals. In every walk of life, self-preoccupation is a malaise that often weakens real job effectiveness. If you manage people, you probably see this daily. When it’s your turn to buy a service, don’t you want a professional who is focused on your needs, not their ratings or performance?
One evening in London some years ago, this was summed up for me by an intelligent young man who was prey to a host of insecurities. In one sentence, he summarised his constant anxiety: “I’m not much… but I’m all I think about.”
Self-esteem can hold you back and limit your happiness in three ways. First, it’s a hungry ghost: an insatiable craving for endless approval from the self. Second, while self-esteem can initially boost performance (in our desire to impress), it ultimately limits our effectiveness and resilience. Third, it’s a recipe for narcissism, anxiety and depression.
The benefits of self-worth
Unlike self-esteem, self-worth is a loyal companion, not contingent on meeting expectations. Self-worth is independent of our performance; it’s a fundamental, unconditional friendship with ourselves. Unlike the fickle friendship of self-esteem, self-worth is a faithful ally in the most challenging of times, on those grey days when we most need to be a friend to ourselves. We can have self-worth even when we get rejected.
Self-esteem is a bit like walking down the street as if you owned it. Self-worth is walking down the street and not caring who owns it.
Real self-worth means you:
- are not obsessed with proving yourself
- develop energy and stamina
- recover quickly from setbacks and build confidence that you can develop and grow
- are not afraid of people or situations, because you trust your power to deal with them
- can say yes and no, so you negotiate with new clarity and confidence
- cultivate healthy relationships
- tackle hitherto difficult tasks with fresh energy, lightness and purpose
- have an enhanced capacity to act – since you no longer suffer from prolonged spells of anxiety, frustration, envy or guilt, you are therefore more valued as a colleague, adviser or partner at work.
And your self-esteem grows too, precisely when you no longer chase it.
By cultivating self-worth, you nurture a rich soil in which achievement can grow. When setbacks happen, your sense of self is not undermined, but strengthened. You go into meetings and presentations with a new attitude. Self-care comes easily, as a natural consequence of your friendship with yourself.
It’s worth noting that this is not how we have been taught to think – in the Western world, at least. For decades now, we have been indoctrinated with a self-esteem mindset. “If you want self-esteem, do esteemable things”, goes the mantra of achievement. So we are constantly exhorted to prove ourselves – in school, higher education, sports, physique – by setting goals and achieving them. By the time we reach the workplace, we have been indoctrinated and feel we must somehow prove ourselves at every turn.
The problem, however, is this “prove yourself” religion is a sure-fire recipe for insecurity. Self-esteem thinking writes a blank check for anxiety, a cheque that Big Pharma is ready and willing to cash. In the US, prescription rates for Xanax have been climbing at an average 9% annual rate since 2008. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of Xanax prescriptions rose from 29.9 million to 37.5 million.
When I speak about self-worth, I use a few specific terms. Below, I offer my definitions of these and look at the role each concept has played in my life.
Other-esteem is chasing recognition and affirmation of your value from an external source, often a person or group.
In my early life, I could wear the mask of confidence. Confidence (defined here as how we present ourselves to the world) can be faked, and I had a master’s degree in pretending.
Because my self-esteem was low, as was my confidence, I did a lot of things to win the approval of others and of myself. Like many young people, at work I pursued promotions, solved difficult problems, and volunteered to take on responsibilities (occasionally working all night). I was friendly so that I’d be liked; I told jokes to make people laugh. I bought property and a bigger car. You get the picture. The unconscious rationale was that if other people thought well of me, I would eventually feel good about myself.
Self-esteem is the reputation that we have with ourselves – even when nobody is watching.
During the time I spent chasing approval from others, I was also trying to build a reputation with myself. When I worked all night to solve a difficult problem, I was not just trying to get approval from my boss, I was trying to prove something to the guy in the mirror. Sometimes this was fun: it was a game I played, competing against myself. But it still absorbed a lot of my energy and attention.
The need for self-esteem starts very early in life. In pursuit of self-esteem, we can aim for high marks, weight loss, awards, qualifications, romance, children, charitable giving, appearance, cars, houses, financial security, personal fitness, better / more sex, or a different career. Naturally, we tell ourselves that we are choosing to do these things – that we are doing them for ourselves, not anyone else. Or we convince ourselves we are having fun. To be fair, sometimes we are.
Actually, we’re educated to think this way. From a very early age, we’re encouraged to develop exactly this sort of inner motivation. We are taught that this quality of self-esteem is precisely what differentiates successful people from the broad mass of average achievers. The catechism of 21st-century secular belief begins with self-esteem. A recent example of this is the rise of your ‘optimised’ self: a myriad of apps tracking your every move, exhorting you to set goals and be the best you can be and live your best life. The implication being that you are not already OK.
Self-worth is a deep belief in your inherent value as a person, from a position of unconditional friendship with yourself. You don’t earn self-worth by doing worthy things: you already have it.
Like many people, I used to equate self-worth with self-esteem, assuming they were synonyms. It took a succession of losses in my fifties to teach me this vital distinction. For years, I had defined my identity in terms of relationships, business acumen, and even simple things like running half-marathons twice a year. But when faced with the end of a cherished relationship, the failure of several projects and the death of my mother – all within months of each other – my customary energy and resilience seemed to desert me. I found that my relationship with myself was conditional.
When you are in love, or your career is booming, you feel good about yourself. In those halcyon days, self-worth and self-esteem both seem to be on the rise. The distinction will appear merely semantic, drowned out in the happy song of love or success. The soft whisper of self-worth is hard to hear when an orchestra of romance or success is playing its full crescendo. But when life is tough, or you fail to live up to your own expectations, the difference between self-worth and self-esteem suddenly becomes very real.
Self-worth is intrinsic, not extrinsic. It comes from within, not from your behaviour or your performance. It’s about you, not your actions or even your feelings. It’s already there within; you just need to find it. It’s a belly-level sense of being on your own side.
Self-worth is not contingent. In other words, you always have it. There are no conditions to be fulfilled. You don’t even have to feel it or believe in it; it’s yours by the very fact of your existence. Even if you have not found it yet.
Self-worth is a primal belief in your own value as a person. It is not variable based on your deeds, possessions or whether you go to the gym. For all these reasons, self-worth is the strongest possible foundation for self-esteem, confidence and happiness.
You might imagine that building self-worth takes time. But while self-esteem certainly does take time to build, a powerful inner foundation of self-worth can be built in a relatively short time, via a few focused affirmative actions. Below, I look at how to build self-worth, through making a series of shifts in your approach and mindset.
Shift 1: From assessing to asserting
Shift 1 asks us to break the habit of constantly assessing ourselves based on our performance, and to replace that with choices and actions that express our unconditional relationship with ourselves.
Of course, self-evaluation does not always take the form of harsh criticism. However, it’s a habit that must be broken if we are ever to enjoy a real sense of friendship with ourselves.
It’s hard to stop doing anything unless we start doing something else at the same time. One of the best ways to experience the self is in action, or in assertion. Moving from assessment to assertion can take several forms. One of my clients simply replaced his self-assessments with sipping water. Your shift could be from thoughts of assessment to voicing a mantra, standing up or sitting down, going for a walk, making a call, writing something down, or any other action.
Other ways to practise this include:
- at work, when overwhelmed by negative self-assessments, remind yourself that “nobody will die” and go get a coffee
- in relationships, when drawn into a drama in which you feel you are being manipulated or dumped upon, touch your heart and remind yourself that you are enough, you do enough, and you have enough
- when choosing a holiday or leisure pursuit, assert that you do not have to prove anything to anyone, even to yourself.
Shift 2: From condition to expression
Though fresh awareness is part of this journey, this consciousness will have little permanent effect unless it’s accompanied by the capacity to act on a new foundation of self-worth. That’s why shift 2 consciously shifts the intention behind our actions from one that is conditional (for example, “I’ll read that article because I should, to impress my boss”) to one that is imbued with the principles of self-worth (“I’ll read that article because I want to”). In that way, whatever we do becomes an expression of the intrinsic value we hold for ourselves.
The expressions of our self-worth can be small (for example, eating a delicious chocolate) or large (treating ourselves to a holiday). They can pertain to work, such as taking a quarter-hour each day to do something for our future, or for a friend, such as texting a friend to ask how their birthday party went. From time to time, the actions will be saying no to something, such as refusing a slice of chocolate cake when we know it’s not worth the calories, or turning down an invitation to an event that we don’t want to attend.
The intention behind the action matters more than the action itself. For this reason, I often ask clients to create a personal mantra: a reminder that they say to themselves. An example might be: “Because I’m worth it.” This can serve you equally well whether you decide to enjoy a chocolate or to refuse one, whether you go for a run or rest, whether you make a call that demands courage or decide to prepare for it first. In all cases, the intention behind the action is the affirming of self-worth.
Shift 3: From self-reproach to self-acceptance
Shift 3 moves us from a place of self-reproach (for example, beating ourselves up for a messy situation) to one of self-acceptance (acknowledging the situation and embracing the incumbent feelings about it).
Self-reproach means blaming yourself or rebuking yourself for a situation you are in, or for who you are or are not. One of the worst effects of self-reproach is the destructive effect it has on energy. Precisely when we most need our capacity to act and perform, we are often smitten by a bout of self-reproach, which can be as energy sapping as a bout of flu.
To shift away from self-reproach to self-acceptance:
- at work, when feeling rejected or ignored, acknowledge this to yourself and give yourself permission to feel ‘down’ about that
- in your financial situation, when confronting difficulties, honestly acknowledge these problems, without running away or hiding from them, and affirm your right to feel depressed or anxious about them
- in our bodies, face the inconvenient truth that our physique might not be the ideal we want, and learn to accept that uncomfortable reality without self-reproach (nor creating a negative ‘story’ about other people).
Shift 4: From self-evaluation to usefulness
Shift 4 asks us to move from an inward-looking state of self-evaluation to an outward focus on others and how we can be useful to them.
Many people constantly evaluate themselves and come up short. When we feel worthless and full of self-reproach, there are two common pitfalls. The first is shrinking into isolation, where setting up any meeting (even with friends) can take superhuman effort. The second is talking too much about ourselves, often out of desperation for validation or to fill the void inside.
Our opportunities in life lie in how we are useful to others. In other words, our value in the market or the world stems not primarily from our intrinsic qualities (such as strengths, talents, passions, interests, and so on), but from the extrinsic context in which these are needed (such as other people’s risks, issues and opportunities). Put simply, it doesn’t matter how talented you are at something if nobody needs or wants it.
You can implement this shift in the following ways.
- Encourage others to talk for the first few minutes of any meeting, whether at work or with friends. People value being listened to – particularly in today’s attention-deficient society.
- Change the format of typical ‘self-appraisals’ to ask yourself “what did I do that was most useful?”. This not only saves you from incessant self-preoccupation, it also gives you much more useful information about what others find of value. This is particularly helpful when doing client reviews. It’s also a good foundation for getting referrals and introductions.
- Don’t react when you are criticised, contesting the adjectives or going deeply into the drama of self-justification, but instead asking “what could I have done that would have been more useful?”.
Shift 5: From ‘should’ to ‘could’
One of the core problems for many people is the never-ending imperative of the word ‘should’. Many describe this as a non-stop tyranny in their heads since their earliest years. Some trace it back to early childhood: many find that it was well established at around the age of 10. Shift 5 takes the word ‘should’ out of our vocabularies and replaces it with ‘could’. We cease to act out of obligation to the invisible authorities in our own heads, and instead choose what we’ll do based on an array of possibilities.
Behind the word ‘should’ lies an incessant need to prove something to ourselves. Why? Usually because we don’t feel good enough. As soon as we accomplish something, we are thinking about the next thing we ‘should’ do. This does not appear in our minds as a ‘want to’ or ‘can do’: it shows up as ‘I must’ or ‘I need to’ or ‘I have to’.
Shift 6: From proving oneself to valuing oneself
Shift 6 is about taking the focus away from the idea that we need to prove ourselves to others (or to ourselves), and towards the ways in which we value ourselves. There are many ways in which we can do this.
- In the domain of the body, exercise with an intention of valuing the physical self, rather than proving anything to yourself.
- In the domain of work, set about your daily tasks from a standpoint of being OK already, rather than trying to demonstrate something about ourselves.
- In the domain of friendship, hang out with friends who nurture you, rather than spending time with people in order to prove you belong.
Shift 7: From being interesting to being interested
Many people recognise that they are often striving to be interesting, to get attention. Whether they are socialising or meeting people for work purposes, they want to be well thought of. Shift 7 asks us to let go of that need to be fascinating to others and instead pay attention to what’s interesting about them.
Many find this distinction quite novel and refreshing. Being interested works well in many domains, for example:
- with friends, showing that you care instead of seeking attention
- with colleagues, noticing their contribution instead of striving to be seen
- in relationships, showing you are really listening.
An immediate benefit is that conversations become less tiring. It takes a lot of energy to be ‘interesting’ all of the time. Being ‘interested’ is so much easier; it’s much more fun to find something in which both parties are interested and let the sharing conversation flow.
With these shifts, you are not creating new conditions for your relationship with yourself. In pursuit of self-worth (as opposed to self-esteem), you can enjoy a chocolate or go to the gym: both are valid expressions of self-worth.