To have self-worth is to feel worthy of existing, to feel that we are deserving, that we matter. And that comes from feeling that we are worthy of love, that we are loveable. We don’t automatically feel loveable when we are loved, or become wealthy, or wise, or charitable, or pious, or whatever. There is no direct link between those things and feeling loveable. One does not lead to the other. Self-worth is not something we can earn.
A baby is born with self-worth. It doesn’t earn it.
Despite there not being a link, many of us do try to earn our self-worth, and when we base our self-worth on getting other people to like and respect us, we have a problem.
Some people try to earn their self-worth by being good people.
I met a lottery winner who used his winnings to create a soup kitchen, to provide meals for the homeless. He told me how a sponsoring bank had rewarded him with a trip-for-two holiday voucher. He sold the voucher and I asked him why.
Wearily he pointed to the floor and said plaintively, ‘How could I use the holiday when the floor needed repaving?’
This man was trapped by his need to do the right thing.
Being charitable can be an enriching experience, and it’s to be encouraged, but we have a problem if we spend a lifetime feeling obliged to be a good person, while having to endure the ever-present, draining possibility that one day we might let ourselves, or others, or God, down.
The problem is magnified if, in our endeavours to make other people happy, we ignore our own needs or the needs of our family.
‘Mark, why would someone base their self-worth on being a good person?’
Some children raised by strict or pious parents come to believe that only by being good are they worthy of love. As a consequence, they grow up believing that only by continually earning their place in society, by being a good person, will their lives have any value.
‘Isn’t that good? They become law abiding people.’
Earning our self-worth by being good can be an awful, life-long burden. And, a few good people become so intent on developing integrity they develop rigid thinking, and become self-righteous prigs no one wants to know.
Being good and charitable is a good thing provided we have a choice in the matter. If we feel compelled to be charitable there is a good chance we are basing our self-worth upon it, in which case we have a problem. Indeed, if we base our self-worth on anything we have a problem: our priorities become skewed and our behaviour, distorted.
Some people base their self-worth on how much people like them.
If that describes you it means you are likely to spend a lot of time trying to impress people, right? That’s a sure way to develop insecurities, right? But if you see the trap you have made for yourself (your need to impress people) and see yourself like a hamster on a hamster wheel, furiously getting nowhere, you might change your priorities. You might begin to make smarter decisions – decisions not based on pleasing people, but on directing your life effectively.
Someone basing their self-worth upon their good looks will feel constant pressure to look good. Yet their self-worth will be fragile because there will always be a blackhead here, a wayward strand of hair there . . .
And what happens when one day those good looks disappear?
Plus, there is that nagging question: ‘Can I back up my good looks with personality?’
I’m not saying we can’t look good, but let’s not base our self-worth on it. Then we won’t feel the need to spend inordinate time and money protecting those good looks. And more importantly, we will feel less anxious.
‘What are you suggesting?’
If we are good looking, let’s not take our good looks seriously. We can let ourselves look haggard now and then, and get comfortable looking ordinary.
‘Why would someone base their self-worth on their good looks?’
A lack of confidence in their personality, or abilities? Being constantly praised for looking good? Being conditioned by peers, or by the media? When young girls apply make-up to feel pretty they might begin to place too much importance upon how people look. By the time they are twenty their self-worth might be linked with their looks. Problems begin.
Someone who finds that their self-worth is based on how indispensable they are at work might want to search for another way to feel valued, and cease being a workaholic.
An athlete taking performance-enhancing drugs to win medals might see the absurdity of their actions when they realise their main objective is to earn self-worth. They might take winning less seriously and develop new priorities.
Someone trying to earn their self-worth by accumulating money will have to keep making money, and keep showing it off. After making ten million dollars they will feel the pressure to make another ten. They might even exploit the environment, or other people, in their pursuit of it. And view people less wealthy as inferior. That will disconnect them!
‘Billionaires scrabbling for their next billion aren’t motivated by greed. They just want to demonstrate – to themselves and others – how good they are at playing the money game.’
Ross Gittins, journalist.
As well, billionaire Donald Trump said of his wealth: ‘Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score. The real excitement is playing the game.’
We play games in order to win them. When winning becomes so important it affects our choices in the way we lead our life, it is easy to assume that the prize on offer is self-worth.
“We should not be surprised to find many of the already affluent continuing to accumulate sums beyond anything that five generations might spend. Their endeavours are peculiar only if we insist on a strictly financial rationale behind wealth creation. As much as money, they seek the respect that stands to be derived from the process of gathering it.’
Alain De Botton, in his book, ‘Status Anxiety’.
If a person bases their self-worth on the large wealth they have accumulated, what happens to a person’s self-worth if they lose that money? It plummets. In their anxiety to prevent that happening they spend more precious time and energy increasing their wealth, while looking for ways to avoid paying tax.
When we base our self-worth upon how much money we have, no amount of money will be enough.
‘Is not dread of thirst when the well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable?’
A few years ago a multi-millionaire investor broke the law to cheat shareholders out of a measly $500. He was caught and disgraced. Why did he do it? Did he have to keep making money to feel good about himself?
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against money. If you want to be wealthy, go for it. But don’t base your self-worth on it.
‘Does this apply to poor people as well?’
Of course. If a poor person measures their self-worth by wealth, they will feel badly about themselves.
‘I bet wealthy people have no trouble feeling good about themselves most of the time, especially when they compare themselves to the rest of us.’
If they do feel good it might be because they feel they are contributing, and feel valued for that contribution. After all, they might be employing people, and producing a valuable product or service.
If they feel good about themselves merely because they are wealthier than the rest of us, would that not indicate insecurity? Would it not suggest that their self-worth is fragile?
‘When someone unemployed finds a job and starts earning money, they feel better about themselves. Their sense of self-worth soars.’
Their self-worth improves not because they now have money, but because they have earned it. They feel they have contributed, and feel valued for their contribution.
In short, if we try to earn our self-worth by impressing people we can lose our path. We can become overly concerned about how others see us, and spend time and energy seeking their approval. We might even pursue careers unsuited to our characters, tempted by the prestige and respect we feel we need, and as a consequence won’t fully discover the person we are meant to be.
We might even become antisocial and participate in gang behaviour, whether it be to vandalise a train or to allow damaging legislation to pass. When we aim to please our colleagues we can end up doing things which demean us.
Plus, we place upon ourselves constant pressure. If we feel the need to make money to earn our self-worth then we have to keep making money. If we feel the need to look good we have to keep looking good. Keeping up an image requires energy and work. We can do without a lifelong burden.
And, despite our efforts, our self-worth remains fragile. There will always be someone wealthier, or prettier, or smarter . . . And, anyone relying on their wealth, their looks, their intelligence . . . to establish their self-worth can still fear falling short in other categories.
One way or the other, we cannot succeed in earning our self-worth.
It gets worse. Trying to earn our self-worth can isolate us. By aiming to be better than other people we can reduce the connection we have with them. It is difficult to be warm, trusting and compassionate with other people if, to feel good about ourselves, we feel the need to be better than they.
Have you met people with a high self-worth? They don’t feel the need to appear cool, good looking, wealthy, or smart. They might be all those things, but the need to display those qualities isn’t there.
Carlos Castaneda wrote that a candle’s flame remains intact under the light of a billion stars, and he’s right – we don’t need to be exceptional. We are already enough.
‘. . . most important is to believe that we are enough. Because when we come from a place that says we are enough then we stop screaming and start listening. We are kinder and gentler with the people around us and we are kinder and gentler with ourselves.’
Q. ‘If we can’t try to earn our self-worth, on what can we base it? On qualities such as patience, kindness, integrity?’
I don’t think we can consciously choose to base our self-worth on anything, and it’s a good idea to try.
It’s there already, within us. We just have to get in touch with it.