When we are born we have an enormous capacity to absorb love. We don’t feel the need to earn love; we just absorb it. We have a strong sense of entitlement, and with indignation demand our mother’s love and attention.
As we grow we come to understand that the world does not revolve around us, and despite the countless reminders in life that we are not special, some of us manage to stay in touch with our sense of entitlement to love. That’s good. That’s healthy.
For others, that feeling can get a battering. Some people are repeatedly told, ‘You’re bad!’ or ‘Good girls don’t say those things,’ or ‘You’re stupid,’ and worse.
‘Boys are made of slugs and snails, and puppy dogs’ tails.’
A line from an old nursery rhyme.
They conscientiously absorb those barbs and defeats, and come to understand that they are not loved. Or, that to be worthy of love they have to earn it. Either way, they conclude that they are not inherently loveable, and feel unworthy of being taken seriously. So, although they have far more to offer society than a baby (who can only eat, poo, smile and scream) they don’t feel worthy of love. They have a low self-worth.
From that we can conclude that our sense of self-worth is not based on what we have to offer, nor on our achievements, it is based solely on how worthy we feel we are of being loved.
To have self-worth is to feel worthy of exisiting, worthy of taking up space on this planet, of having every right to be alive. To have self-worth is to feel that we matter, regardless of who loves us, our occupation, our achievements. To have self-worth is to feel ‘good enough’.
The only way we can feel that way is to feel worthy of being loved. I don’t mean ‘we need to feel loved’ and I don’t mean ‘we need to be loved’, I mean: we need to feel worthy of being loved. Big difference. It’s an important distinction to understand, because the rest of this section depends on it.
To feel worthy of being loved means whether or not we are actually loved is irrelevant.
Let’s say someone has no friends or family to love them – they are not loved. Yet, if they feel worthy of love, if they feel loveable, they will have a strong sense of self-worth.
Note the distinction: It’s not a matter of feeling loved, or being loved, or being loveable, it’s a matter of feeling worthy of being loved; feeling loveable. When we feel worthy of being loved, when we feel loveable, we don’t actually have to be loved.
Someone might be deeply loved by friends and family, but if they don’t feel worthy of being loved – if they don’t feel loveable – they will have a low self-worth.
What does it mean to have a high self-worth?
It does not mean being arrogant or self-centred, or complacent. It just means feeling comfortable with one’s right to exist, because an inner sense of feeling loveable gives us that right.
If we have a strong self-worth we can still acknowledge our flaws and accept them, and come to terms with them.
People with a strong self-worth like themselves, warts and all, because they feel those warts are acceptable. Therefore, a person with a high self-worth will have a high self-esteem. (They like who they are.)
Importantly, to have a sense of self-worth will give us a sustained sense of feeling valued, which will help satisfy our deep need to belong, and add to our core happiness. But the only way to gain that feeling is not, like the happiness gurus simplistically suggest, to simply flick a switch and begin loving ourselves, it’s to gain the feeling of being loveable. That’s what we are working on in this section.
Q. ‘Mark, you say self-worth is not based on achievements. But surely someone who achieves a great deal will have a high self-worth?’
Not necessarily. A surgeon or CEO might recognise that her achievements are worthy and valued, yet not feel that she herself is worthy of love. As a consequence she could have a low self-worth.
Conversely, a person can have a high self-worth even if she has achieved nothing, and is valued by no-one, because she feels loveable.
Self-worth is an inner feeling not dependent on achievements or on how loved we actually are. It’s a feeling based on how worthy of love we feel we are.
Q. ‘Mark, what about people who do feel worthy of love but can’t find it? Are they not glum and frustrated because they can’t find the person they feel they deserve?’
Feeling worthy of love and being loved are two different things, and not to be confused. The people who feel worthy of love (who feel loveable) may well want to be loved, and might be glum because they aren’t loved. Yet, they don’t need love. They might think that they need it, after watching Hollywood movies, reading romance books, seeing their friends blossoming in love . . . but they don’t need it – not for their core happiness.
If they recognise that they don’t need love to be happy they can then see their situation in a healthier perspective.