A few weeks ago I posted on the subject of happiness and how it is an inside job. That post focused on stopping periodically to make sure you are doing the things that make you happy, but there’s another aspect to happiness that also comes from within. Our self-esteem–how we feel about ourselves–has a huge impact on our happiness.
I’ve talked about self-esteem here before in the context of other things, from weight-management to dealing with shame and guilt. It’s really quite central to so much of our emotional life. How we esteem ourselves relates to two things–our general feeling about our beings (self-worth) and our belief in our ability to do things, to handle life (self-confidence).
Today I’m going to focus on self-worth. This can best be defined as our acceptance of ourselves as imperfect but nonetheless worthwhile human beings.
If we don’t have good self-worth then happiness is going to be a fleeting thing. We have to believe we are worthy of being happy in order to actually feel happy on a regular basis. But what goes in to believing we are worthy?
Before I answer that question, let me ask another one. Is there any newborn baby on the face of this planet who is NOT worthy of taking up space and breathing air?
Whether or not we will feel worthy, however, will depend on several factors.
The first of these is whether or not we perceived ourselves as being loved unconditionally as children by our families. The key word here is “perceived.” Very few parents don’t love their children. But their ability to convey the message that they love their kids, and that this love is unconditional, that’s another story.
So perhaps you did not receive the message sufficiently as a kid that you were loved unconditionally, and thus grew up feeling less than worthy. If you can look at your parents now, through the filter of an adult’s mind, and know that they do indeed love you, that’s a great first step. But emotionally-charged beliefs from the past don’t let go inside of us just because we “know better’” intellectually now. It may take much more than this for your psyche to truly believe you are worthy. More on this in a minute.
If you had the misfortune of being born to people who are not capable of unconditional love (often because they never received it themselves), then we come back to that innocent babe who, like all other babies born into this world, was inherently worthy. The fact that this child (you) had parents who could not see his/her worthiness, well that’s not his/her (your) fault, now is it?
Another factor is the level of unconditional acceptance you receive as an adult. We can have pretty decent self-worth to start with, but if someone important to us–spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, close friend, etc.–is telling us we are not good enough unless we change in some way, then our self-worth may begin to suffer. Even a constantly negative boss or co-worker may eventually wear us down.
Yet another factor has to do with feeling bad about one’s being when one’s behavior is out of line. I have talked about this before in my posts on guilt and shame. When we have done something we are not proud of, it is okay, useful even, to feel guilty. The guilt is our motivation to change that behavior. But if we start beating up on ourselves in a shaming way, then we are undermining our self-worth.
So what exactly can you do about self-worth? Here are several things that can help improve your self-worth and your level of happiness.
1) One of the most important things we can do to bolster/maintain self-worth is to separate behavior from being. No matter how despicable our behavior, we are still good people if we are owning up to that behavior and trying to do something about it.
Ironically, having good self-esteem makes it easier to take responsibility for our bad behavior. Someone who feels bad about themselves is more likely to become defensive about their behavior. They are struggling to hang onto the few shreds of self-esteem they may have left. But someone who is solid in their belief that they are a good person can more readily say, “Boy, I really made a mistake here,” without fearing that their entire ego is going to fall apart. (Trust me, I recently had this tested when I royally screwed something up!) See my guilt post for more on how to do this.
2) Use affirmations and positive self-talk to bolster your sense of your worthiness. I know this sounds like a simplistic cliché from the 1980’s, but it works. Tell yourself every day, throughout the day, that you are a good person. And pay attention to how you talk to yourself in your head (we all talk to ourselves internally a good bit of the time; it’s normal). If you notice that your self-talk is mostly negative, make a conscious effort to stop and rephrase your self-talk to positive messages. Turn “I’m a screw-up” into “I’m a good person even if I don’t always get everything right.”
3) Cultivate a nurturing relationship with the “child within.” Yeah, I know, another 80’s cliché. But again, it works! One way to do this is to carry around a picture of yourself as a kid. When you catch yourself beating up on yourself, take out that picture and tell that little kid that s/he is okay and loveable.
4) Stop letting people put you down. This is easier said than done, and is a bit of a vicious cycle re: self-worth. When you don’t feel all that worthy, it’s hard to stand up for yourself and demand that you be treated right. But letting others dump on you will continue to keep your self-worth in the toilet.
Some role-playing with a trusted friend (or in front of a mirror) may help you practice politely telling people how you want to be treated. And there may be some people in your life that you need to get out of your life. Remember: No one has the right to put another human being down!
5) Cultivate the people in your life who do care about you unconditionally!
When we don’t feel good about ourselves, sometimes we dismiss those who care the most about us. If we aren’t worthy of love, then they must be crazy or stupid to love us, or maybe they don’t really know us like they think they do. These are the things we unconsciously believe about those folks who esteem us more than we do ourselves. Stop holding those people at arm’s length; instead accept that they see something worthy in you and let their love into your heart.
Nothing is more important than your sense of self-worth. Because without it, you will not be happy in life!
How’s your self-worth? Do you think it’s in good shape, or does it need some work?
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