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?
If your answer to that question is a resounding “Of course not!” then you must agree that all of us start out as worthy beings.
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?
Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.
We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.
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Rhonda HopkinsFebruary 4, 2014 at 2:57 pm
Great post, Kassandra! I’ve not always stood up for myself, but I’m finally getting the hang of it. In the past few months, I’ve gotten rid of those that take without giving and expect without being thankful. I’m managing to put myself first. I do for others because I enjoy doing for others. But I don’t like being taken advantage of. So, I’m more careful about where and how I spend my time and in ways that make me happy. I thought at first I would feel guilty about that. But surprisingly, I don’t. And I’m working on the committee of negative talkers in my head. My self-esteem is a work in progress. 🙂
Kassandra LambFebruary 4, 2014 at 4:12 pm
“My self-esteem is a work in progress.” Ain’t that the truth for all of us, Rhonda! I’m really glad to hear you are getting the negative people out of your life. Keep working on getting them out of your head. I know that is sometimes harder.
Amita PatelFebruary 4, 2014 at 8:46 pm
Thanks for sharing this post. What struck me most was your comment on our taking responsibility for our behavior and realizing that we are not defined by it. Very true!
Kassandra LambFebruary 4, 2014 at 9:17 pm
I’m glad you found the post useful, Amita. That lesson–that we can own our behavior without having to beat ourselves up for it–was a hard one for me to learn, but once I got it, life became a lot easier. Thanks so much for stopping by!
Shannon EspositoFebruary 5, 2014 at 12:45 pm
Great suggestions! That’s one of the things I try to stress with my kids… just because they behave badly and get in trouble sometimes, it doesn’t mean they are “bad” people. They are perfect. 🙂 The thing I struggle with is self confidence. I had such over-protective parents who jumped in to fix everything anytime there was a problem, so I don’t have a lot of confidence that I can handle situations that arise. I’m working on this though, especially this year. I’m taking my first road trip by myself. 🙂
Kassandra LambFebruary 5, 2014 at 1:14 pm
Yay! Where ya going?
And now I have another idea for a blog post. One on self-confidence, which is a slightly different egg than self-worth.
Karen McFarlandFebruary 5, 2014 at 7:55 pm
“My self-esteem is a work in progress.” Ain’t that the truth! Everything you said in your post Kassandra resonated in me. I have struggled with self-worth for most my life. I say affirmations every day. I think for most, we tend to have unrealistic expectations of ourselves. We expect too much. We expect perfection. And that’s not possible. Excellent post! Thank you. 🙂
Kassandra LambFebruary 5, 2014 at 8:53 pm
Ah, perfectionism. Yet another excellent idea for a post, Karen. I think as a recovering perfectionist myself, I can speak to that topic. Keep saying those affirmations! And you can add this one to the others: All your online writer friends think you are terrific!!!!