Relatively Speaking: The Three Paths to Self-Worth
When you look in the mirror do you value yourself? Despite your flaws, despite how you might compare yourself less favorably to others when it comes to certain characteristics, do you value who you are? If so, that should lead you to become a more successful, healthier individual. Right? Well, maybe. Self-esteem is a state of mind that everybody seems to agree we should always try to improve. But ironically, self-esteem is not a sure-fire measure of success. Efforts to boost one’s (or another’s) self-esteem do not reliably result in clear-cut advantages later on. Attempts to make school children feel better about themselves have not resulted in hoped-for results such as better study habits or a reduced likelihood to smoke, drink, take drugs, or engage in sexual activity. (In fact, children who possess high self-esteem often take more risks.) There is evidence that bullies and narcissists actually think quite highly of themselves. It is clear that clinically depressed people or those who suffered traumatic abuse often have a poor sense of self-worth—which indeed complicates their recovery. So having a higher sense of self-esteem does seem important. Those with high self-esteem do tend to persist at challenging tasks when the going gets tough. They more readily bounce back from adversity. And subjectively, they “feel better” about themselves. But beyond that, the self-esteem factor has not turned out to be the panacea social scientists, educators, and parents hoped it would be. It has been hyped more than it has helped.
It seems that when self-esteem is correlated with any positive outcome it is less likely that it had a direct causal effect. Often it is one’s efforts to bring about a successful outcome that increases self-esteem, not the other way around.
So what are we to do?
Three Paths to Self-Worth
I don’t advise we give up on self-esteem. When life knocks you down, when your spouse leaves you, when your company fires you, when you try—but fail—at some important task, when dreams die, having a sturdy sense of self-worth cultivates resilience. But self-esteem may be more of a by-product of other factors—factors we might easily overlook when attempting to boost our self-worth. No doubt having a loving, stable family life when growing up increases your odds of having a sturdy self-esteem. But even home environment is just part of the equation. And if you are a full-grown adult trying to improve your sense of self-worth despite your inevitable faults, what are some specific things you can do?
Dr. Roy Baumeister at Florida State University is the leading researcher in this area. Societies major ills—violence, addictions, poor educational performance, sexually transmitted diseases—all involve poor self-control. And most people who report low self-esteem struggle to control certain behaviors and attitudes. Eating and drinking too much, not exercising enough, blurting out things you shouldn’t say, or impulsively running away from situations that cause anxiety all can create complications in your life that reduce your sense of self-esteem. Students who exhibit greater self-control learn how to delay gratification. They will study first and play later. Everyone can think negatively about themselves from time to time but a person with greater self-control over his or her thoughts can examine those negative thoughts more realistically and avoid a cascade effect where one negative thought leads to another and another.
In classic studies in the 1960’s and 1970’s, young children were given the option of having one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later. (In subsequent experiments other desired food items or toys were offered.) The children sat at a table, staring intently at the one marshmallow. Could they resist temptation? About one-third of the children did indeed resist temptation and were rewarded with the two marshmallows later. Many of these children were re-evaluated years later, some at mid-life. The results were clear: children who were able to delay gratification were rated years later by fellow students and teachers as significantly more competent, they scored higher on their SAT’s, and even showed stronger neural functioning according to brain scans taken in mid-life.
Can self-control be learned? Yes. But Dr. Baumeister also states that there is a depletion effect. Successful efforts to impose self-control result in a weakening later on. How many of us have avoided that doughnut in the morning only to over-eat later in the day when fatigue has set in? But research findings also show that if a person practices self-control in regular, smaller ways such as choosing not to swear for two weeks, or to use their non-dominant hand while opening doors, or to be mindful of having good posture—success in those areas created greater success in other areas.
Self-control is not necessarily the same as self-restraint. Self-control is altering a pattern of behavior in the direction that will lead to more successful outcomes. For example, someone who is unassertive and fears speaking up in case it causes an argument or increases the risk of not being liked is using self-restraint. But learning to bypass that restraint—to evaluate the situation with a new perspective rather than automatically give in to fearful, habitual thoughts—requires self-discipline.
Many people who come to me for psychotherapy tell me they have a lousy self-esteem. They look in the mirror and try to build themselves up with affirmations. They try to convince themselves they are lovable, or attractive, or desirable, or talented, or sexy—or whatever it is they feel they need to feel better about. But inevitably those positive thoughts are immediately followed by their opposite: They tell themselves “I’m not THAT beautiful… I’m not as popular as THAT person… “ Their words are just… words. Failing to boost their self-esteem they feel like a failure. But when people practice saying “I accept myself as I am right now despite my imperfections” they discover they are not so bad after all. When we accept a situation or an event we cease analyzing it or fretting about those aspects we dislike. The winter of 2015 was severe for people in the Northeast. If one “accepted” that snowfalls were frequent and oppressive—they still had to shovel or miss work—but they got less caught up in the negative emotional side-effects that rough winter brought. “I don’t like this but I accept it” eliminates a lot of the brain chatter that otherwise darkens our mood. When we accept ourselves as we are it doesn’t mean we will remain passive about self-improvement. It means we will cease the hostile commentary. Don’t aim first for high self-esteem. Aim for self-acceptance. You may be surprised that your sense of self-worth already improves just by that simple shift.
Live According to the Highest Virtues
If your self-worth is based upon temporary achievements or superficial goals—winning the award, getting the promotion, looking more youthful, and so forth, what happens when those things stop happening? Hopefully there are people in your life that you love dearly simply because of whom they are not because of what they possess or the material things they provide. They could be old, crippled, or unable to function well in certain areas and yet you love them with all of your heart and would miss them terribly if they were gone from your life. In those cases you are operating from higher virtues—love, gratitude, and compassion. Many people would look at my life and conclude that I am successful. I’m a psychologist with a busy practice, I’ve written books, I’ve been a guest on television shows, and I’ve performed on stages as an actor and performer. All well and good. But who is the man I’ve admired most in my life? That would be my father. He was blue-collar, never wrote a book, never had notoriety, never spoke to an audience, and made just enough money to keep us above water—but he lived a life of heroic virtue. He was a wonderful husband and father and a kind, compassionate soul. When it is my time to leave this earth I don’t wish to be remembered for my books. I hope to be remembered as a kind, compassionate soul who made a difference in other’s lives not so much for what I accomplished but for who I was as a person.
Too often we base our self-worth on fleeting things—money, appearance, talent. It is the things that can last beyond a lifetime—kind gestures, worthy sacrifices, loving embraces—that reveal our deepest and most enduring self.
Lastly, it can be helpful for those of you who believe in a God or Source to consider that we are on earth at this particular time and place for reasons that are not random What if you believed you were here for a meaningful purpose? Or many meaningful purposes? What if you believed that your work on earth is important, however humble it may first appear, and remains unfinished as long as you are still breathing? What if you believed that there is someone you have yet to meet in whose life you will make a huge difference? What if you believed that God wants to use you still for some goal and is waiting for you to accept your worthiness in spite of your weaknesses?
Look in the mirror one more time. Now what do you see?