The premise of healthy self-esteem is grounded in the idea that our worth and value is inherent—that we have the capacity to esteem from within. According to dictionary.com, inherent means “existing in someone or something as a permanent and inseparable element.” In other words, there’s nothing that can add to or take away from your worth and value. It is constant and unchangeable. Period.
I’ve found, though, that most people don’t believe that’s true. Some folks can give intellectual assent to its truth, but when it comes to believing it deep down and applying it to the way they live, it’s a different story. In reality, many people operate as if their value is on a slider. If you perform well at work or get an expensive car, the slider goes up. If you forget a friend’s birthday, the slider goes down. Asked out on a date? The slider goes up. Late paying a bill? The slider goes down. You get the point.
Our belief in whether our value is planted in cement or on a slippery slider comes from our primary caregivers. That’s where we are first taught to believe either that our worth is based on our existence, that we have value because we live and breathe, or that it is based on external factors (I have value because of ____). If your parents struggled with their own sense of worthiness, they might have unconsciously parented from that place, perpetuating the message that there are strings attached to your value. Sometimes the message is overt, sometimes it’s covert, but its impact is significant. Some examples of what this might look like:
Inappropriate parenting regarding our inherent worth results in self-esteem issues. This plays out in how we think about, talk to, and treat ourselves and others. Rather than trusting in our inherent worth, we rely on external factors to determine if we have value (what someone thinks of us, how well we do at something, our looks), resulting in a continual pendulum swinging between feeling better-than or less-than others, or taking a one-up/one-down position with others. Until we work on our root self-esteem issues, that pendulum will not stop swinging. People tend to spend more time in one than the other, but we all go to both places.
The message that our value is attached to external factors is shame-based, and the result is that we spend our time and energy working to prove our value to ourselves and others. The problem is, that doesn’t work. We never seem to be good enough, smart enough, successful enough, etc. It becomes a never-ending search for the thing that’s finally going to make us feel ok inside. It’s a search for a holy grail that doesn’t exist.
Feeling shame about who we are is on a continuum – from a general sense of “I’m not quite good enough” to feeling utterly worthless. Regardless of where you fall on that continuum, the shame you experience is real, and it matters.
If we believe that we have inherent worth and live from that place, we treat ourselves with respect and kindness, regardless of the circumstances. We operate out of a belief that our inherent worth can’t increase because of our strengths or decrease because of our character defects. This brings freedom to be who we are, try new things, ask questions, and enjoy ourselves. Imagine not having the constant pressure to look around and compare yourself to everyone around you as you move through life.
As I’ve said before, there’s no quick fix here. I can’t give you 10 quick ways to build up your self-esteem, because a)that’s not a thing and b) that’s not what we’re talking about. In order to truly believe in your inherent worth and value, you have to do the work to heal the trauma that created your sense of worthlessness or not-enoughness. That’s the deal. I know no other way to bring about transformation in this area.
It’s hard work. Really hard work. And like most things, it changes incrementally over time. But it really is possible for you to live without hustling to prove your worthiness every day. The True Self Journey is about doing the healing work at the root of our doubt about our inherent value.
I’m leaving you with a simple exercise that will help you look realistically at how worth and value struggles show up in your life. I hope it’s helpful for you.
What does your ‘slider’ look like? What do you believe adds to or subtracts from your worth and value? Here’s a way to look at that: For several days, keep track of when you feel your value goes up and when you feel it goes down. Take a piece of paper and draw a vertical like down the middle. At the top of one side of the page, write Slider Down. At the top of the other side, write Slider Up. At the end of the day, jot down situations where your value slid up or down. Share what you learned with your sponsor, therapist or trusted friend.
Peace on the journey,