What self-worth is really about
In the world we live in, we typically equate our worth to what we can offer or achieve: the quality of our work, how much we do for others, our degrees, the number in our bank account. Seeing it that way, it’s easy to get confused. Our self-worth seems to depend on what we are putting out in the world. It makes our value contingent on the things we have achieved, or how much we believe we have to offer to other people.
Often, the above gets translated in our head as having to earn our worth. We believe we will only be worthy when we have something valuable to offer. This is a trap because there will never be a consensus. Since everyone values different things, how could we ever assess if what we can offer is valuable?
Is it self-worth or self-esteem?
Typically, self-worth and self-esteem are used interchangeably. I like to separate them to better describe two different dynamics of the self.
It’s your inherent value as an individual who exists in the world. It is immutable, it can’t be measured, and it’s unconditional. That is, you have worth simply because you exist. It’s a global view of the self: the recognition that we always deserve love, care, and belonging. Self-worth is immutable, although your perception of your worth may not be. Therefore, when you perceive your worth as low, you may have a hard time understanding or believing that you can be unconditionally appreciated.
It’s the evaluation you make of yourself, how you assess yourself in a balance. Self-esteem relates to what you like about yourself and the things you would like to grow out of. Self-esteem changes over time in response to growth, learning, and key experiences. It typically reflects your values, as it will be shaped depending on what matters to you.
So, although people often conflate self-worth with self-esteem, they are different in practice. While everyone is worthy of care and a sense of belonging (self-worth), the groups we belong to reflect our values, what we receive from others and what we offer others in practical terms (self-esteem).
To help clarify this, I invite you to think about someone you love. When you truly love someone* (a relative, a friend, a partner…), you see them as worthy of love even though they’re imperfect—and they are, we all are. This is their worth to you, which is the inherent bond you share with them. Yet, while you may like that they know how to apologize, you may struggle with how they’re always running ten minutes late. In this sense, this is your esteem of them, which is your appreciation for them. This is how it functions with you and your relationship with yourself, too.
For contrast, let’s see what an example of low self-worth and low self-esteem looks like. Someone with low self-worth often feels as if they’re inadequate as a person, perhaps even as if there is something wrong with them. It typically seems as if it’s an indictment of them as a whole: they are not good enough to be worthy of good things. On the other hand, someone with low self-esteem sees the particular things that they think are a problem to be fixed: they make too many mistakes, they’re too loud or too quiet, they’re bad at math… It’s a long To-Do list of things to improve about themselves. It often seems like the items on that list are endless; like the good in them is of little value, comparatively.
* This only applies to non-abusive relationships.
Self-worth and mental health
Self-worth is at the core of mental health. It influences our choices and whether we can do such important things as asking for what we need, setting boundaries, and evaluating the quality of our relationships. Self-worth is the seed of self-acceptance. This is fundamental to finding the balance between liking who we are while keeping a growth mindset: a place in the relationship to ourselves where we recognize things we want to work on while understanding there’s nothing wrong with us. Without self-worth at the center of self-esteem, we only have comparison to assess what’s good about ourselves, and that’s like putting our self-concept on Wall Street.
Depending on how we assess our own value in the world, we may make completely different choices about how we exist in it. Having low self-worth may cause us to pull back from relationships, or choose to make other people happy while disregarding our own needs. Reconnecting with this truth can bring real grounding to our lives.
Some strategies to explore
People struggling with their self-worth might benefit from increasing their self-awareness. All change requires choice to do different; acting “on autopilot” doesn’t allow for choice. Awareness allows for the time and opportunity to make a choice to do different.
A possible strategy is to pay attention to the dialogue in our mind. We all have an ongoing conversation with ourselves about ourselves and the world. If we look closely, we can learn to differentiate between types of thoughts and feelings and their goals. One of the symbolic models I like to use to approach this is to imagine that there are different parts of us that help us manage our experience and how we interact with the world. For example, we all have an inner critic, can find a wise voice or a protector inside ourselves. Once we’ve recognized these patterns, we can challenge, redirect, or self-soothe to re-train our brain to look at things differently.
Other therapeutic approaches to self-worth and self-awareness are mindfulness-based models, process-oriented models, or cognitive behavioural therapy. Be aware that choosing the right strategy varies from person to person depending on their specific background, situation and needs. If you need help, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional.
I grew up speaking Spanish. English is my second language. When I communicate in English, I make mistakes. I've chosen to let the writing on my blog reflect the kind of mistakes I make when speaking, so that you have an idea of what it might feel like to talk to me. I trust the message is still clear but, if it's not, please don't hesitate to ask me for clarification.
The information provided on my blog is a mix of my personal thoughts, professional approach, and articles related to mental health. The purpose of sharing all of this is to communicate the models at the core of my practice, as well as to provide education. I hope this will help to minimize some of the power imbalances related to my profession. The articles on this blog should not be considered as professional advice for any one person or group of people. If you have any questions about the appropriateness of this content for you, please contact a qualified mental health professional.