Published in Positive Psychology
You’ve undoubtedly heard of the many, many “self-“ words. There’s self-esteem, self-compassion, self-acceptance, self-respect, self-confidence, self-love, and so on.
There are so many words to describe how we feel about ourselves, how we think about ourselves, and how we act toward ourselves. It’s understandable if they all start to blend together; however, they are indeed different concepts with unique meanings, findings, and purposes.
Read on to find out about the one that may be the most vital “self-“ concept of all: self-worth.
What is the Meaning of Self-Worth and Self-Value?
Self-worth and self-value are two related terms that are often used interchangeably. Having a sense of self-worth means that you value yourself, and having a sense of self-value means that you are worthy. The differences between the two are minimal enough that both terms can be used to describe the same general concept.
However, we’ll provide both definitions so you can see where they differ.
Self-worth is defined by Merriam-Webster as:
“a feeling that you are a good person who deserves to be treated with respect”.
On the other hand, self-value is “more behavioral than emotional, more about how you act toward what you value, including yourself, than how you feel about yourself compared to others” (Stosny, 2014).
Self-Worth Versus Self-Esteem
To be honest, there is not a huge difference between self-worth and self-esteem, especially for those who are not involved in psychology research or theorizing. In fact, the first definition of self-worth on the Merriam-Webster dictionary website is simply “self-esteem”!
Similarly, the World Book Dictionary definition of self-esteem is “thinking well of oneself; self-respect”, while self-worth is defined as “a favorable estimate or opinion of oneself; self-esteem” (Bogee, Jr., 1998).
Clearly, many of these terms are used to talk about the same ideas, but there is a slight difference between the two for those who work with these “self” concepts; Dr. Christina Hibbert explains:
“Self-esteem is what we think and feel and believe about ourselves. Self-worth is recognizing ‘I am greater than all of those things.’ It is a deep knowing that I am of value, that I am loveable, necessary to this life, and of incomprehensible worth.” (2013).
Self-Worth Versus Self-Confidence
In the same vein, there are subtle but significant differences between self-worth and self-confidence.
Self-confidence is not an overall evaluation of yourself, but a feeling of confidence and competence in more specific areas. For example, you could have great self-worth but low self-confidence when it comes to extreme sports, certain subjects in school, or your ability to speak a new language (Roberts, 2012).
It’s not necessary to have a high sense of self-confidence in every area of your life; there are naturally some things that you will simply not be very good at, and other areas in which you will excel. The important thing is to have self-confidence in the main activities of your life and a high sense of self-worth overall.
The Psychology of Self-Worth
In psychology, the concept of self-worth may be less of a popular topic of research than self-esteem or self-confidence, but you shouldn’t take that to mean that it is less important. Self-worth is at the basis of our very selves—our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are intimately tied in to how we view our worthiness and value as a human being.
What is Self-Worth Theory?
The Self-Worth Theory is a theory of motivation; it posits that an individual’s main priority in life is to find self-acceptance, and that self-acceptance is often found through achievement (Covington & Beery, 1976). In turn, achievement is often found through competition with others. Thus, the logic follows that competing with others can help us feel that we have impressive achievements under our belt, which then makes us feel proud of ourselves and enhances our acceptance of ourselves.
The theory holds that there are four main elements of the self-worth model:
The first three interact with one another to determine one’s level of self-worth. One’s ability and effort predictably have a big impact on performance, and all three contribute to one’s feeling of worth and value.
While this theory represents a good understanding of self-worth as we tend to experience it, it is unfortunate that we place so much emphasis on our achievements. Aside from competing and “winning” against others, there are many factors that can contribute to our sense of self-worth.
What Determines Self-Worth?
According to the Self-Worth Theory, self-worth is determined mostly by our self-evaluated abilities and our performance at one or more activities that we deem valuable.
However, people commonly use other yardsticks to measure their self-worth. Here are five of the top factors that people use to measure and compare their own self-worth and that of others:
- Appearance—whether that’s the number on the scale, the size of clothing worn, or the attention received by others.
- Net worth—this can mean income, material possessions, financial assets, or all of the above.
- Who you know/your social circle—some people judge their own value and the value of others by their status and what important and influential people they know.
- What you do/your career—we often judge others by what they do; for example, a stockbroker is usually considered more successful and valuable than a janitor or a teacher.
- What you achieve—as noted earlier, we frequently use achievements to determine someone’s worth (whether it’s our own worth or someone else’s), such as success in business, score on the SATs, or placement in a marathon or other athletic challenge (Morin, 2017).
Author Stephanie Jade Wong (n.d.) is on a mission to correct misunderstandings and misperceptions about self-worth. Instead of listing all the factors that go into self-worth, she takes a similar tack to the author of the list above—she outlines what does not determine your self-worth (or what should not determine your self-worth):
- Your to-do list: achieving goals is great and it feels wonderful to cross off things on your to-do list, but that doesn’t have a direct relationship with your worth as a human.
- Your job: it doesn’t matter what you do; what matters is that you do it well and that it fulfills you.
- Your social media following: it also doesn’t matter how many people think you are worthy of a follow or a retweet; it can be enlightening and healthy to consider the perspectives of others, but their opinions have no impact on our innate value.
- Your age: you aren’t too young or too old for anything; your age is simply a number and does not factor into your value as a human being.
- Other people: as noted above, it doesn’t matter what other people think or what other people have done or accomplished; your personal satisfaction and fulfillment is much more important than what others are thinking, saying, or doing.
- How far you can run: your mile run-time is one of the least important factors for your self-worth (or for anything else, for that matter); if you enjoy running and feel fulfilled by improving your time, good for you! If not, good for you! Your ability to run does not determine your self-worth.
- Your grades: we all have different strengths and weaknesses, and some of us are simply not cut out for class; this has no bearing on our value as people, and a straight-A student is just as valuable and worthy as a straight-F student or a dropout.
- The number of friends you have: your value as a human has absolutely nothing to do with how many friends or connections you have; the quality of your relationships is what’s really important.
- Your relationship status: whether flying solo, casually dating, or in a committed relationship, your value is exactly the same—your relationship status doesn’t alter your worth.
- The money (or lack thereof) in the bank: if you have enough money to physically survive (which can, in fact, be $0), then you have already achieved the maximal amount of “worth” you can get from money (hint: it’s 0!).
- Your likes: it doesn’t matter if you have “good taste” or not, if your friends and acquaintances think you’re sophisticated, or if you have an eye for the finer things; your worth is the same either way.
- Anything or anyone but yourself: here we get to the heart of the matter—you are the only one who determines your self-worth. If you believe you are worthy and valuable, you are worthy and valuable. Even if you don’t believe you are worthy and valuable, guess what—you still are worthy and valuable!
3 Examples of Healthy Self-Worth
You might be thinking, “Okay, I know what does not determine self-worth, but what does a good, healthy sense of self-worth really look like?”
Given what we know about the determinants of self-worth, let’s read through a few examples.
Bill is not a great student. He gets mostly Bs and Cs, even when he spends a great deal of time studying. He didn’t get a great score on his SATs, and he’s an average reader, a struggling writer, and nobody’s idea of a mathematician. Even though he wishes he had better grades, he still feels pretty good about himself. Bill knows that grades aren’t everything, and that he is just as valuable of a person as his straight-A friends. Bill has a high sense of self-worth and a realistic view of himself and his abilities.
Next, let’s consider Amy. Amy has a wide variety of interests, including marathons, attending book club, playing weekly trivia with her friends, and meeting new people. She’s not particularly good at running and has never placed in a marathon. She’s a slow reader and frequently misses the symbolism and themes that her fellow book club members pick up on. Amy only gets about 10% of the trivia questions right and leans on her friends’ knowledge quite often. Finally, she loves to talk to new people but sometimes she gets blown off, ignored, or runs into unfriendly people. Despite all of this, she still believes that she is worthy and valuable. She knows that her worth as a human is not dependent on her ability to run, read, play trivia, or make new friends. Whether she is great, terrible, or somewhere in between at each of her vast range of chosen activities, she knows she is still worthy of happiness, fulfillment, and love.
Finally, consider the case of Marcus. Marcus is an excellent salesman and frequently outsells most of the other people at his company, but one coworker seems to always be just a bit ahead of him. He is also an avid squash player and frequently competes in tournaments. Sometimes he gets first or second place, but usually he does not place at all. Even though he is not the best at his job or at his favorite hobby, Marcus still feels that he is valuable. He thinks he is smart, talented, and successful, even though he’s not the smartest, most talented, or most successful, and he’s okay with that.
Bill, Amy, and Marcus all have a healthy level of self-worth. They have varying levels of abilities and talents, and they get a wide range of results from their efforts, but they all understand that what they do is not who they are. No matter whether they win awards or garner accolades for their performance or not, they still have the same high opinion of their value as a person.
How to Find Self-Worth and Value Yourself More
If these examples sound desirable to you, and you wish you were more like Bill, Amy, or Marcus, there is hope! There are things you can do to boost your sense of self-worth and ensure that you value yourself as you ought to be valued—as a full, complete, and wonderful human being that is deserving of love and respect, no matter what.
How to Build Self-Worth in Adolescents
As with most lifelong traits, it’s best to start early! If you know any adolescents, be sure to encourage them in understanding and accepting their own self-worth. Reinforce their value as a “being” rather than a “doing”, as some say—in other words, make sure they know that they are valuable for who they are, not what they do.
If you need some more specific ideas on how to boost an adolescent’s self-worth, check out the suggestions below.
Researchers at Michigan State University recommend two main strategies:
- Provide unconditional love, respect, and positive regard.
- Give adolescents opportunities to experience success (Clark-Jones, 2012).
Showing a teen unconditional love (if you’re a parent, family member, or other very close friend) or unconditional respect and positive regard (if you’re a teacher, mentor, or other more casual connection) is the best way to teach him self-worth. If you show a teenager that you love and appreciate him for exactly who and what he is, he will learn that it’s okay to love himself for exactly who and what he is. Prove that he doesn’t need to achieve anything to earn your love and respect, and he is much less likely to put unnecessary parameters on his own self-love and self-respect later on.
Further, one way in which we gain a healthy sense of self-worth is through early and frequent experiences of success. Successful experiences boost our sense of competence and mastery and make us feel just plain good about ourselves. They also open the door for taking future (smart) risks and the success that often follows. Don’t just tell a teen that she is worthy and valuable, help her believe it by giving her every opportunity to succeed. Just be sure that these opportunities are truly opportunities for her to succeed on her own—a helping hand is fine, but we need to figure out how to do some things on our own to build a healthy sense of self-worth (Clark-Jones, 2012).
How to Increase Self-Worth and Value in Adults
It’s a bit trickier to increase self-worth and self-value in adults, but it’s certainly not a lost cause! Check out the two major tips below to learn how to go about it.
First, take a look back at the list of what does NOT determine self-worth. Remind yourself that your bank account, job title, attractiveness, and number of followers have nothing to do with how valuable or worthy of a person you are.
It can be so easy to get bogged down into money, status, and popularity—especially when these things are so highly valued by those around us and by society in general—but make an effort to take a step back and think about what truly matters when determining a person’s worth: their kindness, compassion, empathy, respect for others, and how well they treat those around them.
Second, work on identifying, challenging, and externalizing your critical inner voice. We all have an inner critic that loves to nitpick and point out our flaws (Firestone, 2014). It’s natural to let this inner critic get the best of us sometimes, but if we let her win too often she starts to think that she’s right!
Whenever you notice your inner critic start to fire up with the criticisms, make her pause for a moment. Ask yourself whether she has any basis in fact, whether she’s being kind or not, and whether what she’s telling you is something you need to know. If none of those things are true, feel free to tell her to see herself out! Challenge her on the things she whispers in your ear and remind her that no matter what you do or don’t do, you are worthy and valuable all the same.
For more specific activities and ideas, see the exercises, activities, and worksheets we cover later in this piece.
The Importance of Self-Worth in Relationships
One of the most common mistakes you see people with low self-esteem make is to put all of their self-worth into one basket—namely, their partner.
It’s an understandable tendency to let someone else’s love for you encourage you to feel better about yourself. And it’s great to feel better about yourself when someone loves you! But you should work on feeling good about yourself whether you are in a relationship or not.
The love of another person does not define you, nor does it define your value as a person. Whether you are single, casually seeing people, building a solid relationship with someone, or celebrating your 30th anniversary with your spouse, you are worthy of love and respect and you should make time to practice self-acceptance and self-compassion. This is true for people of any relationship status, but it may be especially important for those in long-term relationships.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your partner’s love is what makes you worthy of love; if anything ever happens to your partner or to your relationship, you don’t want to be forced to build up this sense of worth from scratch. It can make breakups and grief much harder than they need to be!
Although this facet of the issue should be enough to encourage you to work on your self-worth, there’s another reason: having a healthy sense of self-worth will actually make your current relationship better too!
When you learn to love yourself first, you become better able to love someone else. People with high self-respect tend to have more satisfying, loving, and stable relationships than those who do not, precisely because they know that they need to first find their worth, they esteem, and their happiness within. Two people who are lit with self-worth and happiness from within make a much brighter spot than two people who are trying to absorb light from each other (Grande, 2018).
The Risks of Tying Your Self-Worth to Your Job
Similar to the dangers of anchoring your self-worth in someone else, there are big risks in tying your self-worth to your job. Like a significant other, jobs can come and go—sometimes without warning.
You can be let go, laid off, transitioned, dehired, dismissed, downsized, redirected, released, selectively separated, terminated, replaced, asked to resign, or just plain fired. You could also be transferred, promoted, demoted, or given new duties and responsibilities that no longer mesh with the sense of self-worth your previous duties and responsibilities gave you. You could also quit, take a new job, take some time off, or retire—all things that can be wonderful life transitions, but which can be terribly difficult if you wrap too much of your self-worth up in your job.
As noted earlier, your job is one of the things that do NOT define you or your self-worth. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of what you do, finding joy or fulfillment in it, or letting it shape who you are; the danger is in letting it define your entire sense of self.
We are all so much more than a job. Believing that we are nothing more than a job is detrimental to our well-being and can be disastrous in times of crisis.
The Self-Worth Scale
Are you interested in getting an idea of what your current level of self-worth is? If so, you’re in luck! There is a scale that is perfectly suited for this curiosity.
Also known as the Contingencies of Self-Worth Scale, this scale was developed by researchers Crocker, Luhtanen, Cooper, and Bouvrette in 2003. It consists of 35 items that measure self-worth in seven different domains. These seven domains, with an example item from each domain, are:
- Approval from others
- a. I don’t care if other people have a negative opinion of me.
- Physical appearance
- a. My self-esteem is influenced by how attractive I think my face or facial features are.
- Outdoing others in competition
- a. My self-worth is affected by how well I do when I am competing with others.
- Academic competence
- a. I feel bad about myself whenever my academic performance is lacking.
- Family love and support
- a. My self-worth is not influenced by the quality of my relationships with my family members.
- Being a virtuous or moral person
- a. My self-esteem depends on whether or not I follow my moral/ethical principles.
- God’s love
- a. My self-esteem would suffer if I didn’t have God’s love.
Each item is rated on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Once you have rated each item, sum the answers to the five items for each domain and divide the total by 5 for the sub-scale score.
5 Activities and Exercises for Developing Self-Worth
According to author and self-growth guru Adam Sicinski, there are five vital exercises to developing and maintaining self-worth. He lays them out in five stages, but there’s no need to keep them in strict order; it’s fine to move back and forth or revisit “old” stages!
Increase Your Self-Understanding
First, an important activity on the road to self-worth is to build self-understanding. You need to learn who you are and what you want before you can decide you are a worthy human being.
Sicinski recommends this simple thought experiment to work on increasing your understanding of yourself:
- Imagine that everything you have is suddenly taken away from you (everything, meaning possessions, relationships, friendships, status, job/career, accomplishments and achievements, etc.).
- Ask yourself the following questions:
- a. What if everything I have was suddenly taken away from me.
- b. What if all I had left was just myself?
- c. How would that make me feel?
- d. What would I actually have that would be of value?
- Think about your answers to these questions and see if you can come to this conclusion: “No matter what happens externally and no matter what’s taken away from me, I’m not affected internally.”
- Next, get to know yourself on a deeper level with these questions:
- a. Who I am? I am… I am not…
- b. How am I?
- c. How am I in the world?
- d. How do others see me?
- e. How do others speak about me?
- f. What key life moments define who I am today?
- g. What brings me the most passion, fulfillment, and joy?
- Once you have a good understanding of who you are and what fulfills and satisfies you, it’s time to look at what isn’t so great or easy about being you; ask yourself these questions:
- a. Where do I struggle most?
- b. Where do I need to improve?
- c. What fears often hold me back?
- d. What habitual emotions hurt me?
- e. What mistakes do I tend to make?
- f. Where do I tend to consistently let myself down?
- Finally, take a moment to look at the flipside; ask yourself:
- a. What abilities do I have?
- b. What am I really good at?
Spend some time on each step, but especially on the steps that remind you of your worth and your value as a person (e.g., the strengths step).
Boost Your Self-Acceptance
Once you have a better idea of who you are, the next step is to enhance your acceptance of yourself.
Start by forgiving yourself for anything you noted in point 5 above; think of any struggles, needs for improvement, mistakes, and bad habits you have and commit to forgiving yourself and accepting yourself without judgment or excuses.
Think about everything you learned about yourself in the first exercise and repeat these statements to:
- I accept the good, the bad and the ugly.
- I fully accept every part of myself including my flaws, fears, behaviors, and qualities I might not be too proud of.
- This is how I am, and I am at peace with that
Enhance Your Self-Love
Now that you have worked on accepting yourself for who you are, you can begin to build love and care for yourself. Make it a goal to extend yourself kindness, tolerance, generosity, and compassion.
To boost your self-love, start watching your tone—with yourself! Commit to being more positive and uplifting when talking to yourself.
If you’re not sure how to get started, use these simple statements:
- I feel valued and special.
- I love myself wholeheartedly.
- I am a worthy and capable person (Sicinski, n.d.).
Recognize Your Self-Worth
Once you understand yourself, accept yourself, and love yourself, you will reach a point where you no longer depend on people, accomplishments, or other external factors for your self-worth.
At this point, the best thing you can do is recognize your worth and appreciate yourself for the work you’ve done to get here—as well as continuing to maintain your self-understanding, self-acceptance, self-love, and self-worth.
To recognize your self-worth, remind yourself that:
- You no longer need to please other people.
- No matter what people do or say, and regardless of what happens outside of you, you alone control how you feel about yourself.
- You have the power to respond to events and circumstances based on your internal sources, resources, and resourcefulness, which are the reflection of your true value.
- Your value comes from inside, from an internal measure that you’ve set for yourself.
Take Responsibility for Yourself
Finally, you will come to the responsibility stage. In this stage, you will practice being responsible for yourself, your circumstances, and your problems.
Follow these guidelines to ensure you are working on this exercise in a healthy way:
- Take full responsibility for everything that happens to you without giving your personal power and your agency away.
- Acknowledge that you have the personal power to change and influence the events and circumstances of your life.
Remind yourself of what you have learned through all of these exercises, and know that you hold the power in your own life. Revel in your well-earned sense of self-worth and make sure to keep it up!
Keywords: Self-worth, acceptance