I’m often asked by coaching clients how they can improve self-worth. Having a healthy degree of self-worth is maybe best described as feeling good enough or as worthy of love and belonging as anyone else. When your self-worth is high, you feel an inherent sense of value in just being yourself, knowing that you’re deserving of the same kindness, respect and life opportunities as anyone else.
While closely related, self-esteem holds a subtle difference. In our culture, we often ‘esteem’ people based on external measures such as appearance, intellect, career, relationship, financial or social success.
While it’s difficult not to buy into these cultural norms, we need to remind ourselves that our value lies not in what we have or what we achieve but in simply being who we are.
Over the years, I’ve worked with many people with outward measures of success who feel a distinct absence of self-worth and I’ve met others with little to show externally who instinctively know their own value.
One afternoon at the beginning of 2020, I met with two clients who were the perfect expression of this paradox. The first was an unhappy man who was CEO of a thriving business. He had just purchased a new home for many millions of dollars. In material wealth, he had more than anyone could hope for. He was fit and healthy, he had a loving partner, three little children and a decent circle of friends. On the outside, his life looked picture-perfect but on the inside, he was angry, resentful and frustrated with himself and his life.
Immediately after seeing this man, I met with an artist who lives in a run-down rental on an income that is just above the poverty line. He is passionate about his work, content with the simple life he leads and mostly at peace with the person he is.
I see many clients who sit between these extremes. There’s no way of knowing who will feel content with themselves and who won’t but I have learned that regardless of what we do or have, we can all take steps to improve our self-worth.
Before you can improve your self-worth, it’s helpful to first understand how your relationship with yourself has evolved.
What makes us feel worthy?
Psychologists agree that there are several factors that help us feel worthy. Experiencing unconditional love as we are growing up is one. If, as a child or teenager, you were seen and appreciated for who you were, you are more likely to believe that your value as a person is inherent. You know that it’s not your appearance, your achievements or your possessions that make you worthwhile and loveable.
Highly sensitive children
If like many of my clients, you were a highly sensitive child, you may have been fearful, overwhelmed or frequently unsettled by everyday experiences. You may have also felt wrong for not being able to brush things off in the same way your less sensitive friends and family members were able to.
Early success makes a difference
If you were lucky enough to experience success early and often in life, you are more likely to feel inherent worthiness. When we have the opportunity to engage our innate strengths and we achieve good outcomes while utilising those strengths, our sense of competency and achievement is boosted.
Those who are naturally academic, athletic or exceptionally creative, are often esteemed for early success. But this generally applies to a rare few – most of us have a blend of gifts that are less obvious to ourselves or to others in our youth. It’s only later in life that we come to really know them.
We don’t always notice the quiet achievers
Unfortunately, because our culture rewards confidence, winning and extraversion, we typically narrow the group we esteem. We don’t always notice the quiet achievers in the room and the habit of the introvert is to want to stay hidden.
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Carl R. Rogers
Unlearning old habits
In order to improve self-worth, we need to know where our true value lies, which means we must unlearn the habit of competing or comparing to others. We need to quieten our internal critic and let go of the idea that worth should be measured externally.
Our role as adults is to recognise and find value in our unique and subtle gifts. If we make time to uncover and embrace these gifts, we come to discover that each of us has something of value to contribute.
As we do this, we must cultivate a kind and compassionate relationship with ourselves where we offer the unconditional love and acceptance we missed out on in our early years.
It is only once we have learned to support and care for ourselves, that we find the courage to be fully visible in the world and the confidence to share our unique gifts with others.
This then becomes the foundation of a meaningful and purposeful life.
Try the following steps to help build your self-worth.
1. Build self-awareness
To begin to improve self-worth, get to know who you really are. Set aside time to become clear about what you genuinely love doing and embrace the activities that make you feel engaged and inspired. These will usually be the same activities where you lose your sense of time, where you feel fully immersed in what you’re doing and where you still feel energised, even after spending hours.
2. Make peace with the present moment
Most of us tell ourselves we’ll be happy when…we’re earning more money, we find the ideal partner, we’re fit and toned again, but the research says that it’s very likely that once you achieve your new goal, you’ll set another goal that keeps you on the same treadmill. Instead of focusing on the change you need to make in order to feel at peace with who you are, accept yourself first and then choose goals that give your life a deeper sense of meaning.
3. Recognise your innate goodness
Every one of us has at our core the same desire – to be seen, loved and accepted, just as we are. Instead of comparing yourself to your siblings, friends and colleagues, view yourself through the eyes of compassion and recognise your innate goodness. Learn about the art of self-compassion and remind yourself that simply being here is enough. Your presence is enough. Your intrinsic value as a living being is truly, more than enough.
4. Forgive yourself
When we look back on our lives, there are often moments or even passages of time that we wish we could relive in order to change them. We berate ourselves for past mistakes and feel embarrassed when recalling the times that we behaved unskillfully. Thich Nhat Hanh taught that these are the times we most need to treat ourselves with kindness and compassion. Remind yourself that you did the best you could and it’s ok that it was imperfect. The gift of a reflective life is that we continue to learn and grow and while we will more than likely still make mistakes, they lessen with the wisdom of age.
“Our capacity to make peace with another person and with the world depends very much on our capacity to make peace with ourselves.” Thich Nhat Hanh
5. Accept yourself, just as you are
Begin to accept your fears, your flaws, your behaviours, your appearance and all of yourself, just as you are. Even the qualities you’re least proud of. Say to yourself, ‘This is who I am and I’m at peace with myself now. I’m a worthy and loveable person’. Remind yourself that your worth is not based on whether you’re intelligent or beautiful or whether you’ve achieved any measure of external success. Your worth is not your relationship status or the number of friends you have; it’s not how much money you have or how fast you can run. It is, rather, your ability to make peace with the present moment, how well you can care for yourself, your willingness to give of yourself to others, your willingness to discover and make time for the things you enjoy while at the same time, learning to accept the imperfection and impermanence of all things.
6. Find your purpose
Your purpose is about making a difference in other people’s lives and understanding a deeper reason for being on this earth. Knowing your purpose is another way of deepening your sense of self-worth. Your purpose might be as simple as ‘being a good role model as a friend or parent’, ‘treating everyone I meet with kindness and generosity’ or as significant as ‘creating programs that eradicate world poverty’. Knowing your purpose gives you a bigger reason for living and shifts the focus away from the focus on ‘self’. Our purpose also keeps us humble as we remember we are all part of something bigger than ourselves.