Knowing Your Worth: How to Boost Self-Worth and Self-Confidence
How do you value yourself more and boost your self-worth? And how do you grow your self-esteem in ways that make you feel more confident and worthy? Here is a science-based guide.
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What Does It Mean to Know Your Worth?
When we talk about knowing our worth, we're referring to the simple truth that we all have worth... it's just that some of us don't know it. Those of us who don't know our worth may consciously or unconsciously believe that we are worthless. But believing that we are unworthy can affect everything from our thoughts, to our emotions, to our actions, to our experiences. In fact, when we analyzed data from our well-being survey, low self-worth was the #1 predictor of unhappiness. Knowing your worth and believing that you are indeed worthy is absolutely essential for happiness and well-being. So let's dive into the research to learn more about how we can better know our worth.
Knowing Your Worth Means Boosting Your Self-Esteem
High self esteem (but not arrogance) is thought to be crucial for happiness, success, and popularity. More specifically, high self esteem causes pleasant feelings and increases initiative. Researchers suggest that self-esteem comes from beliefs about what people need to be or do to have value and worth. So self esteem, they say, depends upon what they call 'contingencies of self-worth' (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001).
What Are Contingencies of Self-Worth?
Many of us let our self-worth be contingent upon external events. We may be selective about what we let affect our self-worth—for example, maybe it's just our mother that makes us feel worthless or just our bosses. Regardless, when our self-worth depends on external situations, it's unstable and therefore, our feelings about ourselves can end up being at the whim of the world.
The very reason I'm writing about this today is because of critical words that I received from a supervisor saying that I'm not doing a good job. I'd like to say that this didn't hurt my self-esteem, but it really did because I always try to do the best I can.
Why do I let other people's actions and opinions affect how I feel about myself?! I wondered. If you're here reading this, I'm sure you can relate. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to explore this topic more and see if I can help us both out. Onward we go.
How Do Contingencies of Self-Worth Affect Behavior?
Obviously, we want to experience things that make us feel good. And engaging in things that boost our self-esteem makes us feel good. But when we have contingent self-worth, we might engage in activities that make us feel worthy and avoid activities that make us feel unworthy. This can shape our short-term and long-term goals.
For example, if our self-worth is contingent upon us being successful at work, we might only choose jobs that are easy. That way we never fail and ensure that we always know that we are worthy. Another example is maybe we only think we're worthy if we're under a certain weight. We might under-eat or engage in unhealthy dieting practices just to make sure that we don't feel like a bad person. Having our self-worth be contingent upon (or tied to) outside factors leaves us with little control over how we live our lives. Instead, we're constantly striving not to feel bad.
When we don't know our worth, we often increase our effort to avoid failure. And if we do fail, we might abandon our goals, lose motivation, or make excuses to help ourselves feel better (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001). And that's totally understandable. When we're in this mindset that what we do or how people feel about us gives us worth, that seems like the only control we have over our emotions.
How Do We Hold Our Self-Worth Hostage?
It is not uncommon for us to let our self-worth be contingent upon academic or career success, appearance, approval, outperforming others, virtue (or goodness), and religious faith (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001).
Ask yourself, how do you hold your self-worth hostage? What situations don't just make you feel bad emotionally, but also feel bad about yourself? These are the situations that currently have control over your self-esteem. And as long as your self-esteem comes from outside of yourself, it'll never be stable or reliable.
In reflecting on this myself, I started to learn that my self-worth was contingent on my strengths but not my weaknesses. After exploring strengths and weaknesses in a previous article, I discovered that my strengths are fairness, kindness, honesty, and creativity. I find that I am most rattled when people suggest that I am not these things. If they tell me that I'm bad at something that I already know I'm bad at, it doesn't affect me at all. What's not so good for my well-being is that I end up believing other people's words more than what I know about myself. I know myself and I know my strengths, but for some reason, I don't know my worth. Currently, my self-worth is being held hostage.
The Cost of Pursuing Worth Instead of Knowing Your Worth
When our self-worth is contingent on a domain, we strive at all costs to do well in that domain. We may not handle criticism well, we may prioritize performance over learning, and we may even quit if we're not doing well. As a result, we lose a lot of our autonomy—we feel pressured by demands, expectations, and standards, some of which may be set by us and some of which may be set by others (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001). Regardless, we do things because we think we have to, not because we want to, and that just makes life kind of a bummer.
Pursuing self-worth )versus knowing self-worth) can also harm our relationships. If we're overly concerned about how others see us, we might not be authentic or share our vulnerabilities, two things that contribute to healthier relationships. We may also unconsciously manipulate other people to see us in ways that make us feel good. These types of tactics can make it difficult for others to want to be around us (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001).
Needless to say, all of this can cause a lot of stress and anxiety. This extra stress along with poor coping skills can even hurt our health (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001).
How to Know Your Worth
So how can we work towards better knowing our worth so that life's slings and arrows don't affect us so much? Experts in self-esteem (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001) offer some tips:
1. Prioritize learning over performance
When we cultivate mindsets where we believe we can learn and grow, then we can take failures or lack of approval as an opportunity to improve. By doing this, we can hopefully recover more quickly from emotional upsets.
2. Adopt prosocial goals
By setting goals that are good for us and good for others, we may be able to avoid some of the hits to our self-esteem. So focus on how you serve others and add value to the world.
3. Reduce external contingencies
Research has shown that external contingencies—self-worth based on things like approval or appearance—are the worst for our self-esteem. Internal contingencies based on things like virtue and religiosity appear to be less harmful (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001).
Know Your Worth by Defining Your Value
If we've now decided that we don't want our self-worth to be contingent on external situations or how others view us, what do we base our self-worth on? Casey Brown suggests in her TED talk (below) that we first need to define our value. She focuses specifically on our financial value—she wants us to know what we're worth so we get paid what we're worth. But I think this strategy can apply more broadly to issues with self-worth.
So ask yourself:
The answers to these questions provide a starting point to grow your self-worth.
Video: Know Your Worth
Know Your Worth by Speaking in Ways That Show Your Worth
Those of us with low self-esteem unintentionally communicate in ways that lead others to have the same low opinions of us that we have about ourselves. Some research speculates that we do this as a result of a process called self-verification. Self-verification is when we interact with the world in ways that confirm the beliefs we have of ourselves. If we feel positive about certain aspects of ourselves, we may act in ways that communicate these positive self-views. If we feel negative about aspects of ourselves, we'll act in ways that communicate our negative self-views (Cast & Burke, 2002).
For example, I think that one of my positive traits is kindness. So I always strive to be nice, and fair, and considerate of others. On the flip side, I have a negative opinion of my appearance, and you'll often find me saying negative things about my body.
Then there are the things we're completely unconscious of. In the TED talk above, I related completely to the example of the woman who, when describing her business, said, "I have a little web design company." This was how she unconsciously communicated that she didn't think her company, and herself as the creator of her company, have worth. We have to be careful about the way we speak not to put ourselves down.
There are so many of these tiny ways that we tell others what we think about ourselves, and they tend to believe us. This just diminishes our self-worth. So ask yourself, what are the parts of you that you say negative things about? Then see if you can brainstorm ways to counteract these negative statements.
Know Your Worth by Putting Yourself in Situations That Support Self-Worth
The thing about low self-esteem is that we accidentally create the exact situations that we need to avoid in order to boost self-esteem. In one study, participants with low self-esteem tended to choose a report with a negative self-evaluation over a positive self-evaluation (this was especially true for those with depression; Giesler, Josephs, & Swann Jr, 1996).
This research suggests that if we have low self-esteem, we often put ourselves in situations that keep our self-esteem low. For example, we may choose a romantic partner that puts us down, a job that under appreciates us, or friends that belittle us. Taking stock of the people and situations we expose ourselves to is key. By doing so, we can start recognizing the ways our self-esteem stays low and start putting ourselves in more situations where people support and love us unconditionally.
Self-worth is no easy thing to develop. But when we better understand how we let others determine our self-worth, we can hopefully start to shift our worth more towards things we have control over and improve our happiness and quality of life.