A baby doesn’t earn its self-worth, it’s born with it. It assumes it is the centre of everything and demands its mother’s love. As we grow older, some of us lose touch with our self-worth and try to earn it back. But we can’t earn it back. Unfortunately, when some people try to earn it back, they set for themselves a life-long burden. For example,
(1) I once met a lottery winner who used his winnings to create a soup kitchen, to provide meals for the homeless. He told me how a sponsoring bank rewarded him with a trip-for-two holiday voucher, but he had sold it. I asked him why. Wearily he pointed to the floor and asked plaintively, ‘How could I use the holiday when the floor needed repaving?’
This man was trapped by his need to do the right thing.
Being charitable can be an enriching experience, and it’s to be encouraged, but we have a problem if we feel obliged to be a good person, while having to endure the ever-present, draining possibility that one day we might let ourselves, or others, down.
The problem is magnified if, in our endeavours to make other people happy, we ignore our own needs or the needs of our family.
Further, in our efforts to earn our self-worth by being good, we may become so intent on developing integrity that we develop rigid thinking, and become a self-righteous prig no one wants to know.
Being good and charitable is a good thing provided we have a choice in the matter. If we feel compelled to be charitable there is a good chance we are basing our self-worth upon it, in which case we may have a problem. Indeed, if we base our self-worth on anything we may have a problem, because our priorities can become skewed and our behaviour, distorted.
‘Why would someone base their self-worth on being a good person?’
A child raised by strict or pious parents may come to believe that only by being good will they be worthy of love. So, they strive to be a good person.
(2) Some people base their self-worth on how much people like them, so they spend their lives trying to impress people. That’s a sure way to develop insecurities. But if they can see the trap they have made for themselves, they might begin to make smarter decisions – decisions based not on pleasing people, but on directing their life effectively.
(3) Some people try to earn their self-worth with by looking good, and spend an inordinate amount of time and money on their looks. However, their self-worth is fragile because there will always be a blackhead here, a wayward strand of hair there . . . Plus, there is that nagging question: ‘Can I back up my good looks with personality?’
(4) Someone who tries to earn their self-worth by being indispensable might become a workaholic.
(5) And, someone trying to earn their self-worth by accumulating money will have to keep making money, and keep showing it off. After making ten million dollars they will feel the pressure to make another ten. They might even exploit the environment, or other people, in their pursuit of it.
Worse, they may view people less wealthy as inferior, which can lead to disconnection.
And what happens to their self-worth if they lose their money? It plummets. In their anxiety to prevent that happening they spend even more precious time and energy increasing their wealth, while looking for ways to avoid paying tax. When we base our self-worth upon how much money we have, no amount of money will be enough.
‘Billionaires scrabbling for their next billion aren’t motivated by greed. They just want to demonstrate – to themselves and others – how good they are at playing the money game.’
Ross Gittins, journalist.
As well, billionaire Donald Trump said of his wealth: ‘Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score. The real excitement is playing the game.’
“We should not be surprised to find many of the already affluent continuing to accumulate sums beyond anything that five generations might spend. Their endeavours are peculiar only if we insist on a strictly financial rationale behind wealth creation. As much as money, they seek the respect that stands to be derived from the process of gathering it.’
Alain De Botton, in his book, ‘Status Anxiety’.
‘I bet wealthy people have no trouble feeling good about themselves most of the time, especially when they compare themselves to the rest of us.’
If they do have a sustained sense of self-worth they probably feel they are contributing, and feel valued for that contribution. They might be employing people, and producing a valuable product or service. But if they felt good about themselves merely because they are wealthier than the rest of us, would that not indicate in insecurity? Would it not suggest that their self-worth is fragile?
‘When someone unemployed finds a job and starts earning money, they feel better about themselves. Their sense of self-worth soars.’
Their self-worth improves not because they now have money, but because they have earned it. They feel they have contributed, and feel valued for their contribution.
(6) Athletes who have their self-worth on the line might end up cheating. Or, when they can no
longer perform successfully they may feel lost and empty.
“Athletes are given a place in the world where they’re doing well where they’re validated, they’re getting a dose of feel-good chemicals every single day. When you retire, that purpose and passion is gone and is very hard to get back.’ . . . “Certainly there was self-destructive behaviour … going out partying till all hours of the morning. I was searching for something and I didn’t know what I was looking for and I didn’t know how to get it.”
An olympic athlete, in an interview with Mary Gearin, ‘Hitting ‘rock bottom’: ‘When professional athletes struggle with life after sport.’
When winning becomes too important, in any field, it is easy to assume that the prize on offer is self-worth.
‘Why do so many of us feel the need to justify ourselves, just for living? What makes us think that our lives have to result in something amazing, or at least significant – that we need to make a difference to feel worthy of having lived at all?’
In short, if we try to earn our self-worth by impressing people with our status, wealth, talents or achievements, we can lose our path. We can become overly concerned about how others see us, and spend too much time and energy seeking their approval. We might even pursue careers unsuited to our characters, tempted by the prestige and respect we feel we need. As a consequence, we won’t fully discover the person we are.
We might even become antisocial and participate in gang behaviour, whether it be to vandalise a train or to allow damaging legislation to pass. When we aim to please our colleagues, we can end up doing things which demean us.
And despite our efforts, our self-worth remains fragile. There will always be someone wealthier, or prettier, or smarter . . . And, anyone relying on their wealth, their looks, their intelligence . . . to establish their self-worth can still fear falling short in other categories.
It gets worse. Trying to earn our self-worth can isolate us. By aiming to be better than other people we can reduce the connection we have with them. It is difficult to be warm, trusting and compassionate with other people if, to feel good about ourselves, we feel the need to be better than they. Have you met people with a high self-worth? They don’t feel the need to appear cool, good-looking, wealthy, or smart. They might be all those things, but the need to display those qualities isn’t there.
Carlos Castaneda wrote that a candle’s flame remains intact under the light of a billion stars. He’s right – we don’t need to be exceptional. We are already enough.
‘. . . most important is to believe that we are enough. Because when we come from a place that says we are enough then we stop screaming and start listening. We are kinder and gentler with the people around us and we are kinder and gentler with ourselves.’
I’m not saying we can’t be wealthy, or win contests, or look good, but if we are basing our self-worth upon it, we need to be aware of it. Then we can start to make smarter decisions, and avoid creating a skewed life for ourselves.
Q. ‘No-one chooses to base their self-worth on something. I haven’t heard of it.’
We don’t consciously make such decisions; they happen over time. Our job is to become aware of our decisions.
‘If a witty kid finds she’s popular and judges her self-worth by it, she might end up being a comedian? Is that bad?’
She can be a comedian without basing her self-worth upon it. The danger of basing her self-worth upon it is that she’s going to be devastated on the nights when no-one laughs, and she’s going to feel the pressure to be always funny, even on social occasions.
Q. ‘What do you suggest?’
(1) Although we cannot earn our self-worth, we can reignite the self-worth that lies dormant within us. We explore that in the ‘Feeling Valued’ section of this book, which will be on this blog before April, 2020.
(2) If we are trying to earn our self-worth, it’s a good idea to become aware of it.
Why? Because when we realise we base our self-worth upon how funny we are, or on how much power we have, or on how much fear we can instil in people, or on how good we are at video games . . . we come to view our behaviour differently. We might find ourselves less driven to pursue that behaviour, and become more rounded and easygoing. We might even drop our ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’, and become less judgmental of others. And, when we become less judgmental of others, we become less judgmental of ourselves, and we relate with people on a deeper, more meaningful level. Our connection with humanity grows.
Our outlook changes too. By focusing less on earning our self-worth we come to realise that other people’s opinions of us don’t matter, and the world won’t cave in if we don’t get their approval. We might even find a new path, spending less time and energy maintaining our image and more on being ourselves.
Step 1. Is it possible you might be trying to earn your self-worth, without realising it?
If so, might any of the following methods apply?
▪ making lots of money? Or having lots of it?
▪ being kind and generous to many people?
▪ the label you buy?
▪ your prowess as a lover?
▪ the success, or achievements, of your children?
▪ your job title?
▪ your status?
▪ how much applause you receive?
▪ how good looking you are?
▪ how knowledgeable? How well read?
▪ how honest? How pious? How charitable?
▪ being feared?
▪ being interesting and articulate?
▪ being funny?
▪ being brave?
▪ how tough you are?
▪ how often you win?
▪ how good a parent you are, or spouse?
▪ how powerful and influential you are?
▪ how tidy you are?
▪ the size of your muscles? Or breasts?
▪ how well you identify with a celebrity?
▪ how much your friends like you? (Did you adopt a bad habit to keep a friend?)
▪ the number of hits on your blog? Or on how much fan mail you get?
▪ being good at what you do?
▪ how much alcohol you can consume?
I am not suggesting you shouldn’t enjoy many of those things. Yes, be charitable, look fantastic, make zillions of dollars, build an empire, if that’s appeals. But if it’s to pass a lifetime test, or if it’s to fill a void within you, be aware of it.
Step 2. Ask yourself: Is the method I have chosen helpful? In what ways does it enhance my life?
In what ways does it hinder me?
Here are some other myths about happiness:
– The power of positive thinking. We are often told that we need to look on the bright side if we want to be happy. We need to see the glass half full. But is that helpful advice?
– Myth: we need money to be happy. Surely we need money to be happy, don’t we? Without it we would be in dire straits. So, why is it a myth?
– Myth: to be happy we need to be kind. Countless times we are told that becoming a kind person will make us happier. Why isn’t that true?
– Myth: We are happier with only a few possessions. Will having fewer possessions make us feel happier? How does that work?
– Myth: We need to suffer before we can be happy. Helen Keller once said: ‘The hilltops would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.’ Is she right?
– Myth: We need to reach our full potential. The life coaches offer to help us become better people, yet in another breath tell us to accept ourselves for who we are. What’s going on?
– Myth: We need to love ourselves to be happy. We keep hearing that, but is it true? No, it’s not.
– Myth: We need to be loved to be happy This isn’t true either! At least, not after our teens.
– Myth: We need close relationships to be happy. It’s the biggest, most common myth about happiness of them all. Nearly everyone says it. Yet, it’s not true.
– Myth: We need good health to be happy. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? After all, we won’t be happy suffering the black plague. But does good health bring core happiness?
– Myth: We can choose to be happy. This is one of the most pernicious myths going around. Of course we can’t choose to be happy!
– Myth: We need to fake it until we make it. Supposedly, if we act happy, we will become happy. But it’s just not true.
– Myth: Happiness comes from having low expectations. Don’t expect much and you won’t be disappointed, goes the saying. But does that equal happiness? Of course not.
– Myth: We need to foster compassion to be happy. The Buddhists are particularly keen on the idea of fostering compassion. So, should we foster it?
– Myth: We should aim to succeed. Life-coaches want to tell us how to succeed, but we shouldn’t even try.