The world is physically, intellectually and emotionally demanding. You need a certain mindset to cope with the challenges and opportunities you face at work and in your personal life. If you have a strong sense of your own self-worth, then you'll be well placed to take each day in your stride, and enjoy the journey ahead.
When I started my working life, I was very unsure of how things would turn out. Confidence grew quickly because I had guidance and because I was fortunate to pick up the new tasks I was given relatively easily. But there was so much that I had no idea about. In a working environment I wasn’t familiar with (who would be when it’s your first job), and an ever-present sense that I worried that I should know what I should be doing, I needed affirmation on the value of my contribution from individuals and the team.
So, I did a lot of things to win the approval of others, and therefore of myself. Like many young people at work, I was friendly, so that I was liked, I sought out and solved tricky problems, I volunteered to work the night-shift, and I actively did the things that I was told would lead to promotion.
With the bigger paycheck, I bought a new car and stood drinks for my friends who weren’t earning at the same level. I was confident and successful. What’s not to like?
Of course, the unrealised intent at that time was that if other people thought well of me then I would feel good about myself. This self-esteem is the reputation we have with ourselves – even when nobody else is watching.
Self-esteem is often considered as the way an individual thinks about themselves and how worthwhile they feel – a sense of personal value. Whether someone likes themselves or not, borne of others' perception of their deeds and achievements.
Someone with low self-esteem might think that they aren't good at what they try, and therefore that their contributions aren't ‘worthwhile’. Higher self-esteem is a motivational function which increases the chances that people will take care of themselves and explore their full potential. That’s good, isn’t it?
Maybe not. Modern society seems to be producing young adults who are self-occupied, are anxious about their success when compared to their peers, need continuing praise in order to carry on with the task, and have a self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish their 'self' from the world around them. When life doesn't work out as painted in glossy magazines then mental health can suffer.
In the business world, self-preoccupation (“am I doing OK?”) results in insecure workers, and managers who care only about their own success. Self-preoccupation often weakens job effectiveness. When a sales assistant is serving you, are they truly focusing on your need, or worrying about whether or not they will get the five-star rating their boss tells them that they must receive?
Poorly founded self-esteem can sub-consciously hold a person back and limit their happiness. There’s the endless craving for continual approval for the self; there’s that initial boost in performance due to our desire to impress, but which eventually limits our resilience and opens up the path to self-centeredness and anxiety.
This need for self-esteem starts early in life. Whether its gaining high-grades, receiving a peer award at work, driving a nice car, dating the best looking girl/boy, buying a house, having sufficient income to give to good causes, or beating everyone else to that promotion.
All along, we tell ourselves that we are choosing to do these things, that we are doing them for ourselves, not to impress anyone else. But is that really the case?
It’s what society has taught us
In the Western world, at least, we’ve been told to prove ourselves. In school, at the running club, on the football or netball pitch, in our athleticism, our academic achievement, our ability to win the debate.
Our society constantly showcases those who are the best at each and every endeavour, and holds them as a beacon to be emulated.
We are taught that this quality of self-esteem is exactly what differentiates successful people from the rest of society. We must set goals and achieve them, and this behaviour carries over from school to the new office job or work in the showroom or hospital. By the time we’ve reached our workplace, this indoctrination causes us to constantly need to prove ourselves. And when we don’t, as it is almost impossible to do, then our self feels let down.
Stop a minute and take a look at your smart phone. How many apps have you got which track your every move, demanding that you set goals and then live an optimised life?
If you were to strip away these layers of constant, permeable conditioning, the chances are that you'd be happy with your self. Perhaps you are anyway, because you've never known a different culture. The challenge is that we live in a world where the implication is that everything is not already OK, that we must compete, and that, whether we realise it or not, can, for some, be hard to live with.
This ‘prove yourself’ mantra rapidly leads to self-doubt and insecurity. Anti-depression drug sales have soared 400% in the last 15 years, and in some countries a significant percentage of the workforce takes this type of relief.
Don’t let this self-doubt happen to you. Self-esteem is something created by our response to our surroundings. Self-worth is something that you already have. You don’t have to meet any criteria to gain it - you were born with it, even if you haven't found it yet. Self-worth is yours by the very fact of your existence.
If self-esteem is what we think and feel and believe about ourselves, then self-worth is recognising that ‘I am above all of the things that could bring me down’. It is a deep knowing that ‘I am of value, that I am loveable, necessary to this life, and of incomprehensible worth’. You don’t earn self-worth by doing worthy things – you already have it.
Self-worth is a loyal companion, an unconditional friendship with your self - not the fickle acquaintance self-esteem, who only says hello when we meet expectation. Our sense of self-worth is wholly independent of our performance. We can have self-worth even when rejected.
True self-worth means that you:
- Are not afraid of people or situations, because you trust your ability to deal with them
- Can say ‘yes’ and can say ‘no’ with equal confidence
- Will tackle previously difficult activities with alacrity
- Will recover quickly from setbacks
- Will build confidence that you can grow your capability
- Will have an increased capacity to take action
- Are no longer obsessed with proving yourself to yourself.
You will stop suffering from frustration, guilt, envy and anxiety, and become more valued as a colleague or partner.
In developing self-worth you are providing a foundation for achievement. When things go wrong, as they will, your sense of self is not diminished, but improved. Self-care becomes second nature as a natural consequence of being at one with yourself.
You might imagine that it takes many years to build a powerful inner self-worth, but a small number of affirmative actions can quickly make a difference. These actions are based on the work of John Niland.
Action 1 – Assertion
Stop assessing your performance and start asserting what is good about it. Replace self-criticism with telling yourself the positive aspects of what situation you are reflecting upon. For example:
- When faced with a barrage of negative comments, realise that this is work and that no-one is going to die. Take a walk and come back to look at the comments in a new light, one you can learn from.
- When choosing a travel destination, choose where you go for all of the positive experiences it will give you. You don’t have to ask your friends what they think, or choose it because ‘everyone else has been there’.
- When a working relationship draws you into a situation not of your making, remind yourself that you took the right action at the right time in the right way.
Action 2 – Expression
Shift the intention behind your actions from one of doing it because you feel you ought to, to because you actively want to. For example:
- You decline accepting a drink after work with the team because you’ve promised your widowed mother that you’ll dine with her that evening.
- I’ll read that book on Digital Leadership because I want to, rather than because my boss has made rather obvious comments that we should all do so.
- I’ll pass by the table with today’s Birthday cake on it – it would be nice, but not worth the calorie count.
The intention is just as important as the action. By telling yourself of the intention, you feel doubly good when you take the action.
Action 3 – Could
Let’s stop the obligation to the unseen authorities inside our heads (should), and instead choose what we’ll do based on a range of possibilities (could).
The word 'should' implies a need to prove something to ourselves, usually because we don’t feel quite good enough. As soon as a task is complete, we are thinking about the next task we should do. Our brains turn this into “I must” or “I need to”, rather than “I could do”. So, instead of should, try could:
- I could write one more chapter of my report.
- I could ask the team to stay behind to discuss the current challenge.
- I could say no, that work is not in the approved scope of this project.
Using 'could' removes the imperative to do something and gives your self some control. It doesn't mean that you don't take the action; rather it is less of a burden on your mind.
Action 4 – Self-Acceptance
Shift from beating yourself up because something didn’t work out well to acknowledging the situation and the feelings that go with it. Self-reproach can have a bad effect on our energy, just when we need our capacity to act and perform to be at its highest. To move away from self-reproach to self-acceptance:
- If your personal finances take a hit, honestly review the reason why, and allow yourself to say OK, this is not ideal, without hiding away from it.
- If you don't enjoy seeing yourself in video calls, then learn to accept that reality, and embrace what you can do about it, by getting a haircut or losing a few pounds.
- If, at work, you feel excluded from an initiative you think that you should have been included in, then tell yourself it's OK to feel low for a day, and then move on. At the correct moment, you can find out why you weren’t included or express interest in being involved in future similar opportunities, so that your self has its honour restored.
Action 5 – Being Interested
Stop striving to be interesting in order to get attention or trying to be fascinating to workmates and instead, pay attention to what is interesting about others. Being interested works well in several situations:
- In relationships, by really listening with an open mind, and by responding to what you have heard.
- With colleagues, noticing their contribution and by praising it.
- With friends, ask about what matters to them, and then show some empathy as they share their thoughts, positive or negative.
Dale Carnegie, in How to Win Friends and Influence People, said "If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own."
Action 6 – Usefulness
Move from an inward state of self-evaluation to an outward focus on others and how you can be useful to them. Stop finding that you never quite make the mark whenever you assess yourself.
If we often feel worthless and full of self-remorse we can become isolated, even when surrounded by others; or the opposite: talk too much about ourselves. A sense of isolation (even when you don’t realise that’s what has happened) can make interaction difficult to initiate. Talking about yourself can be an unconscious cover for the need to validate your situation, or to fill the void inside.
How useful we are to others often defines the opportunities that present themselves. Our skills and experiences do not dictate our value in the market. Rather it is the context of other peoples’ challenges and opportunities in which we find ourselves that determines if we are needed or not. So, we need to make ourselves as useful as possible:
- Take care how you respond when criticised and avoid a monologue of self-justification. Instead, calmly think why that criticism might be levelled, and determine what could you have done.
- Don’t self-evaluate and focus on what went wrong. Instead ask yourself what would others judge as being of more value when delivered.
- Encourage others to talk first. In todays attention deficient society, people value being listened to.
Action 7 – Valuing oneself
Pivot from the idea of proving action or intent to ourselves to others, and towards the way we value ourselves. There are several ways you can do this:
- Spend time with friends who accept who you are and nurture you, rather than being with people to prove that you ‘belong’ to a certain clique.
- Exercise with the intention of valuing your physical and mental self, rather than proving that you can bench curl 10kgs more than the gym hero.
- Start your day firm in the knowledge that you are master of what you need to do, and if not quite yet master, then you know enough. And you know who to ask if a bit more expertise is needed.
Self-worth is that deep primeval belief in your own value as a person. It is not a variable based on how much exercise you take, the deeds you do or the possessions you own. You do not need to earn your own self-worth, you already have it.
I used to think that self-esteem and self-worth were interchangeable terms for the same thing, but now I know better: self-worth is an unconditional friendship with yourself, self-esteem the endless internal need for approval.
Self-esteem isn't a bad thing, but a strong sense of self-worth helps your inner response mechanism. To build self-worth, make sure that you:
- Accentuate the positive in every situation
- Do things because you want to, not because you ought to
- Think about what you could do, rather than should do
- Accept that some things don't work out, and move on
- Be interested in other people, their hazards and hopes
- Focus on others and how you can help them
- Value yourself, rather than seeking to impress others.
Stop measuring yourself based on external actions and put a stronger emphasis on valuing your inherent worth as a person. None of this guidance is an excuse to avoid doing the best you can, rather it should help you alter your approach so that you can see the positives much more easily.
So, when our society constantly showcases those who are the best at each and every endeavour, and holds them as a beacon to be emulated, you can say:
"Yes, I am living my best life; I'm confident in what I know and how I interact with the world. I don't need to walk into the room as if I own it. I don't care who owns it, but I know why I am in it. I know who I am, and I am very comfortable with who I am".
Self-worth is about who you are, not about what you do.
For these reasons, and many more, self-worth is the strongest possible foundation for inner-contentment and life-confidence.