Ch-5: Develop Your Self-Worth and Self-Confidence
Part 1: Your unconditional self-worthTom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
Send Feedback/Questions to: Tom.Stevens@csulb.edu
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5, Part 1, from You Can Choose To Be Happy, Tom G. Stevens
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What is the essence of self-worth?
PRACTICE: Write a self-description now. Before proceeding, write a description of yourself now so that you can analyze it later after reading the following sections. Write a half-page to two-page description of yourself as if you were another person who understood you very well and knew everything about you. Write the description in the third person using "he" or "she." (If you wait until you read further, your self-description may be affected by what you read.)
Concepts similar to self-esteem-such as ego strength, self-image, and self-concept have been studied by psychologists for decades. Research has shown that
high self-esteem relates to many positive qualities of mental health, life success,
and happiness. My own research found a correlation of .48 between overall
positive self-statements on the LSQ and overall happiness the past three years.
Our self-esteem can have powerful effects, but how do we get it and how can we
improve it? (1)
Brian believed that to be worthwhile he had to fulfill a certain image. His image of a minimally ok person was to be rich and successful in his career, to have a happy marriage and family, and above all to have "class." Having class meant having fine cars, a big house, expensive art, and other symbols of status. Having class meant knowing what to wear and what to say; and having class especially meant being accepted by the right people.
However, growing up, Brian did not do well in school or sports and was not popular with his peers. Therefore, he thought of himself as a not ok person who was destined to fail at whatever he did. He suspected that he had some deep inadequacy inside that kept him "in the gutter," but he avoided dealing with these fears. These beliefs became a self-fulfilling prophesy. He quit trying to be a success and hung out with people he secretly thought were losers. He set easy goals--such as minimal education and low-paying jobs. Brian often felt depressed and angry about his life and the future. He was in a vicious cycle of low self-worth, low goals, underachievement, and depression.
Then Brian got a job in an electronics store--where a lot of good things happened. He got interested in the electronics business. The store owner praised him for his hard work and showed confidence in him. Brian decided to change his life, "I was sick of being a failure and set a goal to become a successful electronics businessman." He went back to school and studied hard. He made good grades and kept learning the electronics business. He started his own computer business and made lots of money.
His increased success and income increased his confidence with people. He had had a crush on Carol since high school, but had always thought of her as being out of his class. He lavished her with attention, flowers, gifts, exciting experiences, and promises of leading an idyllic life. He learned everything he could to present himself as a man with class.
She fell in love with him, they married, and they had three children. He bought a beautiful home, drove expensive cars, and bought only the best of everything. He showered her and his children with the best of everything that money could buy. Most people who met him were impressed by his success.
Brian began to see himself as a success and began to think that his success was proof that he was as good or better than other people. He loved to compare himself to former high school classmates who were not nearly so "successful."
Was Brian happy? His answer was, "I have everything a man could have to be happy. If I'm not happy, then I feel sorry for all the poor people in the world. Seriously, I'm not sure if I'm happy or not. Sometimes I feel like keeping this life style and image up is a burden and a lot of stress. Sometimes I'm not sure I know what I want in life. Maybe being happy is too much to expect."
Inside, he kept asking himself, "Why aren't I happier, when I have everything I want?" One thing that really bugged Brian was that his brother had been far less successful in his career, but seemed much happier.
Others thought of Brian as somewhat self-centered and dominating. Many thought he had an inflated view of himself, was ill-tempered, and only cared about success and acquiring the symbols of success. His wife Carol had been initially impressed by his ambition and strength. She liked the lifestyle that money had brought them and their children. But, his total focus on success, his neglect of her, and his frequent dominating manner had gradually driven a wedge between them. She kept telling him, "Our romance and intimacy are disappearing. You never listen to anything that deals with emotions."
What lessons did Brian need to learn? First, his happiness was not dependent upon his career success. Brian had not been happy as a failure or as a success. Either way, he feared failure and being looked down on by others. These fears were his worst nightmares and his frequent companions--despite all his money. He had never faced those fears.
He also kept raising his self-expectations to higher and higher levels. He was no longer "ok" if he was as successful as his high school classmates. Now, he had to be as successful as the multimillionaire who lived nearby in even bigger homes than his. He felt inadequate to them. Now, he had to prove that he was as good as they were, by working even harder and taking more risks. With the increased risks came increased stress.
Basically, Brian was never happy just being Brian. He never learned to love
himself unconditionally. He always had to achieve something more before he
could be happy. He never had enough success to prove that he was a "minimally
ok human being." Consequently, he never believed that anyone--including his
wife--could really love him exactly as he was right then. He thought he had to buy
her love or show her that he was more successful than other men.
Conditional versus Unconditional self-worth. The essence of Brian's problem was his belief that his self-worth depended on being successful and fulfilling his image of a "minimally ok" person. He knew that no matter how successful his business was, it could fail. He had seen it happen to others. Therefore, he could never feel that his self-worth was safe.
Consequently, his business controlled his emotions. Any threat to his business was a threat to his worthiness. As long as we believe that our basic self-worth is dependent upon anything that is partially out of our control, we will have a great fear of that thing. It will be our own private monster holding our happiness in the palm of its hand.
To feel safe and not so threatened by business failure, Brian needed to separate his self-worth from his business success. More generally, he needed to let go of his image of a minimally ok person; he needed to learn to love himself and others unconditionally.
Another advantage of a new belief in the basic worth of every human was that he could let go of trying to impress others and stop worrying about what they thought of him. Ironically, his desire to impress his wife and provide money for her caused him to neglect her, dominate her, and hide his fears from her. Yet, these very behaviors were destroying intimacy and pushing her away from him.
She longed for him to be more open about his feelings--instead of maintaining this macho, "success" front and being so defensive. Sadly, he didn't understand that his wife would love him and stand by him even if he "failed." She would gladly trade the extra money and status for more attention, openness, and intimacy.
In the last chapter we saw how deficit thinking can cause us to feel deprived, resentful, and weak. On the other hand, abundance thinking can cause us to feel grateful, happy, strong, and positively motivated.
The ideas of deficit thinking and abundance thinking can be applied to our view of ourselves as well. If we view ourselves as unworthy, weak, or inadequate then we may spend much of our lives feeling like minnows swimming with the big fish. We may respond to these inadequacy feelings by either of two common reactions--underachievement (low expectations and low motivation) or over achievement (too high expectations and intense motivation to overcome the perceived "deficit"). Brian had first tried underachievement, then over achievement.
Unconditional self-love means loving our selves "no matter what. . ." How many of us--like Brian believe that we are worthwhile only if we are successful, rich, powerful, good, and have all the trappings of "the good life." How many of us also value others to the degree they are successful and good. That is an example of conditional love--loving someone only if the person meets certain conditions.
If we love ourselves or others unconditionally, we love only because we are human and because we are ourselves. We love some essence of ourselves no matter what we have done or not done.
I once saw an interview with a father whose son was a serial arsonist. His son had caused millions of dollars of damage to property and had been responsible for the deaths of several people. The father seemed to be a responsible, caring person. The reporter asked the man how he felt about his son. The father said, "No matter how much I hate what my son has done, I still love my son." That is unconditional love.
Loving ourselves unconditionally means that we love ourselves no matter who we are, what we have, what we have done, or what others think of us. Loving ourselves unconditionally means that we love ourselves even if we have pimples, are overweight and ugly, have a low IQ, flunk out of school, clean the floors at McDonalds, drive rusty Volkswagons, are atheists, are homeless, have herpes, and no one likes us.
If you can learn to love yourself unconditionally, that love will provide a stable power base to overcome your fears and center your life around. It is your most inner sacred zone. No person or failure can take it away from you.
The worth of something is how much we value it and love it for itself, how important it is to us, and how much priority we give it compared to other things. Self-worth is an overall measure of how much we value ourselves and give priority to our own needs and happiness. Our self-worth is a measure of our unconditional self-love.
High self-worth means loving ourselves unconditionally in all situations and in all areas of our lives. To have a high degree of self-worth, then we must still love ourselves even when we make mistakes or do dumb things--no matter how bad they were.
There are a lot of confusing "self" terms--self-worth, self-concept, self-esteem, self-confidence, etc. Think of self-esteem as composed of two parts--the unconditional part, and the conditional part. The unconditional self-valuing part is our self-worth. The conditional self-valuing part is our self-confidence. The most important part is the self-worth (unconditional) part. I will address it first. The last part of the chapter will discuss self-confidence and life skills.(2)
To some degree we were "prewired" to care about ourselves. Positive and negative emotions and pleasure and pain provide a biological basis for taking care of ourselves so that we will tend to choose that which causes us to feel good over that which causes us to feel bad. Some part of us that I have called the Higher Self learns to value us at an early age (see Higher Self chapter 3).
Our Higher Selves do love us unconditionally. Our Higher Selves want us to be happy--despite past mistakes. It doesn't matter what we accomplish. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks of us. Our Higher Selves still love us. No matter how dysfunctional our other beliefs about ourselves become, our Higher Selves still love us unconditionally and still believe in us.
Think of something or someone that you have loved almost unconditionally--your dog, your cat, your favorite place, your teddy bear, your parent, your lover, or your child. When we love someone unconditionally, it means that we will always care for that person and wish the best for him or her--no matter what the person does to us or anyone else.
A child can love an abusive parent--even though it hates the abuse and the abusive part of the parent. A parent can love a child even if the child becomes a criminal or mass murder. Some part of the child or parent cannot help but continue to care--that is the unconditional love part. We can repress our Higher Selves and our feelings of unconditional love for ourselves and others, but we cannot actually eliminate this part of us.
It is the strength of our Higher Self belief system relative to other belief systems that can determine the strength of our overall self-worth. If a strong internalized parent tells us we must be "good" to be worthwhile, then our self-worth will be conditional. We must learn to question those beliefs and replace them with new ones that are more loving.
You are the star of your own movie. Have you ever felt all alone, neglected, unappreciated, or unsupported? Have you wished that you could be like a movie star--the center of attention, recognized and respected, and the character in the movie that all of the other characters revolve around.
If becoming a star doesn't seem possible to you, then perhaps you are not recognizing what you already have--you are the star of your own life! Think of your life as a movie in which you are the central character. Many of us think of our lives as revolving around other people (such as a dominant parent or partner). It is like we are in a movie in which we are only bit characters with a few lines.
In the movie, "This is Your Life," you are the main character and star. Everything that happens to you is of major significance in the plot of the movie. Your ups and downs are all important to the viewers of your movie. Your growth and development over the course of the movie are the main themes in the movie. How are you doing so far?
PRACTICE: Think of your life as a movie in which you are the central character or star. View your life as if you were a member of the audience watching a movie about it. What have been the major events of the movie? What have been the major lessons that you have learned and the areas of most growth in the character? How does it feel to think of yourself as the star of your own movie about your life?
I was given the responsibility for my own happiness. I was given the mental and physical powers to take care of myself. Responsibility follows control--the person with control over something is the one responsible for it. I was given direct control over my thoughts, my emotions, and my actions, therefore I am the one responsible for my own thoughts, emotions, and actions.
If we develop a belief system that says I am responsible for other people's feelings or that they are responsible for mine, then that type of codependent belief system is dysfunctional (see internal control chapter 6). If each person on the planet will take good care of their own needs, then we will all be happy. The result will be greater equality in relationships.
If you want to love yourself more, then one way to do it is to start treating yourself as if you really do love yourself unconditionally. Loving yourself means taking good care of yourself. It means making your own health and happiness a top-priority goal or part of your ultimate concern. You can be happy if you take care of meeting your own needs and values.
Develop habits of taking good care of yourself to increase your self-worth and self-love. Think of some person or object in your life that you really loved and took special care of. Think of the habits you developed to maintain it and keep it special. Do you love yourself as much as your mom, dad, lover, or child? Your dog or cat? Your home? Your car? Surely you love yourself much more than your car or house? Yet do you show self-love by developing habits that take good care of your body and mind?
Loving yourself means taking good care of each part of yourself. Loving yourself means loving each part of yourself that contributes to your overall happiness. In addition to loving your overall self, you love your body, your inner child, your inner lover, your inner athlete, your inner parent, your inner music lover, and every healthy part of yourself that contribute to your overall happiness. You can also love your more dysfunctional parts in that you try to help them gain a better understanding of their limits. (In chapter 9 I will describe the O-PATSM self-management system to keep your time use in synch with your overall values.)
Loving yourself means managing your time and resources well. If you love each part of yourself, you will prioritize your time and resources (such as money) to reflect the relative importance of each part of yourself or each life area. You will create some balance in your time and your life so that you can take good care of your body and your main interests and needs. Spend time and money on activities wisely. Ask yourself the following key question,
How much happiness will I and others get per dollar or per hour spent?
1. Many people maintain their self-concepts by deceptive thinking --even when the self-concepts are negative. However, other powerful self-related tendencies may help overcome this self-verification process. Self-enhancement (getting positive feedback) and self-improvement (learning and growth) may be healthier tendencies. See Banaji and Prentice (1994) for a review of research.
2. That is how I define the three terms. There are no universal definitions; different authors refer to them in different ways. However, this distinction reflects common implied meanings.
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