Changing the Arc of the History of Self-Worth

One of the most important factors in achieving long-term success is a high degree of self-worth.

If you believe that statement is true, then read on. If you think long-term success is based on luck, randomness, or merely superb skills in a performance area that pays well, then don’t bother with the rest of this article.

People with a high degree of self-worth value themselves and the contribution they can make to other people. People with a low degree of self-worth or no awareness of their worth as an individual will likely sabotage their ability to achieve or sustain success regardless of how talented they are. The intrinsic feeling of esteem that a person has within himself or herself will either allow the person to persevere because of the belief in his or her potential impact or will cause the person to self-destruct due to a lack of faith in himself or herself as a person regardless of his or her external successes in the past.


Self-confidence is the degree to which you believe you will be successful in an upcoming situation. It is about your belief in certain skills that you have. This is different than self-worth, which refers to the value you see within yourself. Strengthening your self-confidence is fairly straightforward. You can do it in two steps. Review your past successes and recall what made you successful in certain situations and apply those lessons to your current situation, and preview future successes by identifying what you want to achieve, why you want to achieve it, and why you believe you will achieve it. Those two mental exercises can significantly strengthen your level of self-confidence in a performance situation. However, many people who were highly confident in performing a certain task threw away their careers, their relationships, and in some cases even their lives because they had a low sense of self-worth. Strengthening your sense of self-worth is much more complicated than strengthening your self-confidence.

Working to strengthen your sense of self-worth is a very important pursuit, but it’s also one that usually falls off the radar if it had ever even been there in the first place because we get so caught up in the b-words: being busy. Strengthening your sense of self-worth requires both time and intentional effort.


Self-worth is not about your titles, possessions, accomplishments, income, grade point average, degrees, or looks. I was reminded of that last one when I stood in line recently at the grocery store. Keep in mind that my oldest child is 15. A little girl stood in a shopping cart next to me, and I said, “My gosh, you are beautiful.” She said, “Thank you. Are you my grandpa?” Ouch. Her mother said, “No, he’s not your grandpa. He might be somebody else’s grandpa, but he’s not yours.” Double ouch.

All of those things are either the results of your previous efforts or in some cases just the luck of the draw. Your efforts are real, but the outcomes exist outside of you. They are not who you are any more than a building is the name of the company on the outside. The name can come down and a new one can go up, and it’s still the same building. In 2007 a person may have earned $200,000 and in 2009 the same person may have earned $20,000. The Great Recession wreaked havoc on some people’s self-esteem because they equated their self-worth with their financial worth.

When people obsess over externals as though they made up their true worth as individuals, they end up not valuing themselves for who they are. When their labels go up or down, so does their sense of self-worth. As the person’s attachment to labels becomes bigger, he or she inadvertently increases a sense of personal inferiority. Steadily their sense of self-worth becomes smaller as the importance of having a certain title becomes bigger. As Nathaniel Branden wrote in his book, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, “It is poor self-esteem that places us in an adversarial relationship to our well-being. Brilliant people with low self-esteem act against their interests every day.”


When a person talks about himself or herself, it’s not like a single box that represents everything inside of the person. It’s more like a chest of drawers consisting of everything that makes up who he or she is right now. Some drawers will open in certain situations while remaining firmly shut in other situations. A person who is normally cheerful and in a good mood can suddenly turn very angry and intense if confronted by a certain situation. For example, if the person always felt bossed by others while growing up and that his or her opinion was never listened to or taken seriously, then this person may very well become angry in a work situation when he or she feels bossed around by others or ignored.

What caused the content of these various drawers to develop into what they are today?

The answer is a wildly complicated combination of nature, nurture, and choices. Part of what makes up a person today is simply what the person was born with, part of it is the beliefs the person developed through interactions with other people and experiences in the past, and part of it is based on the person’s previous choices. No matter how it happened, this chest of drawers of various, and sometimes contradictory, parts is who the person is today with all of his or her personality traits, minor or major addictions, impulses, desires, values, triggers that set off certain behaviors, strengths, weaknesses, and so on.


Increase your awareness of the different compartments that make up who you are right now. Work to understand your personality, your moods, your impulses, your strengths, your weaknesses, and so on. Think of yourself as a notebook rather than a sheet of paper. A sheet of paper implies that you can be described in a single way, but in reality there are many components within you with different values and different impulses.

For example, inside your head you might hear the voice of when you were you were a child and when you were a teenager and where you are in life right now, you might hear the voices and values of your mom at different stages in your life and you might hear the voice of your dad, and you might hear voices of other important people in your life. This is all part of who you are at any given moment. While I know I’m extroverted in most situations, I can become very introverted in some. For example, when I was in fourth grade my music teacher told me to never sing with the group. She said, “Don’t sing anymore. Just mouth the words.” So for the past 40 years whenever I’m in a situation where people are singing I just stand there totally quiet, even when they’re singing “Happy Birthday” at a family gathering. That’s just part of who I am today.

If it helps you, write down a description of yourself on the different pages in a notebook.

Here’s a suggestion on how to use your notebook. On each page right down a different role that you play: son or daughter, sibling, friend, parent, spouse, protégé, mentor, work role, community member, and so on. Under each role, write down different situations that you find yourself in or different circumstances that you find yourself facing. For each situation write down the different voices you hear going off in your head: you as an adult or you as a child or you as a teenager. Write down how you approach these different situations and what your personality is like in each of them. Write down what beliefs and values are driving your behavior in these various roles and situations and circumstances. If you invest two hours in this exercise, you will have a very good idea of how complex you really are. You will realize that it’s not easy to describe yourself in a few sentences.

By doing this exercise, you can come to a much better understanding of who you are today. The key at this stage is honesty. It’s not about who you wish you were, but rather an honest awareness of who you are right now.


When you’ve invested time and energy into really understanding yourself, the next step is to positively accept yourself as you are right now with a warm regard. Embrace the person you are right now. You don’t have to agree with everything you’ve done or every part of who you are right now. Just say, “This is who I am.”

Avoid evaluating the different parts of yourself as good or bad, and resist the temptation to compare yourself to other people. Simply increase your awareness of the different aspects within you and work to understand how you came to be the way you are. Then embrace this person as though you are welcoming a special friend into your house. Don’t try to make yourself feel better by working to find a person who appears to be weaker or worse off than you are in some way.

When you truly accept yourself as you are right now with all of your complexities and contradictions, you strengthen your sense of self-worth. This is the starting point of long-term success. When you value the person you are at this moment, you can consistently put that value in the service of yourself and other people.

This all sounds so easy, but it almost always becomes overwhelmingly difficult for people to do it. We disparage parts of ourselves because we’re so used to being compared to other people and if we’re compared often enough we will eventually see parts of ourselves as being weak or damaged in some way. Society and even families and friends can damage a person’s sense of self-worth without even realizing it.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do for yourself is to truly accept who you are at this moment. In her book, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, Jane Leavy wrote about the enormous pain Koufax experienced after every game he pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers. His elbow would swell up because of the way he threw the ball, and he would have to put it in a tub of ice for several hours to get it back to its normal size. However, he accepted this reality. Leavy quoted Koufax as saying, “Since I have accepted all of the advantages of the way I am built, I don’t see how I can complain about the disadvantages.” I think that’s a great mantra for all of us to use. In his book, Further Along the Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck wrote, “Self-love implies the care, respect, and responsibility for and the knowledge of the self. Without loving one’s self one cannot love others.” Nathaniel Branden wrote, “Without self-acceptance, self-esteem is impossible.”

If you spend your whole life trying to be someone else because you’re jealous of who you think he or she is, you will simultaneously spend your whole life avoiding being who you are. This is the most common way to never acknowledge your self-worth. In The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Nathaniel Branden wrote, “Persons of high self-esteem are not driven to make themselves superior to others; they do not seek to prove their value by measuring themselves against a comparative standard. Their joy is in being who they are, not in being better than someone else.” This is the same attitude that Abraham Maslow wrote about over and over again in describing self-actualizing people in his books, Toward a Psychology of Being and The Further Reaches of Human Nature.


Ironically, when you accept yourself, you are in a position to change yourself. When you constantly try to be someone else, you are unintentionally avoiding the necessary level of self-awareness that would allow you to improve yourself. In his book, On Becoming a Person, Carl Rogers wrote, “I believe that I have learned this from my clients as well as within my own experience – that we cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.” He went on to write, “Evaluation by others is not a guide for me. The judgments of others, while they are to be listened to, and taken into account for what they are, can never be a guide for me.”

When you understand the beliefs that drive your behaviors, you can decide whether or not you want to keep those beliefs or to change them. I could decide to change my beliefs about singing and start to try to sing in public, but that can only happen once I honestly accept that my beliefs regarding singing are part of who I am. When I was growing up I played soccer. I had 11 different head coaches over a period of 16 years. Two stand out in my mind right now. One was remarkably challenging and positive and supportive and the other talked to me in a disgusting and humiliating way. Both voices are in my head and are part of me, but I get to choose which voice I focus on and which one I allow to influence my behaviors with other people.

Here’s a simple example. Perhaps you use a lot of foul language in your daily conversations at work because you believe this is how people talk when they are just being themselves. Then you realize this engrained behavior started in high school because you heard that type of language every day. You don’t have to hate yourself or be proud of yourself for using that language today. Just accept that this is part of who you are at this moment. Then you can choose if you want to continue with this belief or if you want to change it. If you change your long-held belief about what is appropriate language for an adult, you can begin to change your behavior.

This same process can be used with many parts of who you are today. Sometimes those beliefs will be relatively easy to change, and some will be so overwhelmingly difficult that you will only be able to make the shift with the help of a skilled psychotherapist, and in many cases you may not be able to change your beliefs and behaviors at all. A lot of times our beliefs and values are so engrained in our subconscious we are not even aware of them.

Some writers such as Bruce Hood in his book, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, believe that we have very little choice in who we are and how we behave, but I disagree. I believe that we have more choice over our beliefs and behaviors than we give ourselves credit for. We need to take the time to become aware of ourselves, to understand ourselves, and to accept ourselves as we are right now. When we do that, we are in a position to choose to change some of our beliefs and ultimately some of our behaviors. In doing so, we can strengthen our level of self-worth. Abraham Maslow, in his book, Toward a Psychology of Being, wrote, “Healthy people are better choosers than unhealthy people. What healthy people choose is on the whole what is ‘good for them’ in biological terms certainly, but perhaps also in other senses conducing to their and others’ self-actualization.”


When you do what you believe is the right thing to do you strengthen your faith in yourself. When you do what you believe is the wrong thing to do you weaken your faith in yourself. The former strengthens your sense of self-worth, and the latter weakens it.

Notice that personal integrity operates independently of great achievements. You can achieve a great accomplishment while maintaining your personal integrity or while throwing it away. The great achievement is the outcome of your performance. However, the great achievement is not a source of enhanced self-worth if it happened as a result of you doing something that you thought was the wrong thing to do. Over the long term, your reduced level of self-worth will likely keep you from achieving at a consistently high level. On the other hand, if you do what you consider to be the right thing to do and it keeps you from achieving a certain great outcome, you can still come back to the arena in the future and be successful.

I’m encouraging you to protect your sense of self-worth so that you can always come back again to strive for a meaningful objective. Be conscious of what you are doing and why you are doing it and be sure that what you are doing is what you believe is the right thing to do at that moment. Integrity, and the lack of it, is a very personal matter that will impact your self-worth one way or the other.


Look at your roles. Now look at your responsibilities in each role. Do this at work and do it at home and do it in your community. You have roles in life and therefore you have responsibilities. When you choose to fulfill your responsibilities, you strengthen your sense of self-worth. When you avoid fulfilling your responsibilities, you weaken your sense of self-worth.


Self-discipline is the ability to continually take responsibility and maintain your integrity through your choices in a sustained way over the long term.

An athlete or a musician demonstrates self-discipline by practicing for thousands of hours even after he or she has already mastered a certain skill. A person demonstrates self-discipline in his or her life by doing what he or she thinks is the right thing to and by taking responsibilities seriously in his or her various roles in life over and over and over again. To do the right thing a few times will help your sense of self-worth a bit, but to make what you consider to be the right choices thousands of times in your lifetime will help strengthen your sense of self-worth exponentially.


Beyond acting with integrity and taking responsibility for your roles in life, asserting yourself means stepping up for what you believe in. It means taking the time to decide what you believe in and then committing yourself to supporting those beliefs. Nathaniel Branden wrote, “To evolve into selfhood is the primary human task.” By asserting yourself, you are activating the values you have consciously selected to base your life and your work on. Just like an artist asserts himself or herself in creating a painting, you assert yourself by creating on the canvass of life whatever it is that you believe.


One way that you can increase your sense of self-worth is to attach yourself to a cause that you believe is worthwhile. As you pour yourself into the cause, you begin to realize more and more that your life, who you are right now, matters a great deal because you can see the impact you are making on the world. This is not a placebo effect. You can see the aftereffect of the value you are creating for other people by applying what is within you. If you constantly try to be someone you are not in order to achieve something that matters a great deal to someone else, you are essentially living a false life. Find a purpose that you really believe is worthwhile and pour yourself into it. The underlying purpose of my career has from the very beginning been to help people achieve whatever it is that they want to achieve. Only when I’ve strayed from that purpose have I lost my way and lowered my sense of self-worth in my professional life.


With a strong sense of your self-worth, you will be in a position to see what you can bring to different situations and different relationships. This can affect your life in multiple positive ways from your family life to work relationships and from your vocation to your avocations.

You will see value in your ideas, and therefore you will contribute them. You will see value in other people’s ideas, and therefore you will consider them. You will see that you can help to improve some part of the world, and therefore you will make the effort to make a difference. You will see the good you have to offer to your family members and friends, and therefore you will put yourself out there. You will see the value in your family members and your friends, and you will invest time and energy with them. You will be able to confront changes as adventures because you will believe that you have the necessary substance, the gravitas, to effectively deal with the changes. When you are promoted into a higher level of responsibility, you will feel you are ready to handle the new role. The greatest challenge in getting promoted is not in developing the necessary skills, but rather in making the mental shift of seeing yourself at one level and now having to see yourself as being capable at the next level. The adjustment happens more successfully if you already have in place a high degree of self-worth, of the value you see within yourself.

Your life and the lives of the people you impact will be significantly enhanced by the efforts you make to strengthen your sense of self-worth.


Efforts to enhance self-worth should not be just about you. You also play a critically important role in helping other people to enhance their sense of self-worth. This is true with your children, other family members, friends, people at work, and people in your community.

Positively accept people for who they are right now with a warm regard. Rather than constantly tamper with them, accept them, work to understand them, respect them, and provide a listening environment that can help them to understand themselves better. Try that idea on for a moment.

If you accept other people without judging them or evaluating them as good or bad, perhaps they will accept themselves as well. If they accept themselves, they may be able to trace why they do certain things. Then they can decide whether or not they want to change certain beliefs they currently have. This decision to alter their belief systems can lead to new behaviors that lead to new results. That person is the only one who gets to change his or her belief system, not you.

Carl Rogers wrote, “If I can provide a certain type of relationship, the other person will discover within himself or herself the capacity to use that relationship for growth, and change and personal development will occur. I find that the more acceptance and liking I feel toward the individual, the more I will be creating a relationship which he or she can use. By acceptance I mean a warm regard for him or her as a person of unconditional self-worth – of value no matter what his or her condition, behavior, or feelings. It means a respect and liking for him or her as a separate person, a willingness for him or her to possess his or her own feelings in his or her own way. When I hold in myself these kinds of attitudes, and when the other person can to some degree experience these attitudes, then I believe that change and constructive personal development will invariably occur.”

If you positively accept the person as he or she is at this moment with a warm regard, you might provide that person with an environment where he or she can grow. Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers argued that a person’s natural inclination is toward personal growth. They believed that if we accept them as they are and they accept themselves as they are and let go of the judgments of others and help them to understand themselves better by being empathetic listeners, they will tend to grow in a positive way.

In his book, How to See Yourself as You Really Are, the Dalai Lama wrote, “The seed of love and compassion is in us intrinsically, but promoting and nurturing it have to be done through insights and education. Proper environment plays a crucial role in the healthy growth of a child. We must practice compassion and tolerance not only toward our loved ones but also toward our enemies. We must live by the same high standards of integrity we seek to convey to others.”

Constantly judging other people and passing on your evaluations through verbal and non-verbal expressions can very well send a message to them that says, “You’re not good enough. Even when you do well, you could have done better.” This can help send them on a life-long pursuit of being someone other than themselves, while never allowing them to just be themselves. How will they have a basis to improve themselves if they are never allowed to even be themselves?

Continuous improvement in an organization begins with an understanding of what is currently happening in the organization. Then people can identify what they feel they should do the same and do differently in the future in order to perform at a higher level. However, if these same people focus only on wanting to be like other organizations, they never form a foundation of who they are that they can improve in the future. They just constantly run from one management trend to another.

The same is true with individuals. If we accept them as they are and they do the same for themselves, then they have a basis for deciding what to change in the future. If they only try to be what we want them to be, then they have no foundation to improve from. It seems counterintuitive to accept people as they are if we truly want to help them grow, but this “patient belief in the other person” approach can be far more effective than constantly meddling in their process of becoming a better version of themselves.


Tom Michler, a professional counselor, said, “We cannot consistently outperform our own belief system.” That is one of my favorite quotes. I believe a corollary of that is, “We cannot consistently outperform our sense of self-worth.” The value we see in ourselves is the upper limit of the capacity that we have to offer to the world, regardless of our finances, skills, achievements, looks, possessions, or reputation.

In order to strengthen your sense of self-worth, understand yourself better through an enhanced awareness of what makes up who you are right now, positively accept yourself as you are right now with a warm regard, decide which of your values and beliefs you want to keep and which ones you want to change, choose to act with integrity, take responsibility for your decisions, maintain self-discipline, and consciously select what purposes you will work to fulfill in your career and in your personal life.

The efforts you make to strengthen your sense of self-worth and the sense of self-worth that other people have of themselves will make all the difference in your life and in the lives of the people you impact.


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