The Difference between Self-Esteem and Self-Worth
Self-worth and self-esteem are often used and understood interchangeably. I believe that creating a distinction between these two concepts can have important implications on how we approach personal growth and our work in therapy.
Self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves, our abilities, and our contributions to the spaces we inhabit based on external factors such as our achievements and the praise we receive from others. Self-esteem directly influences our level of confidence about our abilities and the value we believe we hold within our environments. The more achievements and external validation we receive, the higher our self-esteem, which drives more goal-directed behavior. The problem with relying on self-esteem as a measure of our worth is that it is conditional and inconsistent. It is often dependent on achieving goals, which for a variety of reasons, many are out of our control to achieve. Once we accomplish our goals, we can feel capable, proud, and happy, but these feelings don’t last very long. Then we find ourselves looking to the next goal in order to feel good about ourselves again.
We live in a society that prioritizes achievement and productivity. This same society glorifies overworking ourselves and burning out. Where our identity becomes our work and inevitably other areas of our lives will suffer and then we ultimately suffer. Accomplishing things can be addictive with no end in sight and the little voice in the back of our minds saying “you should be doing more” every time we meet a goal and the happiness that comes with it quickly dissipates. We don’t need to accomplish things to hold value. What is seductive about goals and accomplishments is that it is measurable and certain, and we like those things because they give us a perceived sense of control. However, the cost is living a life according to often unrealistic expectations with no room to make mistakes which perpetuates self-doubt, resentment, and regret.
While self-worth can also be defined by how we feel about ourselves and our abilities, it relies on an internal sense of our own worth that remains consistent even when we make mistakes, don’t achieve a desired goal, or when we experience scrutiny from others. It is the sense that you deserve to be alive, that you deserve to be cared for and loved, and that you matter and deserve to take up space. Self-worth, unlike self-esteem, is something we can connect to within ourselves regardless of our achievements or circumstances. Our worth comes from our humanity and we can connect to it by learning to let go of our judgments or who we think we should be and embrace who we are which includes our imperfections. This can be extremely difficult to accomplish in today’s society as so much emphasis is put on our accomplishments and career. When we hold on too tightly to our work and outward appearances as a measure of worth, we will lose out on other parts of ourselves and our lives that we care about.
So how do we connect to our internal sense of self-worth? The answer to that lies between vulnerability and self-compassion.
Vulnerability means taking healthy risks and doing things outside our comfort zones in service of our values – the things we care about most, the people we want to be, how we want to live our lives. It is all about practicing willingness to be uncomfortable, not knowing how things will turn out, in order to do things that are important to us. This can look like going to a new workout class where you may feel very uncomfortable at first but are opening yourself up to new experiences such as meeting new people and forming a healthy habit because if you chose to run away and seek comfort again you are only reinforcing the voice in your head that says I’m not good enough.
Self-compassion is the intentional practice of acknowledging the pain we carry within, reminding ourselves we are not alone in this pain and that others have gone through similar struggles, and choosing to be kind to ourselves in the same way we are towards people we care about. Self-compassion is about taking accountability when we make a mistake and supporting ourselves by recognizing our needs and showing up for ourselves. Examples of this are like eating when we are hungry, moving our bodies regularly, doing things we enjoy, or reaching out for help when we are feeling overwhelmed. Self-compassion is the antidote to the self-critic we all battle with internally. By responding to our struggles with kindness and understanding rather than judgment and ridicule, we can shift our perspective and cultivate a stable sense of being good enough by reminding ourselves that we are imperfect, we are allowed to make mistakes, and we are worthy of love and belonging. When we show ourselves compassion with our actions we reinforce healthy beliefs that we matter to ourselves first and foremost which builds confidence and cultivates the belief that we matter to those around us.
Below you will find some wonderful resources for learning more about how to connect with your sense of self-worth.
Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are by Brene Brown
The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer
Unconditionally Worthy with Dr. Adia Gooden
Unlocking Us with Brene Brown