How to Develop a Stable Sense of Self-Worth

A group of American Buddhist teachers once met with the Dalai Lama during a conference, and one teacher, Sharon Salzberg, brought up the problem of unworthiness:

“What do you think about self-hatred?” I asked when it was my turn to bring up an issue for discussion. I was eager to get directly to the suffering I had seen so often in my students, a suffering I was familiar with myself. The room went quiet as all of us awaited the answer of the Dalai Lama, revered leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Looking startled, he turned to his translator and asked pointedly in Tibetan again and again for an explanation. Finally, turning back to me, the Dalai Lama tilted his head, his eyes narrowed in confusion. “Self-hatred?” he repeated in English. “What is that?”

All of us gathered at that 1990 conference in Dharmsala, India-philosophers, psychologists, scientists, and meditators-were from Western countries, and self-hatred was something we immediately understood. That this man, whom we all recognized as having a profound psychological and spiritual grasp of the human mind, found the concept of self-hatred incomprehensible made us aware of how many of us found it all but unavoidable. During the remainder of the session, the Dalai Lama repeatedly attempted to explore the contours of self-hatred with us. At the end he said, “I thought I had a very good acquaintance with the mind, but now I feel quite ignorant. I find this very, very strange.”

To the Dalai Lama’s ears, self-hatred was a strange and unfamiliar concept. Jack Kornfield, a renowned Buddhist teacher who was also present at the discussion, concluded: “Apparently in the Tibetan culture there isn’t so much of it.” After reflecting on this alien concept for which no word exists in Tibetan, the Dalai Lama also said, “But this is a mistake”. Indeed, why would anyone hate themselves?

A Widespread Issue

All of the Western Buddhist teachers present remarked how they had personally been afflicted with this problem, and how their students had struggled with it as well. The reasons for the worldwide prevalence of self-criticism, self-judgement and unworthiness (indicated by the high global incidence of depression) are complex and manifold. One key factor at play, however, is the propensity that people have to entangle their sense of self-worth with external factors which are constantly subject to change and loss. Moreover, living in a highly competitive society which hones in on these ‘benchmarks of worth’ means that to lack them, or to ‘fall short’ of them in some way, gets internalised as harsh

We are not islands, isolated and immune to what others around us are chasing and are saying is worthwhile (and in turn, the source of our sense of self-worth). Social media certainly doesn’t help the situation, since it intensifies this whole comparing process. We are bombarded with updates about so many people’s jobs, engagements, weddings, social events, friends, relationships, holidays, travels, awards and achievements – and the evidence is pretty clear that being exposed to all this for too long diminishes our self-esteem.

I have written previously on the problems associated with letting a job define your self-worth. As I

The issue here is not so much that you’re not where you want to be in terms of your career, and that someone else’s career points this out to you; it’s that you’re letting a role determine whether you think of yourself as worth knowing, likeable, interesting, compassionate, creative, etc.

The fact is that we can’t rely on a job to give us a stable sense of self-worth because most jobs are not stable, in the sense that the job which we think validates our worth will be with us from graduation until retirement. Likewise, relationships end, friendships disintegrate, businesses fail and we are constantly ‘behind’ with respect to our peers in some way. Loss and change are naturally unsettling, disappointing and painful, and fulfilment is unquestionably derived from partners, friends, careers and ambitions. But we do unnecessary and strange harm to ourselves when we wrap up our self-worth with
these external things.

If you really want to look after your well-being, so that it is consistent and deeply rooted, then special attention must be paid to developing a stable, inner sense of self-worth. There are certain aspects of ourselves which remain essential and unchanging, or which at least can be cultivated to the point of being more reliable than anything we can latch onto in the outside world.

Establishing a Realistic Perspective of Who You Are

When we experience low self-worth, we direct thoughts, comments, attitudes, criticisms and judgements towards ourselves which are unrealistic. It manifests in thinking which is black-and-white, narrow, exaggerated, harsh, unforgiving, insulting and persecutory. It is understandable that unemployment is undesirable and unfulfilling, but why should it make someone feel worthless?

People who suffer from depression (in which low-self worth is a component) will make very unkind judgements about themselves, following situations (e.g. a break up) which cannot possibly justify those judgements. When we call ourselves ‘defective’, ‘pathetic’, ‘unlovable’, ‘worthless’, ‘a failure’ – and look at ourselves grimacing, consumed with shame and disgust – we lie to ourselves. They are irrational statements. But when you are attached to the presumed authority of the statements, since it can be difficult to distinguish between thoughts based on delusion and those based on wisdom, how can you do anything else except trust them? Nevertheless, it is entirely possible to view oneself in a way that is more grounded in reality.

If you want to gain a more balanced, healthy and holistic picture of yourself, then it’s important to take note of your actual strengths, talents and assets. This can help you to see how you underestimate and undermine yourself. Furthermore, taking a step back and looking at your virtues and vices – and the extent to which they are expressed – will help you to realise that many of the unpleasant events which unfold in your life do not indicate unworthiness, of not-being-enough or being completely and utterly a ‘failure’. Sure, mistakes are made, but it would be a stretch to say that those of us who struggle with low self-worth have made mistakes so monumental that they ultimately and forever rob us of justifiable grounds for self-appreciation.

There are many different methods for analysing yourself in a healthier fashion. Psychotherapy is one way. Changing one’s consciousness through meditation or mind-altering substances is another. However, a more novel and under-appreciated approach is self-authoring. This involves describing in great detail your present strengths and weaknesses – how they have been shaped over time and how you would like to work on them. This increased level of self-understanding can be a powerful source of self-compassion. Self-authoring can be challenging (much like therapy), but it is inexpensive (unlike therapy).

Practising Loving-Kindness and Forgiveness Meditation

Certain meditation practices are specifically designed to direct feelings of good wishes towards oneself, which at face value – and especially if you’ve never experimented with them before – can seem airy-fairy, hippy-dippy, New Age-y, cringe-worthy and awkward. But if you try to express compassion and forgiveness towards yourself and find it difficult to authentically do so, and you’re met by resistance, then this may indicate that it is something you need to do.

Loving-kindness meditation and forgiveness meditation can create an internal, stable sense of self-worth because it is a practice, something you do over and over again in order to value yourself as individual who deserves kindness and relief from suffering as much as anyone else who you believe has worth.

Jack Kornfield is also a meditation teacher and has provided useful descriptions on how to practice both
loving-kindness meditation and forgiveness meditation.

Responding to the Inner Critic

Psychologist Lisa Firestone writes about a concept referred to by her father, Dr Robert Firestone – the ‘critical inner voice’. She underscores that it’s as if each of us possessed two distinct inner voices, one which is a positive, life-affirming voice that represents who we really are. This voice speaks to us about our true desires and goals – what we really want for ourselves – and it comes from a place of wisdom.

There is, however, a darker and uglier neighbour to this voice – the evil Edward Hyde to Dr Henry Jekyll,
if you will – and that’s the critical, disparaging and destructive inner voice. One voice seeks to establish self-worth, while the other is hell-bent on destroying it. PsychAlive released a useful animated explanation of the critical inner voice.

We would never let anyone talk to a friend in such a harsh manner, yet we tolerate these kinds of comments about ourselves. Why would we do this? Framed in this way – how we often treat ourselves as an enemy – encapsulates the Dalai Lama’s confusion about self-hatred. As it turns out, this ‘nasty coach’ or judge that lives inside our heads often comes from early life experiences that are internalised as a kind of blueprint for how we think about ourselves as we grow up.

These negative voices can take shape in our heads due to what parents, primary caretakers and figures of authority say, not only towards us as children, but towards themselves and each other as well. If as children we witness a pattern of those we trust and look up to speaking critically of us, or towards themselves and others, then we accept this as the correct way to talk to ourselves about mistakes we make. Indeed, this inner critic often sounds very much like an angry parent who scolds and tells off a child.

The inner critic affects people with different levels of intensity – varying from quiet snide remarks to loud vicious insults. Each individual will also differ in how aware they of this voice for what it is. And this is crucial to overcoming the harm that this voice causes. You first have to recognise it as an anti-self and as something that isn’t your fault for having. Merely noticing this voice can lessen its power. As the practice of mindfulness meditation teaches us, when we are simply mindful of negative thoughts, we can relieve so much of our suffering. The thoughts also pass sooner since we do not habitually entangle ourselves up with them – but instead watch them from a detached vantage point. If a thought comes up, such as, “You’re so lazy”, recognise this as an insult which only serves to undermine you. Say to yourself, “there’s the inner critic.” Jack Kornfield, in his book A Path With Heart, calls this process ‘naming the demons’.

Firestone also recommends writing down what the voice says, in the first person to begin with; e.g. “I’m pathetic”. Then next to these statements write down the thoughts in the second person: “You’re pathetic”. This helps to separate the inner critic as something external to who you really are – an outside, invasive force. In addition, if you pay attention to what the voice sounds like, Firestone says you may begin to recognise it as a familiar voice. You may think, “This is exactly how my father used to speak to me/this is what my mother used to say to me.” Making these connections can help to separate the voice from your authentic self.

Challenging your inner critic can be beneficial. Indeed, the principle behind cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is commonly used to treat depression and anxiety, is that negative patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours can be changed through the practice of adopting positive (and more realistic) statements about oneself. When our critical inner voice attacks us with put-downs, it leads to psychological distress, which affects how we behave (often in a way which can add fuel to the fire of the voice). The point of CBT is to interrupt the process by responding to the voice in an honest and caring way. If it says, “You’re worthless”, write down “I have loads of positive qualities”. And write down what they are. If you had a friend who was intensely self-critical, a kind thing to do would be to stress what you like about them. So do this for yourself.

The inner critic is intimately connected to our actions and behaviours. Indeed, this voice can sabotage our most important and meaningful relationships. It can say to us, “Don’t ask her out. She could never like you”, “They don’t really like you. They’re just pretending to because they feel sorry for you”, “Don’t bother speaking up. No one cares about what you have to say”. It can turn into a vicious cycle. We act (or fail to act) on the voice’s comments, and since these actions (or inactions) limit us and hold us back, the voice berates us.

Think about the events which trigger the voice (e.g. starting a romantic relationship) and how the voice affects your actions. Once you spot a pattern recurring, you can start to act against its recommendations. This can be unnerving, as it often is to break deeply ingrained habits. By doing the opposite of what the voice tells you to do you’re challenging long-held and familiar beliefs about yourself. If you persist in combating the inner critic, however, you can benefit from a higher degree of self-efficacy (the belief you have in your abilities, specifically your ability to overcome challenges and succeed in some aspect of life).

Researcher Dr Kristen Neff believes removing power and control from this internal enemy requires self-compassion, rather than boosts in self-esteem. Arguably, this approach lends itself to a stable sense of self-worth more than does an emphasis on self-esteem, which is based on comparisons and evaluation, and so is more precarious in that regard. Self-compassion, on the other hand, is based on acceptance and unconditional kindness towards oneself. It’s about treating oneself like a best friend.

But perhaps the strongest foundation to establish an internal and stable sense of self-worth comes from the deeply held belief that you have value due to the basic fact that you are alive, awake, thinking, perceiving and feeling in a possibly infinite universe in which nearly all matter lacks this way of existing. When all’s said and done, is there really anything more valuable than that?

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