Amy wonders, “What’s my worth?” She measures her income, material wealth, appearance and weight. She adds it up, subtracts her age, divides by how youthful she looks and multiplies by the square footage of her house. Out comes the sum of her worth.
Fortunately, self-worth has little to do with net worth. Having it all — a good job, beautiful high-performing children, nice home, good looks and respect in the community — doesn’t necessarily bring high self-regard. Instead, self-esteem isn’t measurable. It doesn’t come from adding up your status, prestige or possessions.
Beulah, now passed away, cleaned other people’s houses. She had little money, no car and few possessions. Beulah was radiant. With sparkling eyes, she confided in me. “I’m rich. Can you believe it? I have seven pairs of shoes, one for each day of the week!” Beulah, who lived in the South Bronx, surrounded by vacant lots and burned-out buildings, felt wealthy. Her family and friends admired her.
Her affluence didn’t come from a big house or a fancy car. It came from an inner sense of contentment that was independent of the ups and downs of the stock market. It came from a stable, positive view of herself. She was a deeply rooted tree that bent with the wind. Her branches were rich with foliage. Active in her church and community, and busy with her grandchildren, Beulah’s yardstick for self-esteem came from her many acts of loving kindness, her generosity towards others and her faith.
Self-esteem is a fundamental psychological requirement for well-being. While personality and temperament are primarily constitutional, self-respect, in part, comes from being the person you hope to be. It also comes from appreciating yourself for who you are and nurturing a sense of gratitude.
Low self-esteem can arise from several sources. Critical family members, who are stingy with praise, can produce adults with little self-regard. These adults’ self-worth depends on the appreciation they receive from friends, family and co-workers. They feel like a leaf in the wind, pulled and pushed by their need for approval. In order to feel worthwhile, they need to be liked by everyone.
Lack of self-respect can also come from feeling unsuccessful. Accomplishment is often culturally defined. Adults who aren’t married or in a committed relationship by 30, don’t have children by 35 or haven’t achieved success in their work by 40 may feel bad about themselves.
In adulthood, men and women must develop their own yardsticks for measuring success. Adults must look within to discover their worth. Life brings change. Economic times get better and worse. Friendships can come and go. Life can change on a dime. Children grow up and pursue their own dreams. When self-esteem is dependent on the actions of others or world events, we’re in trouble.
Self-esteem comes from becoming the person that you want to be, rather than who others think you should be. Reflection and self-examination enable adults to separate their values and goals from family and social expectations. Actions that lead men and women down their own freely chosen path build a healthy sense of self.
Most of us want to feel better about ourselves. Looking within does help clarify goals and values. But this alone is not enough. Action is required. Deeds that are consistent with personal values, beliefs and goals bring self-regard. Courageous endeavors, acts of loving kindness and helping oneself and others improves self-respect.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.