Low self-worth is one of the most common but under-discussed issues people face today.
Unfortunately, many of the tips and tricks you hear about for improving your self-worth either aren’t really helpful or even make things worse. For example, simply rehearsing unrealistically positive statements about yourself or the future—a form of “toxic positivity”—can actually make you feel worse in the long run.
If you really want to feel better about yourself, you need to address the core issues creating low self-worth in the first place.
In my work as a psychologist, I’ve seen 4 core drivers of low self-worth that are the most common. Work to address these and your natural self-worth will rise.
1. Judgmental self-talk
Imagine that all day, every day, you’re followed around by a grumpy little elf who does nothing but criticize you, insult you, and tell you how worthless you are.
Now, even if I told you, Listen, nothing this little guy says is actually true about you, so don’t worry how would you feel if you had to live with someone constantly putting you down, day-in and day-out, at work, at home on vacation, and in your bed at 2:00 am when you can’t sleep?
Pretty terrible, right?!
Well, that’s exactly what most people with low self-worth do to themselves. They constantly criticize and judge themselves in their own heads. They tell themselves how worthless they are and how bad everything is. And all this despite knowing intellectually that most of it simply isn’t true.
Whether you actually believe the content of your self-criticism or not, the activity of doing it is killing your self-worth.
If you want to improve your self-worth, it’s essential that you stop being overly critical and judgmental of yourself in your own head. Negative self-talk can be an especially difficult habit to break, but at the end of the day it is a habit. And habits can be broken.
Work to replace your negative self-talk with self-compassion, and you’ll find your self-worth will improve dramatically.
“Words matter. And the words that matter most are the ones you say to yourself.”
― David Taylor-Klaus
One of the worst habits people with low self-worth get into is chronic reassurance-seeking.
Reassurance-seeking means relying on other people to feel better.
- You feel anxious about an upcoming job interview, so you call your mom hoping that she’ll tell you everything will go fine.
- You feel angry about something that happened at work today, so you vent to your spouse expecting that they’ll confirm how terrible your boss is and make you feel better.
The reason reassurance-seeking is such a bad habit when it comes to low self-worth is that it destroys your emotional confidence.
Emotional confidence is the ability to tolerate difficult emotions without trying to avoid them or get rid of them.
When you constantly try to escape from or “fix” your painful emotions—including by using reassurance-seeking to get other people to alleviate them—you teach your brain that difficult emotions are dangerous and that you can’t handle them.
So while you might get some temporary relief in the moment, you fraternize yourself in the long run and make it more likely that you’ll be afraid of those feelings in the future.
Now, think about it: How much self-worth can you feel if you’re constantly teaching your brain that you’re incapable of handling difficult emotions on your own?
When you outsource feeling better to other people you kill your confidence, and with it, your sense of self-worth.
One of the best ways to improve your self-worth is to learn how to validate your emotions and accept them instead of always trying to get rid of them.
No man is more unhappy than he who never faces adversity. For he is not permitted to prove himself.
3. Fear of being assertive
Many people grow up only seeing two examples of how to communicate: passively and aggressively:
- Passive communication is when you’re so concerned about other people and what they want, that you don’t speak of yourself and express your own wants and needs clearly.
- Aggressive communication is when you try to get what you want in a way that’s rude, disrespectful, or downright hurtful to other people.
Many people—especially women—are taught that you should always defer or put aside your own wants and needs in order to make others happy. Combine this with a natural fear of conflict that many of us have, and you get a lot of people who are basically afraid to ask for what they want or say no to what they don’t want.
In short, they’re afraid to communicate assertively—to express themselves and their wants in a way that’s honest but also respectful of others.
Now, think about this situation from your brain’s perspective:
What are you teaching your brain if you always prioritize other people over yourself?
Yeah, that other people are more important than you are!
If you constantly treat yourself as less important than others, don’t be surprised if you start to feel that way.
The solution is to practice communicating assertively.
This means being willing to express what you actually want and set healthy boundaries on what you don’t want. And even though this can feel quite difficult if you’ve been a doormat your whole life, that doesn’t make it any less important.
If you want to feel better about yourself, you need to stand up for yourself.
“If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”
― Elizabeth Warren
4. Thinking too much about self-worth
Here’s the counterintuitive thing about people with healthy self-worth: They don’t spend much time thinking about their self-worth!
Now, you might say: Well, of course they don’t. It’s easy to not worry about your self-worth when you feel good about yourself!
True, having healthy self-worth certainly does make it easier to not fall into habits that lower your self-worth. But that doesn’t mean the causality is only one way…
Spending too much time thinking about self-worth is an inherently judgmental activity that tends to make people feel worse about themselves.
See, the minute you start asking the question Am I worthy enough you’ve already lost because you’ve put yourself in an unrealistically critical and judgmental mindset. Think about it:
How could you possibly judge yourself as being worthy or not?
To be frank, whether or not you are worthy as a person is a dumb question.
Your proficiency as a competent plastic surgeon according to the national board of plastic surgeons might be up for discussion. But your worthiness as a person globally isn’t really something it even makes sense to start to judge.
If you want to feel more worthy or worthwhile, stop obsessing over whether you are or not. Because the minute you make your dignity as a person something to be judged, you’ve guaranteed that you’ll feel bad about it.
Instead, focus on what you really want to do in life. What are your personal values and what can you do to do move toward them in a meaningful way?
I think you’ll find that a far more productive and enjoyable question to ask yourself.
“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
— Greg McKeown
All You Need to Know
If you want to improve your self-worth and feel better about yourself, address these 4 core causes of low self-worth:
- Judgmental self-talk
- Fear of being assertive
- Thinking too much about self-worth