If you’ve ever held a newborn baby in your arms, you have the sense of the value of that particular human life. If it happens to be your own child, then those feelings are magnified.
Driving home from the hospital with our newborn daughter strapped safely in her car seat, I remember feeling my defense mechanisms go up as the vehicle in the adjacent lane began to come a little too close to our car. I was protective in a way I wouldn’t have been otherwise because of the precious cargo in our back seat.
Our daughter had value just by virtue of her existence, and I was ready to protect it.
Is Your Value Dependent on Your Output?
Fast forward to adulthood.
Do you ever question your own value or worth? Do you feel like your worth is dependent on your output or results? Do you feel like you are less worthy as a human being if you don’t accomplish a certain income level, social status or other external metric?
Not everyone is afflicted with a conditional sense of self-worth. Many people understand and embrace their inherit value as a human being. This is healthy and desirable.
Unfortunately many people mistake this emotional self-criticism as a good thing. They see it as their motivation to push themselves to higher levels of accomplishment.
There are some serious problems with that belief, the first being that it simply isn’t true. A second is that it conditions your thoughts to base your value on comparison to others. This leaves us comparing our worst to others best, and going through self-flagellation, emotionally beating ourselves up for not being good enough.
A conditional self-worth is like a speed limiter or mechanical governor on a motor, limiting it to a certain maximum performance level. Though the engine is capable of higher speeds, the limiter won’t let it exceed it’s prescribed value.
When we have thoughts and feelings of a conditional self-worth, we can be our own worst enemy. We get in our own way. We limit our full potential because we spend the majority of our time in feelings of regret, self-pity, victim-hood and other negative emotions that stop us from achieving higher levels of productivity and fulfillment. (You can take this free assessment to find out if you have a tendency to value your worth conditionally).
So what do you do if you’re afflicted with a sense of conditional self-worth? Here are two practices you may find helpful.
Reprogramming the Thought Patterns
If you find yourself afflicted with conditional self-worth, there are things you can do to overcome it.
If you struggle feeling that your worth as a person is dependent on your ability to produce or some other external measurement, (weight, money, friends, societal impact) then start with this thought exercise.
Visualize yourself as a small child. Just as you can easily assign value and worth to any other small child, it becomes easier for your mind to allow you to recognize your own worth as a human being, when you see yourself as a child.
Hold those thoughts and those feelings for a few minutes, and let yourself feel love for yourself as a child. Recognize that as a child you hadn’t likely accomplished any great feat, earned a large amount of money or had any significant life accomplishments. Despite that, you still had value. Intrinsic, inherent value and worth.
Now, let yourself envision you in your current stage of life, but see yourself in your worst possible outcome. For example, if you’re afraid of poverty and losing all your money, see yourself finding shelter in a cardboard box on the street under a freeway overpass if you have to, but as you see that picture of yourself, keep the feeling of your inherent, intrinsic value that you felt for yourself as a child. It’s still there. It didn’t go away because you don’t have any money. Your self-worth and value as a human being exist all along.
Finally, let your mind visualize your most successful version of yourself, perhaps in a large home, surrounded by loving family and dear friends. You’ve accomplished all the success you could have imagined. In this state, notice that your self worth is no different than it was as a child or as a homeless person. It didn’t get larger because of your external successes. It is the same as when you were a child or in your imagined worst case scenario.
Self-worth and intrinsic value as a human are not dependent on external conditions. There may be a case between a person’s goodness and their actions. In fact there is a direct link between goodness and actions, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. In reality, you are most likely to be your best self when you have made habits of recognizing and feeling your intrinsic worth as a human being.
Jack Canfield’s Mirror Exercise
Here is another strategy you can employ to change your thought habits to be more positive about yourself. This is my summary of a principle taught by Jack Canfield and Janet Switzer in their book, “The Success Principles”.
This exercise is done by yourself, perhaps in your bathroom or bedroom while you look in the mirror at the end of the day. It will seem strange at first, but give it a try for at least a week. (They recommend at least three months).
Think for a few minutes of the accomplishments of the day, no matter how big or small they may be. Then, as you look in the mirror, look yourself in the eyes and verbally express your appreciation to yourself for your accomplishments and for every small win that you had during the past day. Be specific, and allow yourself to truly feel the appreciation for every inch of your forward progress. Perhaps your appreciation may be for not losing more ground than you did for the day, but let yourself feel the appreciation as you look in the mirror at yourself and give verbal expression for each positive item.
Finally, finish by saying, “and, [your name], I love you.”
For people afflicted with thought patterns of conditional self-worth, this will be difficult. Do it anyway.
Conditional Self-worth Is Robbing You of Joy
Years ago, my maternal grandmother was convalescing at our home after having surgery. In the evening as I walked down the hall I saw into the room where she was staying. She was lying in her bed and crying.
Grandma never cried. She was a hard woman. She was a farmer’s wife, raised in a rural community where the food on your table was a direct result of the work you put out all year long. I think that’s the only time I ever saw her cry.
I went in to console her. She was embarrassed that I had seen her crying. To her, it was difficult to be unable to do anything but focus on getting better. I believe she saw her personal value as directly related to her ability to work. If she couldn’t work, then she wasn’t worth anything.
While her work ethic served her well physically (she lived to be 99 years old), I believe her thought habits of conditional self-worth robbed her of decades of joy and happiness.
If you find yourself struggling to feel that you have value or that your value is dependent on external results, I encourage you to try the exercises above, and change your thought habits to allow yourself to feel your intrinsic, inherent self-worth.
James Stephenson is the author of the book, Small Steps, Big Feat.