So many clients share a narrative with me focused on low self-esteem. I hear of lifelong challenges with self-esteem; periods of time during which clients have difficulty liking themselves; and a lot of uncertainty related to cultivating self-esteem. I think all of us can conjure up times when our self-esteem felt at an all time low.
Self-esteem, self-worth, acceptance… these concepts often are used interchangeably. So, what is the difference? And how do we get those things? A reminder that, as in all of my posts, these are simply my thoughts and my own perspective- this is not the “right way” or “wrong way”, it is just my way.
Self-Esteem vs. Self-Worth
I’ve got to thank the good ole’ dictionary for the start of this exploration. Esteem is “respect and admiration, typically for a person”. Self-esteem is that respect and admiration turned inwards. I think of self-esteem as fluctuating, and as being heavily influenced by approval from others and accomplishments. Achieve a desirable outcome and receive a pat on the back from others? Self-esteem is going to get a little boost. Make a mistake and receive a negative response from others? Self-esteem is going to take a hit.
When we speak of worth, we are often speaking of value. Our self-worth is related to the way and degree to which we value ourselves. I think of self-worth as developing internally, rather than growing out of external validation and approval.
I also think of worth as being a more stable state, in comparison to the fluctuating nature of esteem. This is not to say that you cannot cultivate greater self-worth or that your self-worth cannot ever take a hit; but it is to say that I don’t see self-worth as being so victim to the whims of others’ opinions.
It is entirely possible to have high self-worth and experience moments of low self-esteem. These moments might be times in which you perform poorly or make a big mistake. You might feel a bit down on yourself for the way in which this particular situation unfolded, but at your core you are able to sustain a sense of worth. One mistake does not mean that you are now worthless.
On the flipside, you can also experience moments of high self-esteem despite struggling with low self-worth. You might experience this as time-limited highs following a great performance or achievement. Others praise you and you feel, on the surface, a sense of accomplishment. But deep down, you still see yourself as not enough- not good enough, not smart enough, not deserving enough.
Self-Worth and Acceptance
I wrote in a previous blog about the practice of self-acceptance in the face of imperfection. Your self-worth is not dependent on you reaching perfection. Self-acceptance is not reserved for those who believe they are done growing or changing. To practice self-acceptance and to value yourself is to be able to believe “I am enough”, in the face of victory and defeat. Self-worth and self-acceptance must come from within; these cannot be developed and sustained purely on the praise of others.
Cultivating strong self-worth and self-acceptance is a process! It requires you to identify and challenge long-held beliefs related to a person’s worth being determined by performance; beliefs related to your worth being determined by the opinions of the people around you. And this is not a one and done deal! This is a lifelong practice. But it is worth it. This practice opens you to the opportunity to experience life and relationships in a vulnerable, supportive way. It encourages you to pursue opportunities for growth and change, because, even if you fall short of your goals or mess up, your self-worth can remain intact.
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Brenna Burke, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Santa Clarita, CA. She provides individual psychotherapy and couples counseling. Information provided through this website is for informational purposes only. It does not create a therapist-client relationship and does not replace clinical assessment or professional consultation.