If you spend any time in online business or coaching spaces, you’ll hear a lot about self-worth and how if your business isn’t making money or you’re not getting clients it’s because you don’t value yourself enough or you don’t have the self-worth of a millionaire. I’m calling bullshit on that. To believe that “successful” people are “successful” because they believe in themselves more is just garbage. This implies that if someone is poor, it is because they haven’t worked hard enough, or they just don’t believe in themselves enough. A lot of people actually say this in as many words. And, again, I repeat, this is garbage.
I think where people often go astray when thinking about self-worth is that we tend to assume that feeling more worthy will lead directly (and swiftly, if not immediately) to us achieving greater conventional success – more money etc. And as a result of that thinking we work to increase our self-worth not because we want simply to feel worthy, but because we hold an underlying belief that feeling more worthy will bring us material rewards (there is no shame in thinking this, this idea is everywhere in our culture and is the fuel for most advertising). When we don’t get the material rewards that we feel entitled to, we revert to the belief that we are unworthy. Developing critical consciousness of the systems we live inside helps to decouple our sense of worth from material success, which in turn allows us to think more critically about what success means to us.
Let’s start by thinking about what self-worth is and where our concept of self-worth comes from. Self-worth is simply someone’s collection of thoughts about where they fit in relative to other people. It’s not an objective and measurable thing. In reality, of course, our beliefs about our worth aren’t simply created by our own brains, devoid of external input. We build our mental models of the world based on the data we get from the world around us. Many people (especially those who hold marginalised identities) have been told either implicitly or explicitly that they are worth less than other people and, often, they absorb and internalise this idea. People’s thoughts about their worth can be based on all areas of life, such as how they look, who they know, what they have achieved and how much money they earn.
Our feelings of worth can shift over time (even though they sometimes feel static) but we often develop concepts of our own worth pretty early in our development. One way to think of it is that we are all born into a liberated, fully human state, and that over time our experiences shape our belief in ourselves and our concept of self-worth, as we absorb ideas from the people around us and from the cultures we are embedded in. If you like, look back at your own life and try to figure out when you first started feeling like you were worth more or less than other people. There’s no right or wrong answer to this question, it’s just useful data.
The problem with basing our self-worth concept on external societal norms is that capitalist societies do not treat all people equally. This is because capitalist societies require inequality in order to function. The definition of a capitalist society is simply one in which a few people (the capitalist class) privately own and profit from the means of production that rely on the time and labour of many people to function https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2015/06/basics.htm. This is not a question of the self-worth or intrinsic worth of individuals, but a property of the system. This is not a failure of the capitalist system, it is the capitalist system working as designed.
A lot of (if not all) people living in capitalist societies internalise the idea that a person’s worth depends on their ability to work or produce or the kind of work they do. This is the water we are all swimming in and this message is told to us over and over again from the moment we are born. But people who are unable to produce because of disability or illness or because they lose their jobs or they have a child and find their employment options limited as a result do not magically become less worthy human beings. That’s not how it works. The crucial distinction here is that being treated as if we are worth less than others by society and systems (by being denied access to resources including money) or believing that we are worth less than others is not the same thing as being worth less.
Many people living in capitalist societies feel that their sense of worth is tied to the number in their bank account. Again, this is something that many people feel keenly from a very young age, especially in societies where the things that we need to simply survive or that we might want to help us thrive, such as housing, healthcare or university education are run privately instead of existing as public goods. Many people work immensely hard and are not compensated fairly for their labour. Many people around the world are not paid enough to live on and it is not because they are lacking in self-worth or because their work does not provide value to the world. It is because the systems we live in are deliberately designed to funnel financial resources from the many to the few.
Of course, not everyone who holds a marginalised identity or who experiences oppression has low self-worth and not everyone who is privileged has high self-worth. That’s because our sense of self-worth comes from our thoughts about the circumstances of our lives and not those circumstances themselves. But recognising the systems in play and how those systems shape our beliefs can be helpful if we do struggle with feeling worthy, because it removes any reason to feel shame. If we feel shame for not succeeding within systems that are designed to thwart our success, then once we recognise and name those systems, we can start to release our shame.
I am not telling you not to cultivate self-worth. Quite the contrary. I think that we should all believe wholeheartedly and enthusiastically that all humans (and beyond) are worthy and valuable regardless of their circumstances – a universal basic worth, as it were. I think anything else assumes that some people are more worthy than others and is therefore inherently oppressive. I think that believing some humans are worth more than others is the root of oppression. But believing in self- and collective- worth isn’t is a one-and-done thing or a destination. It’s a praxis, it requires action and reflection and process. I’ll go into some practical suggestions for how we can build ritual and practices to cultivate, support and tend to a universal basic worth and positive regard for ourselves and the collective in a future post, but I wanted to note this, because it’s really important.
The great thing about believing in the intrinsic worth of all humans is that it costs nothing. It’s a choice available to all of us, regardless of our circumstances. Even if everybody you meet disagrees, you can still choose to believe that you are worthy. Nobody can take your thoughts away from you. It is true that believing in your worth may help you achieve things you want to do. Feeling less worthy than other people often feels lousy, whatever your circumstances. When we feel lousy, we tend to feel disempowered or fatalistic about whatever it is that we think makes us worth less than other people. It’s also important to acknowledge that shifting one’s self-worth towards more unconditional positive self-regard can definitely feel like an uphill struggle. If we’ve spent a long time believing that something is wrong with us or that our worth is determined by certain circumstances, it is common to experience a lot of resistance to this concept. We can’t rush developing new concepts of worth and anyone trying to tell you they know a way to shortcut this is probably selling you something. But believing in ourselves and others is something we can commit to at any point in life. It’s something that anyone can commit to. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what you have believed about yourself up to this point, you’re welcome at this party. Even if you need to sit in the corner and watch for a bit I want you to know that’s just fine, welcome, you’re right on time.