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Understanding the Science Behind Self-Worth

By: Zana Van Der Smissen

Today I will be exploring the concept of self-worth. A concept that comes up in many therapy rooms and can be hard to address at times. There is a perception that perhaps talking about self-worth means that we are being egotistical if we feel like we are telling ourselves that we are “worthy”. While in other instances of lower self-worth, we might believe that people will take pity on us and sympathize rather than empathize with how we are feeling. It is a topic that is difficult because it can seem impossible to get to a state of worthiness that we want for ourselves or don’t even know where to start improving on it. That being said, I chose to write about this because understanding what is going on when we think about self-worth is important in being aware that you are not alone in feeling this way and how we can take those next steps to feel worthy in this life. 

So where do we start? First, let’s define what self-worth is. There are various definitions that can be used and for some self-esteem and self-worth are seen as interchangeable. For the purpose of this blog, self-worth is defined as “a positive or negative orientation toward oneself” (University of Maryland, 2021). It is our own perception of ourselves and can be influenced by both external and internal factors. Growing up, we find what we are basing our self-worth on and this can change and shift with each developmental stage. Many times when we are talking about self-worth or self-esteem in therapy, we talk about how to build on those intrinsic factors of seeing ourselves as worthy rather than having to rely on others for it. 

That being said, let’s look at the science behind this concept and see why working on self-worth might be harder for certain individuals. Self-esteem is based in the hippocampus where our memories are stored. Despite this not being the only region of the brain where we evaluate our self-worth, we do base our worth on two main things. First, our past memories in the hippocampus, and second, how other people view us which is found in the cingulate complex (Morgane, 2018). The other brain regions that are active during this time are 1) the Prefrontal cortex: this is where self-reflection and evaluation occur and 2) the Cingulate cortex, which is also where the connection between our thoughts and feelings in the limbic system occur (Morgane, 2018). Based on this science, we can now see that we are basing our self-worth on perception and the biased evidence that comes from how we have stored our memories. The good news with that is that we can work on that! According to Tess Morgane, our self-worth is not based on our failures and successes but rather on us feeling worthy as individuals will determine our success for the future (2018). 

So how do we make ourselves feel worthy? There are a few ways we can improve our self-worth:

  1. Self-talk
  2. Voicing our opinions
  3. Being our own cheerleader
  4. Trust yourself
  5. Setting expectations & values (Sandler, 2017)

When we talk to ourselves, whether that is internally or out loud, we can capture how we are treating ourselves and whether we are internalizing our mistakes and experiencing shame around our behavior. If we can become aware of how we are talking and what could be improved, we can start that conversation of how do I reframe what I’m saying from “I am so stupid for failing this test” to “this test was really difficult and I had a hard time with it”. The act of self-talk also plays into voicing our opinions because if we have a negative perception of ourselves, then we are less likely to speak up and voice what we want to say in fear of being judged, humiliated, or rejected by others. So if we use the same example of “I am so stupid for failing this test”, it is easy for us to then make the jump to “I am stupid so I won’t say anything at all”. 

Voicing our opinions is a difficult obstacle to overcome as there is a risk involved of others not reacting in a positive way. However, voicing our opinions will allow us to 1) become more confident in our identity and 2) lower our need to have approval from others in what we are saying. 

Being our own cheerleader is again about relying on intrinsic motivation and approval. If we can celebrate our wins and be proud of ourselves for going out of our comfort zone, we will be more secure in what we are capable of and find ourselves worthy of doing things. Being a cheerleader for yourself also means rooting for yourself even if there has been a loss or failure because that is part of life. How we take care of ourselves when we are down, will also capture our self-worth and value. This leads to the fourth point of trusting yourself. If you can trust yourself with taking on new challenges, tasks, and responsibilities, your confidence will grow and so will your self-worth. The more you can see your capability, the stronger that trust will be in being able to do that moving forward. 

Finally, setting expectations and your values are important as well when it comes to self-worth. When we are setting expectations for ourselves, let’s make them doable because if our expectations are too high where success can’t be reached, we will have a harder time finding ourselves worthy of reaching our goals. Similarly with values, if we are talking about our own values, we can then be more focused on what we want and need in our life rather than comparing ourselves to others. Comparison is one of our biggest enemies when it comes to self-worth because if we look at others and find ourselves not meeting the “standard” then we automatically become deflated and have our self-worth decline. So set your own values and goals of what you want to have in life! 

When it comes to self-worth, this only scratches the surface. The concept is complex and has multiple layers to it so if this is something that you are struggling with, reach out to someone or talk to a professional counselor who can guide you through how to improve your self-view. 

Department of Sociology. (2021). Self-Esteem: What Is It?. University of Maryland. 

Tess Mograne. (2021). The Neuroscience of Self Worth. Magnetic. 

Doug Sandler. (2017). 13 Ways to Improving Your Self Worth. HuffPost. 

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