Stop Basing Your Self-Worth On Other People’s Opinions

Woman in meadows looking out on the horizon with her arms extended

In August 2017, Hillary Allen was close to finishing her PhD in neuroscience. She was also ranked number one in the world in skyrunning, which is basically the equivalent of running an ultramarathon up a mountain.

On summer break from teaching, Hillary had gone to Europe to race for three months. As she later recounted on my Finding Mastery podcast, she was midway through her final race of the summer in Tromsø, Norway, in the Arctic Circle. Running across a ridge, she spotted a photographer who was waiting to take her photo as she turned the corner on a technical section of the race. His nickname for Hillary was “Smiler” because she was always smiling, even when she was in pain. She said, “Hi Ian.” He replied, “Just smile big for me around this corner.”

That was the last moment in the race Hillary remembers. She stepped on a loose rock and slipped off the edge of a cliff, falling 150 feet and bouncing off the mountain several times before her body came to rest on a vertical, inhospitable section of rock. She broke 14 bones, including both her feet, both wrists, vertebrae L-4 and L-5 in her back, and five ribs.

A racer who had seen Hillary fall risked his own life to climb down to reach her. She had open wounds and was covered in blood. He didn’t think to check for vital signs. He thought he was recovering a body. Hillary’s chest heaved and she regained consciousness.

The first words out of her mouth to her rescuer were: “Am I going to be okay?”

. . .

The desire to know that we are okay shows up in every area of life where uncertainty lurks. The delivery room. The boardroom. The bedroom. The classroom. When we are scared, unsettled, and confused, we either look inside ourselves for the answer, or we look outside ourselves to the perceived authority, to the opinions of others. While Hilary’s question came during a true crisis of survival, it also illustrates how we reflexively check in with others to gauge how we are doing in moments of fear, doubt, or uncertainty.

Self-worth is our set of core beliefs about our value as a human being. It’s how we see ourselves and who we perceive ourselves to be. People differ in what they believe they must be or do to have worth or value.

One person’s self-worth might be contingent upon academic competence while someone else’s might be conditioned upon how attractive that individual feels in the eyes of others or upon the love and acceptance of God. Global feelings of self-worth depend on the perceived success or failure in those areas on which self-worth is contingent. Success means I not only closed the deal, but I am worthy and valuable. We only make judgments about ourselves in those areas where we have planted our self-worth flag.

Externalizing our self-worth, when it works, can yield short-term benefits. We get emotionally and chemically rewarded when we succeed. Our hypothalamus produces dopamine, often referred to as the feel-good neurotransmitter. Our self-esteem gets lifted, leaving us feeling safe, secure, and superior.

But dependency on external validation and social approval has a dark alter ego that reveals itself over time because outsourcing our self-worth undermines the basic human needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

When your self-worth is contingent upon success or failure in a particular area, your primary drive often becomes proving to yourself, and others, that you meet those conditions of worth.

By externalizing our self-worth, we find ourselves in a never-ending loop in pursuit of it. We become trapped when our self-worth is a consequence, rather than the cause, of personal achievement. In this construct, our self-worth is sustained by successes and achievements and continually threatened by obstacles, failures, and the opinions of others.

Solving the problem of conditional self-worth is less complicated than you might think. You don’t have to go through regression therapy and get a better understanding of how your early-life caretakers gave you implied messages of contingent worth, neither do you have to sift through the wreckage of emotional or physical suffering you endured growing up.

You simply need to recognize that you are worthy exactly as you. You are not your grade — whether it’s an A or an F. You are not your job, your age, your marathon time, your place on the org chart, your relationship status, your gold bars, or your prison bars. You have inherent value, and it’s not conditioned on anything you do or have done. It’s not conditioned by how virtuous you have been or how many mistakes you’ve made. Your virtue and your failures are not factored into the calculus of your value as a human being. Your value stems from your being, not your doing.

To further unpack and undo a misplaced concept of self-worth, develop an awareness of where your self-worth is externally anchored. Where are you externalizing your sense of value? What are the domains in which you need to meet standards in order to feel worthy? There does not have to be one single domain where your self-worth is staked; it could be scattered across a few. Some of the most common anchors of self-worth are:

  • Social approval: My self-worth is contingent upon being accepted, appreciated, and validated.
  • Workplace: My self-worth is contingent upon a standard of performance at work.
  • Money: My self-worth is contingent upon the perception of financial wealth.
  • Academics: My self-worth is contingent upon scholastic achievement.
  • Appearance: My self-worth is contingent upon meeting cultural standards for attractiveness.
  • Social comparison: My self-worth is contingent upon being “better” than others in a given area.
  • Virtue: My self-worth is contingent upon being a virtuous person.
  • Parenting: My self-worth is derived from my child’s accomplishments and well-being.
  • Power: My self-worth is contingent upon my sense of power.
  • God’s love: My self-worth is contingent upon God’s love.
  • Family approval: My self-worth is contingent upon compliance with my family’s desire.

Knowing where you’ve staked your self-worth can help you better understand what motivates your behaviors and responses, and help you develop a greater awareness of your areas of psychological vulnerability.

Michael Gervais, PhD, is one of the world’s top high-performance psychologists. His clients include world record holders, Olympians, internationally acclaimed artists and musicians, MVPs from every major sport, and Fortune 100 CEOs. He is also the founder of Finding Mastery, a high-performance psychology consulting agency, the host of the Finding Mastery podcast, and the author of The First Rule of Mastery: Stop Worrying about What People Think of You. 

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