Most of us measure our self-worth by comparing our achievements or the things we have or the people who love us and measure our self-worth. What is self-worth? Self-worth is how we view and value ourselves as human beings. Jeanette Covington came up with a theory on self-worth in relation to student motivation. He said that an individual usually strives for self-acceptance and one’s self-worth depends on the ability to achieve something competitively. According to this theory, achievement and ability determine human value and this dominates the mind of children which later on is carried on into adulthood. The self-worth model consists of multiple factors that determine one’s self-worth which include ability, effort, performance, and self-worth. All four of these are linked to one another and it implies that a person’s success at a valued activity with affect their self-worth. This also includes one’s perception of their high ability can also lead to high worthiness. The effort also leads to high self-worth. Covington, called effort as a double-edged sword in relation to school children for who on the one hand effort is necessary for school, to avoid guilt and the teacher’s punishment but at the same high effort leading to failure will lead to low ability and humiliation and shame. (Weibell, 2011).
So according to the above theory, we see our self-worth in relation to self-evaluated abilities and our performance in a valued task. However, in general, people are measuring their self-worth with other things in their life. Self-worth is measured to the things like one’s net worth, appearance, career, social circle, and achievements (Ackerman, 2018). One’s self-worth is not determined by external factors like grades, looks, money, friends, relationships, ability to succeed at everything, or being better than others. One’s self-worth is determined by that individual itself. You determine your worth and value irrespective of the other things in your life that do or don’t exist. These external factors might improve your life, add to your growth, or might even create stress, but they do not determine your value as a human being!
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Self-worth and Attachment
Childhood attachment is linked to the growth of self-reliance and emotional regulation. The attachment theory says that if an individual has a secure attachment with their primary caregivers then they will have high self-confidence, resilience, and lesser psychological distress. A more dynamic view of attachment is seen as comprising of an individual's attachment with not only their primary caregivers but also other adult relationships they had while growing up. As individuals can also be influenced by the relationships they have formed with others. This attachment theory says that there are four types of attachments- secure, avoidant, dismissive, and fearful. The theory of attachment shows that secure attachment with caregivers, peers, and partners can lead to the development of high self-esteem. A study done by Shen, Liu and Brat (2021) showed that childhood attachment is associated to self-esteem and psychological distress in adulthood. Individuals who had secure childhood attachment and low psychological distress and high self-esteem. One’s attachment style is an indicator of how one perceives themselves and copes with stress. It also showed that if one has had an insecure attachment style while growing up, they could improve their self-esteem through their relationships with friends and partners who would enhance their attachment security in adulthood.
Self-worth and validation
Individuals who faced various negative experiences while growing up like being rejected, abandoned, or criticized will learn to draw conclusions about how others will respond to them, and this, in turn, would lead to behaving in a way to avoid these negative experiences. These conclusions lead to the formation of beliefs about what to do or to be a person of worth. This leads people to prove to themselves and others that they are of value and worth. ( Park et al, 2006). This holds true when we feel we need to please others or get their approval so they continue staying in our lives, here interaction with these individuals or their approval indirectly means that we have value. Take some time and think about validation in relation to friendships and relationships. Do you recollect any moments where you did things just to gain their approval or please them? As we get curious about why we do what we do, we will be met with a myriad of motivations like showing care and love for someone or doing something out of obligation. When we untie these knots it will be helpful to understand some of the frustrations and disconnections that come with only seeking external validation at the cost of one's own needs.
In the TV show ‘FRIENDS’, Monica and Ross’s mother always preferred and appreciated Ross. She would always look for faults in Monica. This criticism and rejection contributed to Monica becoming a people pleaser. In a few episodes, you can see that Monica cannot stand Rachel’s mom being angry at her because she forgot to invite her to Rachel’s baby shower. She knew somewhere she had accepted her mistake and apologized but still, she had to ensure Rachel’s mother was not upset with her. In another episode you can see that Monica was making chocolate as a friendly gesture but her neighbour’s became overdemanding and she was spreading herself thin to appease them finally, her husband had to step in to set a boundary.
‘The Office’ is another show where we see how Michael’s sense of self was affected when he was a child. He didn’t have friends growing up and there was this tremendous need to be liked by his employees and see the office as a family. In order to ensure this often he came across as indecisive where he couldn’t make decisions about firing or what to do with monetary surplus and would put that job on his employees and ask them to decide. In other instances, you could see him being overbearing on other employees and crossing boundaries by attending Jim’s private party which he was not invited, or creating a whole ruse to invite Jim and Pam to his house for dinner. He would often share personal details of his life with everyone in the office and expect them to give their advice like when he was conducting appraisal interviews he was rating people based on how much insight were they giving on his and Jan’s relationship. Here you can see that he wants to be liked by everyone and his sense of self stems from being associated to others and being a part of the group.
Self-worth and cultural influence
One of the contingencies of self-worth is also influenced by cultural norms and values. The self-objectification theory showed that women in North America who lived in a society where women’s bodies were objectified, adopted an observer’s perspective on their bodies. This meant that these women relied on others’ feedback on their physical attractiveness and approval for evaluating their own self-worth. (Park et al. 2006). In our Indian society as well people play a big role in what is considered attractive and what is considered unattractive. These opinions are addressed bluntly in various social settings and people’s self-worth is placed on one’s looks by society. This inadvertently means that people start basing their worth on what people think about their physical characteristics.
There are various cultural factors that can influence what we give importance to like belonging to a collectivistic culture or individualistic culture. In individualistic cultures self-worth relies on values like one’s independence and uniqueness. In collectivistic cultures or interdependent cultures, one’s self-worth is based on their relationship with others and groups. In Japan, again one’s sense of self is based on how others perceive them and protecting oneself from shame and maintaining one’s ‘face’. Research has shown that Japanese people are guided less by internal cues and desires and are more attuned to other people’s opinions and expectations. (Park et al. 2006).
Similarly, India is also a collectivistic country where you will often hear the sentence “ log kya kahenge” ( what will people say). This is because Indians are taught to follow what is considered appropriate according to society’s rules and norms and follow that over their desires. When one’s self-worth is associated with external approvals by society, the individual will feel obligated to act in a certain way. Here you can take a minute and recount experiences where someone told you to behave in a certain way or some phrase automatically popped in your head about the judgments that be passed by others. Ask yourself if you really need to base your actions on what others will say. If you are doing so, what are the risks you will be facing? It could be compromising on your own desires, being filled with regret and resentment, or becoming numb.
How to build your self-worth?
Whenever you think you are stuck in a spiral of feeling low in your sense of self remember what values are important to you and the things you appreciate about yourself.
You could be somebody who is good at 5 things and average at about 5 but that still doesn’t affect your value. These external things like money, looks, grades, and accomplishments act as a barometer for worthiness by society. The reality is that sometimes we internalize these messages we receive about ourselves. Your value will increase if you earn X amount, or you land up with this person, or if Y number of people follow you on social media. When these thoughts start popping up in your brain remember that you are not a representation of your productivity.
Learn to identify the harsh tone in your brain and replace it with kindness and self-compassion. Knowing that this won’t stop your growth or your motivation but in fact, it will help you give the strength to move forward and be resilient even if you come across failure.
Try to build connections in your adulthood who are healthy for you. If you notice insecure attachments in your peers or partner, after assessing for safety, try to communicate about your insecurities and engage in conversations that enhance your attachment.
Weibell, C. J. (2011). Principles of learning: 7 principles to guide personalized, student-centered learning in the technology-enhanced, blended learning environment. Retrieved July 4, 2011 from
Park, Lora & Crocker, Jennifer & Vohs, Kathleen. (2006). Contingencies of Self-Worth and Self-Validation Goals: Implications for Close Relationships.
Shen, Liu, & Brat. (2021, April 1). Attachment, Self-Esteem, and Psychological Distress: A Multiple-Mediator Model | The Professional Counselor. Retrieved November 4, 2022, from https://tpcjournal.nbcc.org/attachment-self-esteem-and-psychological-distress-a-multiple-mediator-model/