What Is the Meaning of Self-Worth and Self-Value?
Chances are, you’ve heard of the many, many “self-” words.
There’s self-esteem, self-compassion, self-acceptance, self-respect, self-confidence, self-love, self-care, and so on.
There are so many words to describe how we feel about ourselves, how we think about ourselves, and how we act toward ourselves. It’s understandable if they all start to blend together for you; however, they are indeed different concepts with unique meanings, findings, and purposes.
Read on to learn more about what may be the most vital “self-” concept of them all: self-worth.
Self-worth and self-value are two related terms that are often used interchangeably. Having a sense of self-worth means that you value yourself and having a sense of self-value means that you are worthy. The differences between the two are minimal enough that both terms can be used to describe the same general concept.
However, we’ll provide both definitions so you can see where they differ.
Self-worth is defined by Merriam-Webster as:
“a feeling that you are a good person who deserves to be treated with respect”.
On the other hand, self-value is “more behavioural than emotional, more about how you act toward what you value, including yourself, than how you feel about yourself compared to others” (Stosny, 2014).
Self-Worth versus Self-Esteem
Similarly, there is not a huge difference between self-worth and self-esteem, especially for those who are not professionals in the field of psychology. In fact, the first definition of self-worth on the Merriam-Webster dictionary website is simply “self-esteem.”
Similarly, the World Book Dictionary definition of self-esteem is “thinking well of oneself; self-respect,” while self-worth is defined as “a favourable estimate or opinion of oneself; self-esteem” (Bogee, Jr., 1998).
Clearly, many of these terms are used to talk about the same ideas, but for those deeply immersed in these concepts, there is a slight difference. Dr Christina Hibbert explains this:
“Self-esteem is what we think and feel and believe about ourselves. Self-worth is recognizing ‘I am greater than all of those things.’ It is a deep knowing that I am of value, that I am loveable, necessary to this life, and of incomprehensible worth.” (2013).
Self-Worth versus Self-Confidence
In the same vein, there are subtle but significant differences between self-worth and self-confidence.
Self-confidence is not an overall evaluation of yourself, but a feeling of confidence and competence in more specific areas. For example, you could have a high amount of self-worth but low self-confidence when it comes to extreme sports, certain subjects in school, or your ability to speak a new language (Roberts, 2012).
It’s not necessary to have a high sense of self-confidence in every area of your life; there are naturally some things that you will simply not be very good at, and other areas in which you will excel. The important thing is to have self-confidence in the activities in your life that matter to you and a high sense of self-worth overall.
The Psychology of Self-Worth
In psychology, the concept of self-worth may be a less-popular research topic than self-esteem or self-confidence, but that doesn’t mean it’s less important. Self-worth is at the core of our very selves—our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are intimately tied into how we view our worthiness and value as human beings.
What Is the Self-Worth Theory?
The self-worth theory posits that an individual’s main priority in life is to find self-acceptance and that self-acceptance is often found through achievement (Covington & Beery, 1976). In turn, achievement is often found through competition with others.
Thus, the logical conclusion is that competing with others can help us feel like we have impressive achievements under our belt, which then makes us feel proud of ourselves and enhances our acceptance of ourselves.
The theory holds that there are four main elements of the self-worth model:
The first three interact with each other to determine one’s level of self-worth. One’s ability and effort predictably have a big impact on performance, and all three contribute to one’s feeling of worth and value.
While this theory represents a good understanding of self-worth as we tend to experience it, it is unfortunate that we place so much emphasis on our achievements. Aside from competing and “winning” against others, there are many factors that can contribute to our sense of self-worth.
What Determines Self-Worth?
According to the self-worth theory, self-worth is determined mostly by our self-evaluated abilities and our performance in one or more activities that we deem valuable.
However, people commonly use other yardsticks to measure their self-worth. Here are five of the top factors that people use to measure and compare their own self-worth to the worth of others:
Appearance—whether measured by the number on the scale, the size of clothing worn, or the kind of attention received by others;
Net worth—this can mean income, material possessions, financial assets, or all of the above;
Who you know/your social circle—some people judge their own value and the value of others by their status and what important and influential people they know;
What you do/your career—we often judge others by what they do; for example, a stockbroker is often considered more successful and valuable than a janitor or a teacher;
What you achieve—as noted earlier, we frequently use achievements to determine someone’s worth (whether it’s our own worth or someone else’s), such as success in business, scores on the SATs, or placement in a marathon or other athletic challenge (Morin, 2017).
Author Stephanie Jade Wong (n.d.) is on a mission to correct misunderstandings and misperceptions about self-worth. Instead of listing all the factors that go into self-worth, she outlines what does not determine your self-worth (or, what should not determine your self-worth):
Your to-do list: Achieving goals is great and it feels wonderful to cross off things on your to-do list, but it doesn’t have a direct relationship with your worth as a human;
Your job: It doesn’t matter what you do. What matters is that you do it well and that it fulfills you;
Your social media following: It also doesn’t matter how many people think you are worthy of a follow or a retweet. It can be enlightening and healthy to consider the perspectives of others, but their opinions have no impact on our innate value;
Your age: You aren’t too young or too old for anything. Your age is simply a number and does not factor into your value as a human being;
Other people: As noted above, it doesn’t matter what other people think or what other people have done or accomplished. Your personal satisfaction and fulfilment are much more important than what others are thinking, saying, or doing;
How far you can run: Your mile run time is one of the least important factors for your self-worth (or for anything else, for that matter). If you enjoy running and feel fulfilled by improving your time, good for you! If not, good for you! Your ability to run does not determine your self-worth;
Your grades: We all have different strengths and weaknesses, and some of us are simply not cut out for class. This has no bearing on our value as people, and a straight-A student is just as valuable and worthy as a straight-F student or a dropout;
The number of friends you have: Your value as a human has absolutely nothing to do with how many friends or connections you have. The quality of your relationships is what’s important.
Your relationship status: Whether flying solo, casually dating, or in a committed relationship, your value is the same—your relationship status doesn’t alter your worth;
The money (or lack thereof) in the bank: If you have enough money to physically survive (which can, in fact, be £0), then you have already achieved the maximal amount of “worth” you can get from money (hint: it’s 0!);
Your likes: It doesn’t matter if you have “good taste” or not, if your friends and acquaintances think you’re sophisticated, or if you have an eye for the finer things. Your worth is the same either way.
Anything or anyone but yourself: Here we get to the heart of the matter—you are the only one who determines your self-worth. If you believe you are worthy and valuable, you are worthy and valuable. Even if you don’t believe you are worthy and valuable, guess what—you still are worthy and valuable!
Examples of Healthy Self-Worth
You might be thinking, “Okay, I know what does and doesn’t (and shouldn’t) determine self-worth, but what does healthy self-worth really look like?”
Given what we know about the determinants of self-worth, let’s read through a few examples.
Bill is not a great student. He gets mostly Bs and Cs, even when he spends a great deal of time studying. He didn’t get a great score on his SATs, and he’s an average reader, a struggling writer, and nobody’s idea of a mathematician.
Even though Bill wishes he had better grades, he still feels pretty good about himself. He knows that grades aren’t everything and that he’s just as valuable a person as his straight-A friends. Bill has a high sense of self-worth and a realistic view of himself and his abilities.
Next, let’s consider Amy. Amy has a wide variety of interests, including marathons, attending book club, playing weekly trivia with her friends, and meeting new people.
Amy’s not particularly good at running and has never placed in a marathon. She’s a slow reader and frequently misses the symbolism and themes that her fellow book club members pick up on. She only answers about 10% of the trivia questions correctly and leans on her friends’ knowledge quite often. Finally, she loves to talk to new people but sometimes she gets blown off and ignored.
Despite all of this, she still believes that she is worthy and valuable. She knows that her worth as a human is not dependent on her ability to run, read, play trivia, or make new friends. Whether she is great, terrible, or somewhere in between at each of her vast range of chosen activities, she knows she is still worthy of happiness, fulfilment, and love.
Finally, consider the case of Marcus. Marcus is an excellent salesman and frequently outsells most of the other people at his company, but one co-worker seems to always be just a bit ahead of him. He is also an avid squash player and frequently competes in tournaments. Sometimes he gets first or second place, but usually he does not place at all.
Even though he is not the best at his job or at his favourite hobby, Marcus still feels that he is valuable. He thinks he is smart, talented, and successful, even though he’s not the smartest, most talented, or most successful, and he’s okay with that.
Bill, Amy, and Marcus all have healthy levels of self-worth. They have varying levels of abilities and talents, and they get a wide range of results from their efforts, but they all understand that what they do is not who they are. No matter whether they win awards or garner accolades for their performance or not, they still have the same high opinion of their value as a person.
How to Find Self-Worth and Value Yourself More
If these examples sound desirable to you and you wish you were more like Bill, Amy, or Marcus, there is hope. There are things you can do to boost your sense of self-worth and ensure that you value yourself like you ought to be valued—as a full, complete, and wonderful human being that is deserving of love and respect, no matter what.
How to build self-worth in adolescents
As with most lifelong traits, it’s best to start early. If you know any adolescents, be sure to encourage them to understand and accept their own self-worth. Reinforce their value as a being rather than a “doing,” as some say—in other words, make sure they know that they are valuable for who they are, not what they do.
If you need some more specific ideas on how to boost an adolescent’s self-worth, check out the suggestions below.
Researchers at Michigan State University recommend two main strategies:
1. Provide unconditional love, respect, and positive regard;
2. Give adolescents opportunities to experience success (Clark-Jones, 2012).
Showing a teen unconditional love (if you’re a parent, family member, or very close friend) or unconditional respect and positive regards (if you’re a teacher, mentor, etc.) is the best way to teach him self-worth.
If you show a teenager that you love and appreciate her for exactly who and what she is, she will learn that it’s okay to love herself for exactly who and what she is. If you demonstrate that she doesn’t need to achieve anything to earn your love and respect, she’ll be much less likely to put unnecessary parameters on her own self-love and self-respect.
Further, one way in which we gain a healthy sense of self-worth is through early and frequent experiences of success. Successful experiences boost our sense of competency and mastery and make us feel just plain good about ourselves.
Successful experiences also open the door for taking healthy risks and the success that often follows. Don’t just tell a teen that she is worthy and valuable, help her believe it by giving her every opportunity to succeed.
Just be sure that these opportunities are truly opportunities for her to succeed on her own—a helping hand is fine, but we need to figure out how to do some things on our own to build a healthy sense of self-worth (Clark-Jones, 2012).
How to increase self-worth and self-value in adults
It’s a bit trickier to increase self-worth and self-value in adults, but it’s certainly not a lost cause. Check out the two tips below to learn how to go about it.
First, look back at the list of what does not determine self-worth. Remind yourself that your bank account, job title, attractiveness, and social media following have nothing to do with how valuable or worthy a person you are.
It’s easy to get caught up in chasing money, status, and popularity—especially when these things are highly valued by those around us and by society in general—but make an effort to take a step back and think about what truly matters when determining people’s worth: their kindness, compassion, empathy, respect for others, and how well they treat those around them.