Not All Self-Worth is Created Equal
Is your self-worth combative, competitive, conditional, or intrinsic?
Nothing stings like writer’s rejection.
As a writer and first-time author, I’ve had to learn how to absorb rejection like never before in my life. First, there was the rejection from literary agents after I pitched my book proposal. Then, the noes from the publishers. And finally, the no-thank-yous from the bookstores to stock my book after I’d gone ahead and published the damn book myself.
I’ve always believed in myself. Even when doors haven’t opened for me, I’ve built and hung my own doors. I’ve always assumed I’ve had sufficient self-worth to get me through any number of rejections.
Call it a bootstraps mentality. American Midwest stubbornness and pride. Or just plain chutzpah. But, I’ve always felt I’ve had a decent reservoir of some kind of energy that helps me rebound.
Recently, though, I experienced a string of rejections within a single month’s time that drained whatever was left of my self-worth down to the dry, rough river bed below:
The first stinger was a rejection on a piece I wrote for an anthology I loved.
The second one was from a publication I’ve been trying to get published in for several years. I finally thought I had the piece that could make it happen. No dice. Sigh.
The third and final sting was not even getting an interview for a part-time job opening that looked designed with me in mind.
I was fresh out of zest. I wallowed in self-pity and frustration. What happened to my self-worth, I wondered? What happened to my ability to believe in myself despite all odds? Never before had I felt so completely defeated. I’ve always had the ability to pick myself up, time and time again, in both my professional and my personal life. Not this time. The question was: why not?
According to Dictionary.com, self-worth is “the sense of one’s own value or worth as a person; self-esteem; self-respect.”
If I have a sense of my own value, then no number of rejections could possibly drain that away, right? So, perhaps what I had wasn’t true self-worth after all.
Four Types of Self-Worth
Not all self-worth is created equal. Here are four different types to explore. As you read, ask yourself — What kind of self-worth keeps you going? If you conclude that yours, like mine, is not entirely intrinsic, I’ve included some steps you can take to join me in building lasting, intrinsic self-worth up.
“Let us not give way to the temptations of a false self and the illusions of an inflated reality, but let us highlight our deeper self’s authenticity and forward the truth of our words and the straightness of our actions.”
The more I’ve pondered this, the more I believe my self-worth as a teenager and young adult was a combative, oppositional kind of self-worth.
I grew up in a family with a lot of masculine, yang energy from both men and women. My aunts, uncles, and grandparents were stoic and strong-willed. My dad and brothers were fiery and impulsive. In order to hold my own in the family as a quiet-yet-emotional bookworm, I had to learn to “keep my chin up.” I became a runner where I could “show them” that I was tough too. I pushed myself to do things that I might not have ordinarily have done as a way to survive in the patriarchal family unit.
It was an outsider’s self-worth. My sense of value came from feeling that I didn’t fit in. That I was different. It was an “I’ll show you” kind of self-worth that got fueled every time I got excluded or denied access.
A good representation of this kind of self-worth is the movie The Breakfast Club. Each of those characters certainly walked the halls of school with this kind of blustery self-worth. As we learn in the film, though, this self-esteem is only a facade. A mask. And it’s dependent on them being different, odd, unique, outside. The moment their outsiderness falls away, they see the brokenness in themselves and their commonality with others. The facade slips away and the truth comes out.
Combative self-worth has no staying power in and of itself. It is dependent on being able to push off of something. It does not exist when that “something” is no longer in our lives.
“If we compare ourselves and conclude that we are better than the other, we may feel superior, contemptuous, and dismissive. We may not want a connection with someone so beneath us. Again the cord of human connectedness feels sliced. And we are once again alone in our superiority.”
~From Psychology Today
I moved away from home and no longer needed to or could push against my family to fill my self-worth. Now, I was just one face among so many new faces at college. My combative style of self-worth disappeared.
In its place, I built up self-worth by comparing myself to others.
As long as I did better than most of my classmates on my tests, as long as I had dates on Saturday nights, I felt that the world had a space for me and that I was wanted and had value to others. I felt good about myself.
But—I’ll never forget when my professor put quiz scores on the projector. I had the lowest score in the entire class. Although scores were listed by student number—which meant no one knew who got what—I knew. I’ll never forget how devastating that moment was for my self-worth.
All three types of self-worth — combative, comparative, and conditional — are all ego-based, external self-worth. They are not built to last a lifetime. In fact, they are designed to self-destruct.
Comparative self-worth depends on there always being people who have done worse, which leaves little room for us to create a more equal society.
In other words, it is a hierarchical self-worth that is not self-sustaining. Having only this kind of self-worth makes it impossible to truly be happy for other people’s success if it surpasses your own. It keeps us living in a world of comparison, separation, and ultimately, loneliness. Like combative self-worth, it doesn’t have staying power in and of itself.
“Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it.”
~ M. Scott Peck
Conditional self-worth resides in the belief that we have to earn the right to feel worthy. This one doesn’t require us necessarily to compare ourselves with others, but instead has us comparing our achievements to imaginary, often impossible standards.
“I will feel good about myself when/if…” is the language of conditional self-worth. It is dependent on approval, accolades, praise, and other regular outside validation.
Conditional self-worth sources entirely from our accomplishments, titles, and status. It, too, is not enough to carry us through a lifetime, never mind a particularly harsh string of rejections.
“Your self-worth is determined by you. You don’t have to depend on someone telling you who you are.”
The fourth and final type of self-worth is intrinsic self-worth. As opposed to the first three types of self-worth that stem from ego, intrinsic self-worth is soul-based. It is part of who we are and does not need other people to push off of, do better than, or provide us with accolades or praise.
Because it is independent of OPOs (other people’s opinions), it can withstand the harshest of rejections, the most exclusive of exclusions, and the most breaking of heartbreaks.
How to Build Intrinsic Self-Worth
I’m never one to offer standard advice about anything, and I won’t do it about building up self-worth, either. There are plenty of articles that do that just fine, such as here or here.
What I can offer is exactly what I am doing for myself as I work to replace the old-fashioned self-worth with something far richer.
1. Let the old self-worth reservoir run dry
As the stinging rejections piled on, I found myself trying to hang on to what little was left in my reservoir. I pushed back with some classic favorites such as, “They don’t know what they’re missing.”
But then, I simply surrendered to the draining of my old self-worth so I could fill it back up with something more lasting in its place
2. Find self-worth role models
I have a friend who exudes intrinsic self-worth. It is not pride, nor arrogance, nor bluster. It is a simple sense of personal authority and inner wholeness.
She just recently got rejected from a publishing house. I listened as she told me the news. I heard disappointment, but not self-pity. I heard “I’ll try again,” but not “Their loss.”
Watching how she navigated that rejection is a model for me to navigate my next one.
3. Connect with your soul
Whether through a formal spiritual practice or simply through walks in nature, find out who you are beneath the layers and the titles. Challenge your ego and its many desires for fame or fortune. Seek a relationship with the part of yourself that is wise beyond our limited earth years.
Unlike the other types of self-worth that are dependent on other people and outside circumstances, intrinsic self-worth needs only a connection with our souls. We are worthy because we exist, and it’s not more complicated than that.
The first three types of self-worth — combative, comparative, and conditional — are all ego-based, external self-worth. They are not built to last a lifetime. In fact, they are designed to self-destruct.
The rejections I’ve had over the last month have set in motion a process that drained away the last drops of my false self-worth. For that, I am grateful.
What I am building up in its place is the kind of self-worth that cannot be drained, no matter how many rejections I get. This is not the same thing as not feeling sad, disappointed, or even frustrated. Our emotions still get to have their say. It’s simply a matter of not tying the rejections, or the acceptances for that matter, to my sense of value and worth.
Writing is a bit like beekeeping. Every day, we go out to the hives hoping to find some sweet honey we can then offer to the public. This job is risky. We could get stung at any moment. But when we do, we have to nurse our wounds and get right back out there the next day. For this, we must seek out our internal, inherent, and intrinsic self-worth.
About the author
Writer and philosopher. Deep end only. I write about culture/society, spirituality & personal growth, & empowerment. Award-winning author of Embodying Soul: A Return to Wholeness. https://kerimangis.com