How to Build Self-Worth: Be Kind to Yourself

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Self-Compassion" by Kristin Neff. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you hard on yourself? How do you build self-worth?

Low self-esteem can be detrimental to your life, especially if you make yourself believe you can’t do anything extraordinary. Kristin Neff’s book Self-Compassion assures that you can raise your self-worth with just one simple solution.

Keep reading to learn how to build self-worth by being compassionate with yourself.

Self-Compassion Contributes to a Stable Sense of Self-Worth

To learn how to build self-worth, you need to build self-compassion. Neff argues that self-compassionate people don’t experience the kinds of harmful fluctuations in self-worth that self-critical people do because their value isn’t rooted in external factors—specifically comparisons of themselves to others and their success or failure at achieving particular goals. Instead, self-compassion is an internally driven mindset that centers on your whole being. A self-compassionate person recognizes that success and failure come and go and don’t define you as good, bad, loveable, or unloveable. She says this is an important distinguishing factor of self-compassion from its often compared, deeply hyped neighbor, self-esteem. 

(Shortform note: Research supports Neff’s argument, finding that when self-esteem is rooted in external sources, it’s tied to greater social, emotional, and mental health problems. A 2002 study of college freshmen found that students whose self-worth centered on physical appearance, academic performance, and others’ perceptions of them reported stress and anger, greater relationship and academic problems, and higher levels of drug and alcohol use and eating disorder symptoms than other students.) 

Neff says that for decades, the field of psychology has wrongly propped up the idea that having high self-esteem (your assessment of your worth) makes you happier and leads to success. She argues that self-esteem is an unstable metric that can fluctuate unpredictably because it’s often based on factors outside your control, for example: 

  • How good you are at things that are personally meaningful to you, which is problematic if, for example, you most value looking young and beautiful—because it’s difficult to do forever. 
  • Your perception of what others think of you, which is problematic if, for example, you’re not innately confident in your intellectual abilities and someone tells you that you’re stupid, which can lead you to feel terrible about yourself.

Neff says that while external factors associated with self-esteem can prompt your sense of self-worth to skyrocket or plummet within seconds, self-compassion is always available to you, even during your worst moments. Instead of feeling bad about your failures (real and perceived), you can turn to self-compassion to meet and soothe your pain with kindness, recognizing your failure as an opportunity to grow and connect to others through the common experience of pain.

For example, if someone tells you that you’re stupid, you can take a moment to say to yourself (as you would to a close friend): “That was a really mean and untrue thing for them to say. You’re very smart. But I understand why someone saying that to you would be so hurtful because it’s unkind. Fortunately, you’re not the first person someone’s been unkind to and you, like others, will be okay and get past this. Let’s take a few minutes to do something nice for you, like get a hot tea.”  
(Shortform note: Using a tool Neff developed to measure self-compassion, researchers found that people who are highly self-compassionate often feel strongly that they’re true to themselves—which presumably goes hand-in-hand with a stable sense of self-worth. Researchers concluded that self-compassion increases authenticity by reducing negative thoughts.)

A Different Take on Self-Esteem 

In The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Nathaniel Branden departs from Neff’s definition of self-esteem, arguing that to have healthy self-esteem, you have to believe two things: 1) that you have the ability to handle your basic life needs (which he calls “self-efficacy”) and 2) that you deserve happiness (which he calls “self-respect”).  

When you have a sense of self-efficacy, you feel confident in your ability to earn a living, have healthy relationships, and recover from setbacks, which gives you a sense of control of your life. 

When you have self-respect, you feel you’re innately good and valuable and that you’ve earned the right to happiness. As a result, you treat yourself well and expect others to do the same.

While Neff doesn’t directly correlate how good you are at things you care about with your perception of what others think of you, Branden contends that self-efficacy and self-respect operate in a deeply intertwined, continuous cycle, driving and relying on your behavior: Your actions align with your expectations of yourself, and the outcomes of your actions reinforce those expectations.

How to Build Self-Worth: Be Kind to Yourself

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  • The key practices, benefits, and obstacles to embracing self-compassion
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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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