How to Develop Self-Worth: Prioritize Your Personhood

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Light We Carry" by Michelle Obama. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you struggle with feelings of unworthiness and low self-esteem? How does tying your worth to external factors hurt your self-esteem?

Many people struggle with self-worthiness because they base their worth on external indicators, such as appearance, status, or success. If you root your sense of self-worth in external factors, you’ll never feel at peace with yourself. Instead, you should focus on recognizing your uniqueness and expressing joy in your existence.

With this in mind, here are some tips on how to develop self-worth.

Developing Self-Worthiness

In her book The Light We Carry, Michelle Obama explains how to develop self-worth by prioritizing your personhood. According to Obama, basing your worth on your unique personhood separates it from your appearance, status, or success. It emphasizes that you deserve to be loved and celebrated simply because you’re a unique individual who can’t be replaced. This realization makes you happier and more confident, improving your mental health.

(Shortform note: Rooting your self-worth in your existence rather than your appearance, status, or accomplishments is an example of showing yourself unconditional love. Unconditional love is usually associated with interpersonal relationships, but it’s also important for individual mental health, as it increases happiness, life satisfaction, and resiliency. Unconditional love requires respect, open communication, and support. Thus, avoid disparaging self-talk, take time to understand your feelings, and treat yourself kindly. Ask yourself, “Would I treat my loved one like this?”)

In contrast, focusing on imperfections hurts your self-esteem. It makes you self-conscious, magnifying the flaws in your mind until you can’t recognize your inherent worth.

How to Prioritize Personhood

When you have negative thoughts about yourself, replace them with an acknowledgment of your inherent worth as an individual, Obama says. After reinforcing your self-worth, you can address any issues you experience, secure in the knowledge that you’re more than your flaws.

Prioritize Personhood by Fostering a Positive Self-Image

Many people prioritize criticism over personhood, leading to low self-esteem (as Obama warns). In Psycho-Cybernetics, Maxwell Maltz says this is due to their self-image: the way they let their past experiences affect their identity. Someone who fails a test and says “I’m a failure” applies that experience to their identity, while someone who says “I failed that test” attributes the experience to a specific incident. When people let negative events affect their identity, they behave in ways that reinforce this new, negative identity. The person who failed a test might not study for the next test because they believe they’re already a failure and there’s no point. Since they don’t study, they fail again, reinforcing their negative self-image.

To replace criticism with an appreciation for your personhood, Maltz suggests using imagination to shift your self-image:

1. Follow Obama’s advice to replace critical thoughts with positive ones. Maltz states that greeting yourself kindly involves imagining yourself to be worthy of that kindness because if your self-image doesn’t believe it, your conscious mind can’t either.

2. Do a small task differently, such as putting your left shoe on first instead of your right shoe. While you do this, imagine yourself being able to change your thought patterns just like you’re changing that habit. This can shift your self-image to one that’s capable of change, making you more receptive to changing your thought patterns.
How to Develop Self-Worth: Prioritize Your Personhood

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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