Self-worth is not an abstract idea. It is literally defined as what I am worth and why I think I am worth that. We live in a transactional society. The transaction we are concerned with is what behavior, action, or appearance will cause the people or institutions we care about to reward us with love, attention, or acceptance. In a way, the people in our life set a value on behavior by providing us with acceptance or attention when we do what they want us to do. In essence, our behavior has a specific value, and the transaction is trading that behavior to get what we want from another person.
We ascribe certain behaviors, actions, traits, or appearances with a level of worth. Then we strive to exhibit the actions that we think are the most valuable. Internally, we judge ourselves against a scorecard that we have created to determine how valuable we are. We are then motivated to change ourselves to match the score we are striving for. Deep down, we believe that by scoring high, exhibiting specific behavior, we will get what we deeply desire, which is love, acceptance, or attention.
The self-worth transaction also determines the types of behaviors we are not willing to exhibit. Some behaviors are risky. By risk, we mean certain kinds of behaviors can reduce our score on the internal scorecard. If the conduct or action could reduce our score, we will do our best to prohibit that type of behavior.
Our perception of self-worth will impact our behavior. For most of us, we are not conscious of this process, and as a result, we have little control over our lives. Think this isn’t you, ask yourself why you are doing something. Do you really want to be doing whatever it is you are doing, or are you doing it because you feel that you are expected to be doing it? This is the tell-tale sign that the unconscious pull of self-worth is impacting your behavior.
It is essential to understand the role emotions play in determining our behavior and how our concept of worth impacts our emotions. Think back to the scorecard of self-worth; whenever we are at risk of losing or gaining points, our emotions rise. For now, we can define emotions as physical sensations and thoughts happening concurrently. The pressure or intensity of those emotions motivates us to take action. If we haven’t developed a significant amount of self-awareness, the emotional reaction will force us to act in accordance with how we perceive worth.
Why do emotions insulate us from damage to self-worth? Emotions are part of the neurological response that is helping us to survive. At the heart of self-worth and the transaction are needs. Needs are complicated and contested. We know that needs have an impact on our biology, mental health, and development. When those needs aren’t met, we experience certain types of dysfunctions. The most dramatic example is babies that don’t survive because they weren’t held.
To visualize another example of needs, imagine surviving in our society without being accepted. Life would be difficult. How could we earn a living if our job didn’t accept us? Consequently, our emotions are part of a system that activates to motivate us to behave in ways that serve our self-interest.
Beyond survival, we have emotional needs that can only be met when we are accepted and loved on our terms. This requires people to overcome their emotions and to choose how they will behave consciously. It also requires a great degree of courage because we have to risk being rejected by the people and institutions we need to accept us.
The transaction of behavior for acceptance erodes real self-worth and leads to self-hatred. To be accepted by behaving in ways that other people have determined is worthy takes a lot of effort. Think about it like this, how would you feel about yourself if you felt you needed to change or act like someone else to be accepted. The conclusion would be that something must be wrong with you, or else why would you need to change to complete the transaction?
Only one type of self-worth will lead to self-love and peace; this is when we are accepted and loved for who we are. The upsetting truth is that this type of acceptance is hard to find. In reality, sometimes, we will need to take out our scorecard and act. The act isn’t because there is something wrong with you, it is because there is something wrong with certain parts of our society.
The good news is that when we dare to be ourselves, we will find those people who will give us the love and acceptance we deserve. The way to find these people is to have the courage to be authentic. The people who reject you are stuck with their scorecard, the people who accept you have a scorecard where you are the winner.