The age of entitlement is, not coincidentally, the age of high self-esteem. Self-esteem, as defined by standard measures, is a function of how we feel about ourselves—based mostly on comparison to others. It often has a hierarchical bias—we’re better than some, but not as good as others. It has a dark side, too, as indicated by the research of Roy Baumeister and colleagues and summarized in the book, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty.
High self-esteem tends to create a sense of entitlement. When the world does not meet their entitlement needs, many with high self-esteem feel wronged and may retaliate with manipulation, abuse, or violence.
Self-value is more behavioral than emotional, more about how you act toward what you value, including yourself, than how you feel about yourself compared to others. It necessarily includes self-care.
To value something goes beyond regarding it as important; you also appreciate its qualities, while investing time, energy, effort, and sacrifice in its nurturing or maintenance. If you value a da Vinci painting, you focus on its beauty and design more than the cracks in the paint, and, above all, you treat it well, making sure that it is maintained in ideal conditions and shielded from direct lighting. Similarly, people with high self-value appreciate their own better qualities (even while trying to improve their lesser ones) and take care of their physical and psychological health, growth, and development.
Now here's the tricky part. In contrast to high self-esteem, with its tendency toward entitlement, people with high self-value necessarily value others. Where self-esteem is hierarchical, self-value is about equality. Here's why: When we value others, we value ourselves more—we elevate our sense of well-being and facilitate our health, growth, and development. (Think of how you feel when you’re loving and compassionate to those you love.) When we devalue someone else, we devalue ourselves—our sense of well being deteriorates, we violate our basic humanity to some degree, and become more narrow and rigid in perspective, all of which impair growth and development. (Think of how you feel when you devalue loved ones.) In other words, when you value someone else you experience a state of value—vitality, meaning, and purpose—and when you devalue someone else, you experience a devalued state, wherein the will to live well becomes less important than the will to control or dominate or at least be seen as right.
Valuing others makes our self-value soar. It also carries substantial social reward; showing value tends to invoke reciprocity and cooperation. Devaluing others, though, causes reactivity and resistance. It makes us look for something to be cranky about, so the low-grade adrenaline can inflate our egos enough to get us through the day.
In general, the more we value other people, animals, and things, the stronger our self-value becomes; the more we devalue, the lower our self-value sinks, making elaborate and often self-destructive ego defenses—chronic resentment, anger, substance abuse, impulsive behavior, or abuse of others—seem necessary.
A radical approach to self-value makes these and other maladaptive ego defenses unnecessary. Here's how to get there:
1. Physical Well-Being. Commit to making your physical health important and worthy of appreciation, time, energy, and sacrifice. Begin by reading widely available information about wellness, diet, and exercise, and decide which are optimal for you. Pursue your regimen of health vigorously—not only for yourself, but to make the world a better place.
2. Emotional Well-Being. Make your emotional well-being worthy of appreciation, time, energy, and sacrifice. Emotional well-being has many dimensions:
- Honor your deepest values. The most potent contributor to consistent emotional well-being is fidelity to your deepest values. When we are true to our deepest values—whatever they are—we feel more genuine. When we violate those values, we experience guilt, shame, and anxiety—not as punishments, but as reminders to be authentic. If your life feels genuine, with sustained interest, purpose, conviction, and compassion, you have created a set of values and more or less kept true to them.
- Survey your environment. We continually survey our environment for objects of attraction and threat—as one evolutionary anthropologist put it, food, affiliation, sex, saber-tooth tigers, and snakes in the grass. Many people, as researcher John Gottman has said, continually survey their environment for anything that might possibly be negative. They have trained their brains, quite inadvertently, to look for things that will make them feel down, resentful, anxious, or angry, which they inevitably find and almost always blame on the people around them. Fortunately, our brains can do the opposite—look for something to appreciate, enjoy, or be interested in—although it takes practice, as well as commitment to emotional well-being. We have very little control over the environment we live in, but we have considerable control over where in the environment to aim our focus. There are innumerable things around us that can stimulate interest, curiosity, enjoyment, courage, compassion, and kindness. Seek them out.
- Act on what's most important. Much of the suffering in the world occurs when people violate what is most important to them by acting on what is less important. Think of the big mistakes you’ve made in life: Nearly every one probably involves devaluing someone or something important to you by acting on something that was not as important.
- Value when feeling devalued. When we feel devalued, we feel we must do something that will make us feel more valuable—not more powerful. The easiest way to feel valuable is to be compassionate, kind, or loving. This is a simple but transformative skill, which anyone can acquire with practice. When you feel powerless, do something that will make you feel more valuable (e.g., compassionate, kind, or loving). In 20 minutes—or less, if not a lot of cortisol was secreted with the negative emotion—your self-value will be higher than before the powerless feeling occurred.