Forget Self-Esteem

Develop self-value

Posted Apr 12, 2013

The age of entitlement is, not coincidentally, the age of high self-esteem. Self-esteem 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 and, by implication, not as good as others. It has a dark side, as indicated by the research of Roy Baumeister and colleagues, 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 retaliate with manipulation, abuse, or violence.

Self-value is more behavioral than emotional and conceptual, more about how you act toward what you value, including yourself, than how you feel about yourself compared to others. To value something goes beyond regarding or feeling that it’s important; you also appreciate its qualities, while investing time, energy, effort, and sacrifice in its 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 of temperature and humidity and shielded from direct lighting. Similarly, people with high self-value appreciate their better qualities (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. When we value others, we value ourselves more, i.e., 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.

It's often hard to notice that we’re in devalued states, because devaluing others requires a certain amount of adrenalin, which creates a temporary feeling of power and certainty - we feel right, although we’re more likely self-righteousness. But this sense of power lasts only as long as the arousal lasts. To stay "right," we have to stay aroused, negative, and narrow in perspective: "Every time I think of him I get pissed!" In contrast, when self-value is high, we can easily disagree with someone without feeling devalued and without devaluing.

The impulse to devalue others always signals a diminished sense of self, as we must be in a devalued state to devalue. That's why it's so hard to put someone down when you feel really good (your value investment is high) and equally hard to build yourself up when you feel resentful. That’s what Khalil Gibran meant by, “To belittle you have to be little.”

If you doubt the latter, think of things you say to yourself and others when resentful: "I shouldn't have to put up with this; I deserve better, just look at all the good things I do...." When you value others, i.e., when your self-value is high, you don’t think of what you have to put up with and you certainly don't feel the need to list the good things you do. Rather, when confronted with life challenges, you shift automatically into improve mode - you try to make bad situations better.

Devaluing others never puts us in touch with the most important things about us and, therefore, never raises personal value. On the contrary, its whole purpose is to make someone else's value seem lower than our own. If it works, we’re both down; if it doesn't, we end up lower than where we started. In either case, personal value remains low and dependent on downward comparison to those we devalue, creating a chronic state of powerlessness. The motivation to gain temporary empowerment by devaluing others occurs more and more frequently, until it takes over everyday life. This could be what Oscar Wilde meant by, "Criticism is the only reliable form of autobiography."

Valuing others makes self-value soar. It also carries substantial social reward; showing value tends to invoke reciprocity and cooperation, while devaluing causes reactivity and resistance. Worst of all, devaluing others makes us look for something to be cranky about, so the low-grade adrenalin can inflate our egos enough to get us through the day.

The great tragedy of our times is the substitution of temporary power for value. In the age of entitlement, we feel powerless most of the time, despite the fact that we have more personal power than previous generations. We feel more easily devalued, offended, and insulted. Instead of doing something that will make us feel more valuable, we respond with an exertion of power to devalue, offend, and insult. When everyone reacts to a jerk like a jerk, the world is filled with jerks.

I have spent my career teaching people with widely varying degrees of resentment and anger to do something that will make them feel more valuable when they feel devalued. This is the only protection from the fragile sense of self that results from high emotional reactivity – when the inability to control how other people think, feel, and behave makes us feel devalued. The secret is in the word, “valuable” – to be able to value. To feel valuable, you must value.