Radical Self-Value

Overcoming self-esteem

Posted Apr 26, 2013

In a previous post, I described self-value as more important, desirable, and motivational than self-esteem. If everyone’s self-esteem were higher, there would be even more conflict and violence in the world. If everyone’s self-value were higher, the world would be a much better place.

In general, the more we value other people, animals, and things, the stronger self-value becomes; the more we devalue, the lower self-value sinks, making elaborate ego defenses seem necessary. These typically take the form of chronic resentment, anger, substance abuse, impulsive behavior, or abuse of others - all self-destructive and signs of low self-value, although they may well signal high self-esteem. A radical approach to self-value makes these and other maladaptive ego defenses unnecessary.

Physical Well Being

The first aspect of radical self-value is commitment to make your physical health important and worthy of appreciation, time, energy, and sacrifice. Begin by reading some of the plethora of information about wellness (disease prevention), diet, and exercise, then decide which are optimal for you. Pursue your regimen of health vigorously, not only for yourself, but to make the world a better place.

Emotional Well Being

The second aspect of radical self-value is commitment to make your emotional well being worthy of appreciation, time, energy, and sacrifice. Emotional well being has many dimensions. Below are the major ones.

Deepest values: The most potent contributor to consistent emotional well being is fidelity to your deepest values. When true to our deepest values - whatever they are - we feel more genuine. When we violate our deepest 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.

Surveying the environment: We continually survey our environments for objects of attraction and threat – for food, affiliation, sex, saber tooth tigers, and snakes in the grass, as one evolutionary anthropologist put it. Many people, as researcher John Gottman put it, continually survey their environments 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 absolute control over what in the environment we choose to aim our focus. There are innumerable things in the environment that can stimulate interest, curiosity, enjoyment, courage, compassion, and kindness.

Benign Interpretations: Think of the things that have the profoundest influence on our lives and how little control we have over them. We didn’t choose our parents; we didn’t sit down with God and say, “I’ll take those two over there.” We didn’t choose what illnesses our mothers suffered during pregnancy or whether they smoked or took aspirin. Who decided how much money their families would have, what early childhood illnesses or accidents they would experience, which schools they would go to or what kind of teachers and peers they would find there? And who chose whether other children would like or bully them, respect or humiliate them? We simply have no control over of the major influences on our lives. Yet we have absolute control over what everything in our lives means to us. If we define the meaning of our lives by bad things that happen to us, we create chronic states of powerlessness and resentment, with intermittent depression. If we control the meaning of our lives by systematically increasing the value of our experience, we create a life of meaning, purpose, and personal power. In radical self-value, we accept responsibility to give our experience the most benign interpretations that are realistically possible.

Transcending pain: The natural motivation of pain is to motivate behavior that will heal, correct, and improve. To transcend is to go beyond limits, to become greater to become the most empowered and humane persons we can be. This, I believe, is the evolved function of pain. Not to suffer or to identify with suffering but to grow beyond it.

Acting on What is 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.

If you think of the big mistakes you’ve made in life, nearly every one involves violating a deeper value by acting on something that was not as important to you. In fact, we consistently violate more important values by acting on less important feelings and impulses. We’re susceptible to this recurring error for two reasons.

Deeper values do not run on automatic pilot like habits and impulses. Processed in the brain in milliseconds, habits and impulses largely bypass the prefrontal cortex (where we make decisions based on values). If we consistently act on superficial feelings, which are largely habits, we’ll consistently violate deeper values.

Don’t focus so much on how you feel; instead, focus on whether you want to value or devalue. Most of the time we don’t want to devalue, we just want behavior change. Of course, devaluing hardly ever gets the positive behavior change we want.

Value when devalued: When we feel devalued, 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 (shorter, if not a lot of cortisol was secreted with the negative emotion), your self-value will be higher than before the powerless feeling occurred.