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How Do You Evaluate Your Self-Worth?

It is often based on evaluating one’s success in certain areas.

Ken is a 21-year-old college student whose feelings about himself vacillate. When he was in high school he did well and had a strong sense of accomplishment; especially given that he was the class valedictorian. Ken received a full scholarship to a prestigious university and was excited to go there. However, his grades in college are not as stellar as they were in high school nor as high as those of his roommate and some of his friends. Rather than competing against a broad range of students as he did in high school, he is now among a large group of academically gifted students much like himself, if not better. Ken’s self-esteem has plummeted to the point that he feels depressed and is withdrawing from people and activities.

Janice is a 29-year-old woman who knows that she is a success. She surrounds herself with people who support and appreciate her skills and qualities. She knows she must be selective with whom she associates and doesn’t want to be bothered by people who don’t value the same things she does. Janice also doesn’t have much patience for individuals who are jealous of her. Therefore, she is diligent in avoiding “negative people.” She is very careful in limiting her activities to those in which she excels because she believes that to do otherwise would be a waste of her time.

The literature generally has found that self-worth or self-esteem is often based on how people evaluate their success or accomplishment in certain areas. Crocker and colleagues identified seven “contingencies of self-worth”; they are “others’ approval or regard, physical appearance, competencies, love from family, outdoing others in competition, virtue, and faith” (Crocker, 2002, p. 144). Some of these contingencies are external factors (such as academics, physical attractiveness, what others think of you) and some are internal ones (such as moral virtue, feeling loved by God).

The views that Ken and Janice have of themselves are quite different. Both use self-comparisons to others resulting in either a deflation or inflation of self-worth. For example, Ken’s self-worth is affected by how well he performs in scholarly activities in comparison to others. When he fared better than his fellow high school students, he felt good about himself and his self-esteem was high. Now, however, he isn’t performing as well as his college friends; consequently, he doesn’t feel good about himself and his self-esteem is poor.

Feelings of self-worth can vary across time and situations; particularly, if an individual’s self-worth is based on comparing oneself to others or aspects external to the individual (e.g., what others think of you). In these instances, there is greater instability in self-esteem in contrast to situations where individuals derive their self-worth from core, internal, or abstract factors; such as feeling virtuous or loved by God, where there is less instability or inconsistency. Self-worth instability can have a great impact on an individual’s functioning to the degree that it can leave one vulnerable to depression (Kernis et al., 1998).

One group of individuals who guard against self-worth instability are those who are high in narcissism. Generally, they strive to maintain a grandiose sense of self, which may require that they do whatever they need to maintain a high level of self-worth. Janice could be viewed as narcissistic. Her sense of self-worth is very dependent on what others think of her; therefore, to avoid feeling low self-esteem, she does whatever she can to protect herself from people who might criticize or threaten her. She surrounds herself with sycophants and stays away from “non-supportive” people.

Researchers have found that people high in narcissism limit their contingencies of self-worth to those that are external because the admiration and validation from others are critical to them. However, they also overestimate their abilities, are self-absorbed, and can be insensitive to the feelings of others. This does not make for good interpersonal relationships. Moreover, even though narcissistic individuals are attracted to successful people (because they are “successful” too), their association and comparison to such people eventually lead them to harm or sever the relationship when their self-worth is threatened. That is, if the “successful” friend outperforms them on a contingency the narcissistic person believes is important (e.g., physical attraction, a competition, greater admiration from a mutual friend), the narcissistic person might denigrate the successful friend, reduce their closeness, or end the relationship entirely. This is how they resolve their “self-worth instability.”

Self-worth and self-esteem are important psychological constructs that affect not only how we think about ourselves and how we relate to others, but they also have an impact on our psychological health and functioning. Low self-worth can lead to stress, substance abuse, depression, and other impairing conditions. A strong reliance on basing one’s self-worth on external contingencies leaves the individual vulnerable to instability as opposed to the stability that is found for those whose self-worth stems from core or internal contingencies. It is not recommended that people refrain from seeking approval from others or have a competitive nature if those aspects are important to them. However, it is recommended that people become more cognizant of their virtues and their inner strengths, and then keep them in the forefront of their mind when feeling challenged or stressed. Doing so reminds us who we really are and our worth, and if necessary, how we can improve.


Crocker, J. (2002) Contingencies of self-worth: Implications for self-regulation and psychological vulnerability. Self and Identity, 1, 143-149. DOI: 10.1080/15298860231731932

Kernis, M. H., Whisenhunt, C. R., Waschull, S. B., Greenier, K. D., Berry, A. J., Herlocker, C. E., & Anderson, C. A. (1998). Multiple facets of self-esteem and their relations to depressive symptoms. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 657–668.

Nicholls, E., & Stukas, A. A. (2011). Narcissism and the self-evaluation maintenance model: Effects of social comparison threats on relationship closeness. The Journal of Social Psychology, 151, 201-212. DOI: 10.1080/00224540903510852

Updegraff, J. A., Emanuel, A. S., Suh, E. M., & Gallagher, K. M. (2010). Sheltering the self from the storm: Self-construal abstractness and the stability of self-esteem. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 97-108. DOI: 10.1177/0146167209353331