Living with low self-worth or a sense of unworthiness can be really painful. It can get in the way of your excitement, your enjoyment of life, your ability to relate authentically to other people, and your ability to be yourself in any situation. When you feel unworthy about who you are, it’s difficult to be comfortable in your own skin. To feel safe in the world. To feel seen, valued, and heard. To feel as though you have something to offer.
The Cycle of Unworthiness
This is why people with low self-worth often look to sources of external validation to feel ok about themselves. You might rely on your partner or best friend (or mom!) to reassure you that you’re ok. That you have something valuable to share with the world. That you’re a good person. But the relief you get from external validation is often short-lived, because that sense of unworthiness finds a way to creep back in. So, you get stuck in a cycle that looks a bit like this:
- You feel unworthy/insecure about who you are
- You seek external validation
- You feel momentary relief from the feeling of unworthiness
- A few days (or hours) later, the feeling of unworthiness returns
- You seek external validation… and so on and so on.
We might call this the “cycle of unworthiness.” In a way, it’s kind of like an addiction. The thing you’re addicted to is external validation. You’re addicted to this because external validation helps to relieve the pain and discomfort you feel as a result of your low self-worth.
Sources of external validation include loving words from your partner or friend or mom (as we said earlier), but they can also include professional praise and recognition, material achievements, academic achievements, athletic distinction, and anything else that makes you feel worthy and ok — at least for a little while. For example, workaholics are often addicted to their work and to over-achieving because professional recognition gives them a sense of self-worth and self-confidence.
Conditional Self-Worth Versus Genuine Self-Worth
The problem with seeking external validation is that it’s never enough. It never resolves the underlying feelings of unworthiness and shame. Just like an addiction to junk food, which promises great pleasure in the moment but actually leaves us feeling sick and ashamed later on, an addiction to external validation only pushes those feelings of unworthiness even deeper and leaves us feeling empty and confused about who we really are.
In his powerful book on addiction, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Mate distinguishes between contingent self-esteem and genuine self-esteem.
Contingent self-esteem depends on circumstances and on achievements. For example, it can be based on how many degrees you have, or how big your house is, or how much money you make, or how externally successful you are (at least based on cultural and social standards).
We might also call this conditional self-worth. This type of self-worth is based on your achievements and on how successful you are. This means that conditional self-worth relies on a constant input of external validation to survive. Without constant external validation, this type of self-worth just collapses — making you feel crappy about yourself and starting that cycle of unworthiness again.
Dr. Mate defines genuine self-esteem as a type of self-esteem that “needs nothing from the outside.” We might also call this genuine self-worth. When you have this type of self-worth, you’re able to say:
“I don’t need to be right, to be powerful, to be traditionally successful, or to achieve anything. I’m worthwhile and worthy whether I do any of these things or not. I’m worthy simply because I exist.”
This means that genuine self-worth doesn’t go up and down the way conditional self-worth does. Genuine self-worth doesn’t fluctuate based on how you look a certain day, or how much money you make this month, or whether you check off everything on your to-do list. When you’re able to cultivate it, genuine self-worth is like an oasis within you. It gives you support and unconditional love for yourself even during times of stress or difficulty.
Moving Beyond External Validation
So how do you move beyond this need for external validation? How do you cultivate genuine self-worth?
I originally titled this blog post “How to Increase Your Self-Worth to Move Beyond External Validation.” But that didn’t make sense, because self-worth is not necessarily something that must be increased. Self-worth is something that must be reclaimed and remembered.
You’re actually born with inherent self-worth and with unconditional love for yourself (and all beings). Social and cultural conditioning make you forget your essential worthiness. This is because our culture values achievements and doing much more than simply being. Our culture doesn’t value people for who they are, as infinite Souls. Our culture values people for what they do, how they contribute, how much they consume (which keeps the economy going), and how much they achieve.
Eventually, this cultural programming becomes internalized, so you’re no longer happy just being — you need to always achieve and do more to prove your worth.
The 3 Steps
STEP 1. So, the first step is to recognize that you’ve internalized some cultural and social belief systems that have separated you from your own sense of self-worth. These beliefs have convinced you that you’re not worthy unless you’re doing, achieving, creating, consuming, spending money, making money, or contributing to the world in some way.
Recognizing the role of culture in your own sense of unworthiness is very important because it allows you to see that there’s nothing essentially flawed within you. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s actually the culture itself that is sick, trying to keep us all on a treadmill of endless achievements.
STEP 2. The next step is to recognize any patterns of unworthiness in your family lineage and in your upbringing. If your mother always put herself down for not being smart enough, or not being pretty enough, or not making enough money (or for any other reason), it’s very likely that you internalized her own dissatisfaction with herself. You might be using that as a yardstick to “measure” your own worthiness now.
If your mother (or father or grandmother or teacher or any other important authority figure) actively told you that you were ugly, stupid, lazy, or worthless, it’s also likely that you bought into those false ideas about yourself. Some of us had loving parents and a loving home environment but we faced bullying at school or were mocked in hurtful ways by our peers. This can also cause a rift within ourselves and lead to feelings of shame and unworthiness.
It’s so important to identify the origins of your main beliefs about yourself and your self-worth. You’re often carrying insane beliefs and ideas about yourself that aren’t even yours — they were first spoken by someone else, and you bought into them in a moment of great vulnerability or shame.
On an energetic level, you can imagine yourself carrying these beliefs as a gigantic bag of rocks on your back. This bag slows you down, hurts your joints, and keeps you stuck in the past. When a negative thought about yourself pops up — like, “I’m so stupid for not being able to figure this out” or “I wasn’t productive enough today” or “I look so ugly today” — remember that this thought is like a rock. You can choose to continue carrying this rock, or you can visualize yourself tossing it out the window. It’s not yours anymore.
STEP 3. The final step I can suggest here is to reconnect with your Higher Self and your Soul. Your Soul knows, without any doubt, that you’re infinitely worthy just for being alive. Your Soul has never forgotten this, even if you have.
To reconnect with your Higher Self and with the aspect of you that remembers your essential worthiness, I invite you to try out my worthiness meditation. All you have to do is sit down, close your eyes, breathe deeply, and repeat the following mantras:
I am seen.
I am held.
I am loved.
I am worthy.
I recommend doing this for at least 10 minutes per day, repeating the mantras to yourself in a soft and easy way (don’t rush!). You can also alternate between repeating the mantras and then sitting in silence to see what comes up for you. It’s ok to feel resistant, to feel silly, to feel sad, or to feel as though nothing is happening. You might also feel relief, happiness, hope, or peace. These are all normal reactions.
You can use this meditation instead of seeking external validation whenever you feel unworthy or insecure. This will help you reclaim your inherent sense of self-worth, remember who you really are (at a Soul level), and lessen your addiction to external validation. It will help you create an oasis of true worthiness and self-worth within you, which you can access whenever you need.
If you need more help reclaiming your self-worth or moving beyond external validation, I invite you to book a discovery call or a healing session with me here. I’d love to work with you and help you remember your essential worthiness.