“Hey, Alexa: Purchase self-worth from Amazon.”

Can you imagine how convenient it would be to just buy self-esteem when you’re running low? Unfortunately, learning that you are capable, significant, and worthy is a skill that can’t be ordered through a one-click checkout. Instead, your “cart” of self-worth is filled day by day through what you choose to put in it.

Just as a mountain lake can be filled by many different sources like snowmelt, rain, or an underground spring, your self-esteem can come from many different sources, too. Some sources of self-esteem are more consistent over time, while others tend to be unstable since you don’t always control the results.1 The trick, then, is to build your self-esteem from sources that will be both stable and sustainable over time.

Take for example Regina whose source of self-worth is based on her physical beauty. This means that on days when she’s wearing her new heels, she feels (quite literally) on top of the world, but on days when her favorite smoky-eye look accidentally turns into a sleep-deprived raccoon look, her self-esteem plummets. The day-to-day self-esteem rollercoaster is exhausting because she can’t control everything about how she looks or how others will look at her. By the end of the day, Regina can’t help but feel unworthy when she looks at herself compared to others.

On the other hand, Jessica chooses to fill her worth from a much deeper source: her kind heart. So, whether Jessica has the best hair day in the world, the worst post-holiday weight gain, landed a job interview, or failed a test, she can love herself through all of it. Of course, Jessica has bad days like everyone else (usually on days when she’s sleep-deprived, hungry, or stressed), but because she has a constant, internal source of self-esteem, she’s more likely to bounce back when something goes wrong in her life.

As a child you may have been given negative messages about your worth. Experiences of abuse, neglect, and loss may lead you to question if you are lovable, capable, and worthy.2,3 As you think about how these messages may still influence your self-esteem today, consider the Parable of the Ponds:

On the outskirts of a rural Chinese town there lived a young girl whose mother asked her to fetch some water. “But mother, I don’t know where to get the water.” Her mother simply replied with the advice, “Do you trust the source?”

A little confused about her mother’s advice, the girl happened upon two crystal clear ponds. Tired from her journey, the girl knelt to fill her pitcher in the closest pond. As the pitcher began to fill, she remembered her mother’s advice, “Do you trust the source?”

The girl looked up and realized that the pond she had chosen was downstream from a watering hole for farm animals. She then looked closer at the other pond and saw that it was fed by a natural spring filtered through layers of rock and earth. She finally understood her mother’s advice, picked the water that was fed by the source she trusted, and triumphantly arrived home with clean, healing water.

When negative thoughts about your worth come into your mind, consider asking, “Do you trust the source?” You may find that the person (or people) who originally gave you those ideas are not reliable sources of information, and that you have other sources you can draw from. Although some of your negative thoughts and feelings are automatic, you can learn to replace them with kind messages from yourself such as “I am worthy,” “I am lovable,” or “I am enough.”4

Because that is what you are: worthy, lovable, and enough.

1. Crocker, J., & Knight, K. M. (2005). Contingencies of Self-Worth. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(4), 200-203.
2. Krahé, B., & Berger, A. (2017). Gendered pathways from child sexual abuse to sexual aggression victimization and perpetration in adolescence and young adulthood. Child Abuse & Neglect, 63, 261-272.
3. Trickett, P. K., Noll, J. G., & Putnam, F. W. (2011). The impact of sexual abuse on female development: Lessons from a multigenerational, longitudinal research study. Development and Psychopathology, 23(2), 453-476.
4. Fennel, M. J. (2005). Low self-esteem. In Encyclopedia of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (pp. 236-240). Springer, Boston, MA.

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