The following is adapted from my new book, Responsibility Rebellion.
Picture it. The sky is blue, the weather is mild, and your kids are out of the house for the afternoon. You’ve just curled up in a hammock with a glass of lemonade. It sounds ideal, right? But no matter how calm the day seems, you still have a battle raging inside.
Your internal voices say: You have time to lie on a hammock? You’re so lazy! How about doing those piles of laundry instead?
Next, it’s: You deserve this. After all, what’s the harm in a little self-care?
Then, abruptly: What time is it? The kids are going to crash through the door any minute. Ugh! All you wanted was a moment of peace! If they ask for one more thing, you’re going to crack!
It’s like there are different parts of yourself telling you very different stories about who you are and what you’re capable of. Your self is sending you mixed messages.
There are three ways people come to terms with the self, which is divided into their self-worth, self-esteem, and self-concept. These three parts of the self are what your head is battling against every day. When you’re in a bad place already, it’s hard to rationally decipher which one you need to work on first. In this article, I’ll unpack these three different components of the self and show you how they might be getting in your way.
Recognise Your Self-Worth
Self-worth is your sense of your own intrinsic value. It’s the conviction that you matter because of who you fundamentally are, not because of the things you do or what you’ve achieved. Your self-worth is based on your understanding of your true, authentic identity.
Because self-worth is based on perception, it’s not always accurate. The value you place on yourself depends on your upbringing and whether or not you were brought up in a home where you were encouraged to grow and learn from your failures or were constantly put down for them.
However, even if you recognise that you grew up in an environment which didn’t nurture you as it should have, your past doesn’t excuse clinging onto your low self-worth today. You can identify that you have some ‘issues’ because of your upbringing, but things of your past never need to be definitive in your present day or future. They are the emotional leftovers of your childhood, but they do not determine your value.
Your past does not define you: you determine who you are today through the thoughts you choose to give weight to, the actions you take, and the decisions you make. Other people may have been responsible for the hurt they caused you in the past, but only you are responsible for the pain you carry today.
You have to recognize your own worth, independent of what others have said or done. Discovering and accepting your self-worth demands that you commit to a lifelong journey of growth, extending yourself to others, sharing your value, taking responsibility for your emotional and mental inconsistencies, and embracing your imperfections. Self-worth comes entirely from within.
Stop Chasing Self-Esteem
Self-esteem, on the other hand, relates to how you feel about your external self. It stems from the impression you think you make on others, including how you think they perceive your behavior, appearance, and interactions.
Self-esteem is undeniably important if you want to live a mature and emotionally stable life, but you shouldn’t prioritize it over the other parts of your self. If you’re primarily drawing validation from external factors, your esteem is subject to a lot of flux. It seems like for every success that boosts your confidence, there are twenty failures solidly knocking you back down to rock bottom. Chasing self-esteem becomes an exhausting and unsustainable way of living.
The reason people focus so much on improving their self-esteem is that self-esteem is on the frontline; when something goes wrong, it’s the thing that gets impacted first, usually with a critical blow. But what you don’t realise is that your self-esteem is the product of your self-worth, and if you don’t look at amending your self-worth, you’re never going to fix your self-esteem issues.
Tackling issues of self-esteem before tackling those of self-worth is like going to the gym to lose weight without confronting and changing your diet. Sure, you’ll lose a little weight and tone up a bit, but after a while, you’ll find yourself plateauing, and you’ll become frustrated. When it comes to self-esteem, stop chasing the immediate gratification that comes from external validation and focus on long-term goals and meaningful change.
Develop a Self-Concept
Self-concept is an idealised vision of yourself: the person you wish you could possibly and eventually become. If you don’t have a self-concept to work towards, you end up not trying anything in life, which, in turn, propagates ideas of low self-worth and low self-esteem.
Like self-esteem, self-concept comes with a warning. Many people preemptively concern themselves with their self-concept, and understandably so. When you have low self-esteem, it’s refreshing to daydream about being a totally different person in a few years’ time: an amazing, super-healthy, career-driven, rich, helpful, popular, intelligent, and well-travelled individual.
Many people have lofty self-concepts of their future selves, yet very few commit to becoming that person by taking action today and changing their attitudes, behaviours, or habits in order to develop into that person. Instead, they all secretly hope they can skip out on all the hard work and just transform overnight thanks to a new job, a new look, a new partner, a new home, a new body, or even just a new age. Over time, their self-concept begins to gnaw away at their self-esteem.
By all means, commit to working towards becoming your ideal self; learn and do whatever you need to do every day to move forward and just do everything in your power to become a better person than who you were yesterday. Your ideal self-concept may seem far off, but it will come into fruition as you commit to the process of just being who you are.
Don’t Let Your Self Get in the Way
When that raging battle is going on inside your head, be aware that three different aspects are speaking: your ideal self, your external self, and your internal self. They are all important and worthy of attention. The laundry does need to get done sometime, and it will make you feel good if people think you’re a good parent. But the most important voice to listen to is the one that tells you, at your core, you’re actually a semi-decent person. You get the laundry done and you’re a good parent, in large part, because you know your own intrinsic value.
So, in those quiet moments, don’t let your self get in your way. Make the decision that will give you long-term peace of mind and bolster your internal strength. When your self-worth is high, everything else will fall into place.
For more advice on selfhood, you can find Responsibility Rebellion on Amazon.
Kain Ramsay is the top-ranked psychology and personal growth instructor at Udemy and founder of Achology.com, an academy devoted to teaching modern methods and principles of applied psychology. Known for his trademark teaching style, Kain delivers highly sought-after programs that include Mindfulness, Life Coaching, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, and Neuro-Linguistic Programming. In 2018, he partnered with world-renowned author Gerard Egan to produce an online adaptation of Egan’s international bestselling book, The Skilled Helper.