The baskets we use to store our self-esteem eggs: contingencies of self-worth

The way we evaluate things is like a balancing scale: when we have no opinion

The way we evaluate things is like a balancing scale: when we have no opinion about something, it’s empty. But once we start gathering positive and negative information, we start adding to the sides. If we’ve collected more positive information, eventually it starts leaning to one side:

If we hear a few negative comments about a brand, for example, it becomes easier to process negative information about that brand. Our brain is a lazy prediction-machine, and it gravitates towards information that confirms our hunches. It’s easy to back up our biases and hunches. Not only is it surprisingly difficult to change our mind, but it’s hard just to learn information that goes against our beliefs.

The most influential information that we ever learn is about ourselves.

In a series of studies, Duke’s Mark Leary demonstrated how much exclusion affected subjects’ self-esteem.

“We were measuring emotional variables [and] slipped in a measure of how people felt about themselves at the time. No matter what other experiences people were having, when they felt rejected, their own judgements of themselves were going down. Why is our self-image so tied to what other people think of us?”

How we feel about ourselves depends on our perception of being accepted or rejected by others. Feeling rejected adds a marble to the “we’re not worthy!” side of our scale.

We start processing information about whether we feel accepted or rejected at birth. How much we feel unconditionally loved by our family sets the stage for those initial marbles that we add to the scale, the ones signaling “I am worthy of love and everything is going to be okay!”

But even if we start the day with a head full of promise, we might return home, slouching and defeated.

Eventually, bad things happen; at some point in our lives, we learn that we’re not the belle of the ball.

Our self-concept gets shaped around what we think we have to do to be seen as worthy once again. For example:

If classmates bullied you during gym class—but wanted your help during social studies—you might think of your self-worth as devalued during physical activities, and valued during academics.

If you were praised for being pretty, you might tie your self-worth to your physical appearance.

If you were shown more love when you helped others, you might think that being of service is a requirement for love.

Did you get more attention from a parent when you won something? You might devote more time to achievement.

Feeling like we have to meet certain conditions to receive love or prevent bad things (abandonment, being made fun of) causes people to develop contingencies of self-worth, beliefs about what we have to do or who have to be in order to have value; they’re different buckets of life into which we put our self-esteem eggs.

These contingencies can be an asset because they can motivate us to accomplish great things. But they come at a cost.

The more compartmentalized our self-concept is, the more our self-esteem depends on external feedback, like achievement or applause. We spend our life in pursuit of fragile “I am worthy!” eggs, rather than carrying a backpack of resilient markers signaling I am intrinsically worthy.

Needing external approval to feel good about yourself is a recipe for disaster.

Developing a solid sense of self requires us to get self-esteem from inside. Things will be okay if you lose, leave the house without makeup, spend more time on self-care, or fall short of your goals. Those things are all part of being human.

One problem I see often is that once people get an idea of what they have to do/who they have to be in order to stay in the good graces of others, they rarely question that belief. They often don’t even realize that they have it. It’s like learning that opening a door requires using a key and knocking. You never realize that you don’t have to knock because it’s simply what you’ve always done.

A lot of people sell themselves short because before they feel ready to venture out, they’re convinced that they have to do X in order for things to be okay: make a certain amount of money, spend hours making complicated holiday plans, look a certain way—unknowingly complicating their lives. They’re convinced that they have to succeed at everything they try.

You don’t have to do anything to be worthy of love and respect.

Things will be okay if you fail.

Everyone else is just focused on their own lives, anyway.

Don’t base your self-esteem on outcomes.

Self-Compassion Above All

Here’s a graph of how we improve at anything:

You never get better without incorporating feedback into your process. Self-awareness is always #1: you have to be aware of where you are and what you’re doing. You have to be aware that there’s a discrepancy between your current state, your trajectory, and your desired future state.

But being able to incorporate feedback requires self-compassion.

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