Self-Worth: What the Research Has to Say

Psychologists are really interested in what they call “contingencies of self-worth.” This is the idea that our assessments of our own worth depend on things around us that fluctuate: we may feel worthy when people give us praise, when we get a good grade or a promotion, or when we have a productive day. Conversely, we may feel unworthy when we receive criticism, a poor grade, or when we aren’t as productive.

The point is, when our worth is tied things that are not constant, we are left in a constant and perilous state which wrecks havoc on our well-being.

Below are some summaries of recent research findings about self-worth, and what you can do to start grounding your self in something more constant.

Finding #1: When students’ self-esteem is tied to their academic performance, they tend to be more depressed.

Crocker and colleagues (2003) investigated these “contingencies of self-worth” and found that students tend to feel better about themselves on days they get good grades and worse about themselves on day they get bad grades. This isn’t surprising, of course, but it is problematic. If every time we perform worse than we expected in an important area of our lives, we think we are “bad people, stupid, or worthless,” we are setting ourselves up for a pretty sucky life.

This fact is evidenced by Crocker and colleagues’ (2003) finding that students who have this tendency were, in fact, more depressed.

Finding #2: When people are in romantic relationships, their self esteem fluctuates based on performance in areas in which their partners want them to succeed.

Horberg and colleagues (2010) found that, when people are in a romantic relationship in which they strongly desire closeness and intimacy, they are more likely to “stake their self-esteem in domains in which the significant other wanted them to excel.” In other words, if your crush, boyfriend, girlfriend, partner or spouse has made it clear they want you to be attractive, your self esteem will really suffer if you are made to feel unattractive. Alternatively, if they want you to be intelligent, a bad grade will feel like a knife to the heart.

What’s more, this lower sense of self worth also will affect your relationship: when people were made to feel like they performed poorly in one of these areas which their partner valued, they ended up feeling more insecure about their relationship as a whole.

Finding #3: When women’s self worth is contingent on whether they feel attractive, they are more likely to engage in behaviors associated with disordered eating.

Noser and colleagues (2014) investigated the relationship between self worth and attractiveness. They found that when women only feel good about themselves when they feel attractive, they are more likely to spend a lot of time worrying about their appearance, to feel ashamed when they don’t put effort into how they look, and to have a lower overall self-esteem.

These are all factors which correlate with engaging in disordered eating.

So, What’s the Solution?

Based off of these findings, here are some ideas of how to have a more stable sense of self-worth:

  1. Provide yourself with daily affirmations that your worth as a human does not depend on your achievements or success: “I am worthy of love and support regardless of how I do in school or at work.” When you find yourself falling in to patterns of negative self-talk, flip it to be kinder and more compassionate to yourself.
  2. Communicate with your partner about areas where you feel like their love for your is dependent on your performance. If they are a kind and loving individual, I would hope they would reassure you that this is not the case. For instance if you were to say, “I sometimes feel like you expect me to make a lot of money, and if I don’t, you will no longer see me as worthy of your love,” I would hope their response would be, “I’m sorry I made you feel that way. That’s not how I feel. I love you for who you are, not for what you can bring to the table.” If not, perhaps this is a time to take a closer look at what’s going on in this relationship.
  3. Start to challenge your own perceptions of what beauty ideals you are buying into. Sometimes, it can help to educate yourself more on diet culture and how companies profit by making us feel insecure. Once we start to realize that the way we view our bodies is part of an intentional messaging to promote the multi-BILLION dollar dieting industry, we can start to separate what is true and what is not. For the record, is true that human beings can be worthy, kind, successful, beautiful, and healthy in bodies of all shapes and sizes. Don’t buy in to that lie that says you’re not enough.

In general, I also find it really helpful to anchor your self worth in something that never changes. For me, that something is my faith: I feel valuable no matter what happens because I know that God loves me just as I am. If God says I’m beautiful, loved, and worthy, who am I to argue?