It took me a long time not to judge myself through someone else’s eyes.— Sally Field

What is Self-worth and how to improve it?

We already mentioned Self-love, the all-important concept of not being mean to yourself. It’s connected to everything in The Game of Self because observations show it affects everything:

If you lack self-love, everything in your life suffers a bit. If you completely lack it, that’s emergency level bad 🙁

But there is hope. I had a long journey of discovering self-love myself. It was a textbook I Grow Younger path of unlearning the wrong ideas that my upbringing, competitive chess childhood and cultural pressure had put into my mind. So I have first hand experience with this. But how did I create the feeling?

Love cannot be manufactured. But if you give it space and time and remove the barriers in the way, it is likely to grow.

And what are the barriers between you and self-love? The classic answer is deep forms of fear like shame and guilt. And sure, this is proven to be completely true. But shame and guilt are not structures. When not the result of deeper childhood trauma (in which case we recommend therapy), they come and go with the circumstances. In this case there are deeper structures in our core value system that tell us when to feel guilt or shame. These internal rules are strongly tied to morality. And not just morality but the blind destructive fear or being immoral, of being a bad person. This fear and the wrong expectations that life is just and supports merit and cause-effect logic and proportional rewards (symmetry) is a main barrier between us and self-love.

When I was younger I was extremely moral but lacked self-love. Then I laxed morality standards a bit to semi-strict and things improved. And I’m having a strange ongoing observation. Many highly moral people I know well have a lack of self-love. Why could that be?

The key to self-love is to completely detach it from what you think you deserve and make it a no-questions-asked universal part of you. This may be hard for highly moral people who live by merit – all good things should be earned.

However, such a “merit” theory does not survive the clash with reality. Life is too random and will throw both bad and good undeserved things in your face all the time. While it’s good to stoically stand your ground against the bad, you might as well snatch some random good ones when their time comes. Otherwise you’re just being a cute righteous fool 🙂 Snatching and sharing with others value that would otherwise vanish is simply common sense.

To understand the structure of how self-love actually grows and how morality gets in the way we must ask how come it’s so important.

Why does it impact everything? Because you’re always around you.

Your relationship with yourself is a lifelong marriage with zero secrets, zero space, zero breaks and zero alternatives. The stakes are just too damn high to fuck this one up. It’s hands down the most important relationship in your life.

Sounds hard already? I have good news. It’s also the easiest to improve. Because you don’t have to wonder if it’s you or me… It’s always you 🙂 Jokes aside, the relationship with yourself is influenced by everything you do, all the time. What else in life can you improve 24/7? Nothing. You have the potential to grow every minute. But the most important thing is you get to follow through on all of your small wins. You can establish a direction of progress and there is no half-time to lose your rhythm.

It’s like looking at a mirror. It’s not You vs You. It’s more like 2X of the same You. A closed system. And you know what works well in closed systems with no oversight? The oldest trick in the book? Cheat.

Cheating has a bad rep. Let’s say I cheat at an important exam as a medical student – this is bad for multiple reasons like:

  1. I may become a doctor without covering what society has established doctors must know.
  2. I may take the place of a good non-cheating doctor, making it unethical even if I never get to practice.
  3. It’s bad in itself to cheat!

But wait, here’s a twist. I didn’t tell you I cheated in the opposite direction, failing the exam on purpose. Because I realized I didn’t really want to become a doctor or for whatever reason, doesn’t matter. I just decided to fail by selecting wrong answers on a test.

Now is this reverse-cheating still… cheating? Kinda… the exam system is built to evaluate my performance and I’m lying to it on purpose. What are the consequences?

  1. I won’t become a doctor. Instead some other person probably will. I don’t know the person I just gave a chance. Will they be a good or bad doctor? What about compared to me potentially becoming one? I don’t have the slightest idea.
  2. Is it unethical to replace one unknown (the performance of me becoming a doctor) with another, even more unknown (the performance of the unknown person becoming a doctor)? Hardly.
  3. Is it still bad in itself to cheat?

As you can see we entered a bunch of gray areas at the same time. And this was the whole idea.

“Reverse-cheating” as I call it has three main characteristics:

  • You have to break the central rule of your surrounding system (eg. fill in the answers you know in the exam)
  • You have to not benefit from breaking it (it may be neutral or a sacrifice).
  • The benefit should go to another entity.

Reverse-cheating is a powerful force in life because it’s rare. Give your clearly underperforming or downward unfriendly waiter a larger than usual tip and they will likely be really moved. Because it’s unexpected and it directly shows that you care about the person, who is probably just having a bad day or month or year. It changes the narrative from performance reward to genuine care. And this is a powerful message to send.

But what happens if the other entity is… future you?

Because “reverse-cheating” is very close to what happens every time you change something in your life.

Yes, every time you make a life change you do the exact same thing. You don’t feel like doing this the old way and you stop. You fail the habit like I failed the exam. You give it up.

What comes in its place? If you’re honest you’ll admit you don’t know. If you knew the outcome for sure, you would have changed the thing long ago, not now. If you didn’t… it’s likely because you don’t.

You’re making a trade-off between a known pattern from the past to the present and a more uncertain future.

You and future you are locked in this constant dance of expectations, reality and improvement attempts. But why do so many improvement attempts fail? Is it just inertia? Mostly yes, but our inability to reverse-cheat also plays a role.

The popular “Fake it till you make it” approach is just a form of reverse-cheating between you and future you. But it’s not the only one. And it will not bring you self-love with a magic wand because true love is, sorry to say, unfakeable.

Everything except love is mostly about making the first step and letting inertia finish it.

You can Fake-till-you-make-it everything else in life but not love. Because true love does not have a source. It’s just there or not. If a small grain of true love is already there, you can nurture and grow it. But if it’s not already there, you can’t create it by faking it. You can give it a chance by just waiting and people in arranged marriages will tell you sometimes it does happen. But sometimes it doesn’t. And you can’t force it with even the smartest strategy. You can speed the wait with a recipe for intimacy. But in most cases it won’t create true love. So Fake-it-till-you-make-it is not the right kind of reverse-cheating for self-love.

Love cannot be manufactured with a strategy. But you can create room for it to grow, create a nurturing environment (by being vulnerable) and know its enemies so you look out for them and fight if needed – fear, guilt and shame.

How self-love improvement looks in practice

Remember, it’s two copies of You and You in a relationship. Since it’s the same You, the thoughts and feelings are mirrored.

In any relationship (not just romantic ones but also family and work relationships), there are two potential dynamics. A race to the bottom and a race to the top.

In a race to the bottom, the sides lose trust over time, thus making the relationship ever more transactional (only give if you’re sure you’ll receive in return). No one makes goodwill first steps. And the vicious cycle begins:

  • Being a little defensive turns into being more defensive. Less understanding the other’s facts.
  • Being more defensive turns into being passive aggressive. Less caring about the other’s feelings.
  • Being passive aggressive turns into being openly hostile and contemptuous. Less respect.
  • And it better ends before you unleash the worst of human nature on each other.

In a race to the top, the sides gain trust over time, thus making the relationship non-transactional. Everyone is willing to give without receiving anything in return. And the virtuous cycle begins:

  • Being completely honest and transparent makes the other side react with the same. You now trust each other’s facts.
  • Being kind leads to the other side being kinder. You now care about your feelings and really try not to hurt each other.
  • Being tolerant of our alternating mutual failures creates even more trust and respect that holds through bad times.
  • Fully accepting each other for who we are leads to a relationship of harmony and higher love (if a romantic one).

As you can see in any relationship goodwill first steps are very important. You have to give what is not yet earned. You have to reverse-cheat.

Now in a relationship of two people they are not always in the same emotional state. If I’m happy and she’s sad, I’ll try to give her my best vibes. If I’m down she’ll try to do the same for me. There are constant occasions to make the goodwill first step, to reverse-cheat.

But in a relationship between You and You… it’s a another story. In one of your You-s is down, the other You is also down. Because they are the same. There is no one to pick you up. It’s a dangerous symmetry. You’re either well and the second You is loving and great but you’re good anyway, or you’re both emotionally down and ready to start the race to the bottom. This race can trigger ugly coping mechanisms like addictions and self-harm and it’s better not to go there.

There are two separate skills we need. And our self-worth and happiness depend on it.

How not to start the race to the self-love bottom

There are two ways to damage your self-love – emotions and thoughts.

Destructive emotions. The direct opposite of self-love is shame, closely followed by guilt. 

These emotions are extremely unhelpful on a personal level. They have evolved to keep our tribe together and have no purpose other than that. Whenever you spot them, drop them by any means, especially shame. There is no benefit from feeling shame, ever. It’s paralyzing, unproductive and just plain sucks. Vulnerability is a good counter emotion to those. Without vulnerability there is no true love.

Destructive thoughts, also knows as “downward spirals”. Waves of exhausting negative thoughts you can’t stop.

Destructive thoughts come when we’re down and don’t have a legit plan to get up. They appear small and casual but can quickly grow to terrifying proportions. In a study of 5,000 people in six cultures, 84% of women and 91% of men admitted to having had at least one fantasy of murder, and the vast majority fantasized about killing sexual rivals. (full jaw-dropping jealousy article). All of those started as a small thought and just grew to this level. Scary. Again, two separate skills needed:

  1. Not letting those hatch in the first place. A common source of downward spirals is a real or perceived injustice to us or others. While fighting for justice in a truly unjust world is noble, just thinking about the injustice is not helping anyone. As we explored in the balance post, either give zero fucks or enough to make you do something about it. If you can’t do anything to change the unjust reality, try not to obsess over it as you’re hurting yourself without helping anyone. Another source of downward spirals is when you have nothing to do. This is jokingly referred to in our team as “Sisi’s principle“; Sisi (7th grade) who I knew from chess coaching, said she dated the number one jerk in her class 3 times. When I asked why, she said “I had nothing to do” 🙂 Sisi’s principle is pure gold as it explains many wrong turns in life, including the start of many addictions.
  2. Not letting the downward spirals progress. This is about mindfulness and not becoming your thoughts. Just let them flow without dragging you down. Be a compassionate observer. If it doesn’t work, distract yourself – this is fighting the symptom, rather than the disease but it’s better than nothing.

How to start the race to the self-love top

How to break the symmetry of the You – You relationship? How to make a goodwill first step when you’re feeling down? After all when you’re down and you need those the most, you’re in the worst shape of doing them?

There are 2 main ingredients to making this work.

  1. First of all let it happen. If you believe as a core value that everything good should be earned, you’re not giving yourself any love and compassion because you don’t feel you have earned the right to it. This is a fundamental problem for many people. They just don’t get reverse-cheating as a concept. Not even internally. They just won’t make the first step of goodwill in self-love. There is only one way forward for those people. Make reverse-cheating a part of your life and get used to those unfairly looking asymmetries. Give the undeserved tips. Smile back at the haters. Thank the person late for a date that they gave you 15 minutes of unplanned free time to fill with your nice thoughts. Use these opportunities to be unfair… to yourself. This way you’ll break the patterns of fairness and symmetry that prevent you to be loving to yourself even when you’re not at your best. This radical kindness by default is a practical path that costs you next to nothing, in facts it makes your life better. This does not mean to be a pushover or people-pleaser or even to give people second chances if you don’t want to. If someone mean is exploiting your kindness, kick their ass out of your life. But most people are actually nice. The grumpy waiter is much more likely to just have a bad day than to be a bad person altogether. And even if they were the incarnation of evil, would a larger undeserved tip make the world end? Once you emotionally accept the concept of giving forms of unearned love, you will be able to give the same to yourself. It’s not that different.
  2. Stimulate it. Be around loving people. Do healthy things you love as much as possible and unhealthy things you hate as little as possible. If your job is making you bitter and you tried and failed every option, change it. If the relationship doesn’t bring you true happiness, end it. Life is full of possibilities. Play around 🙂

Many people think self-love and acceptance will prevent them to grow and develop. That they will feel content with who they are. But this is like saying that Usain Bolt wouldn’t want to compete in the Olympics because he already knows he can run fast. It’s the other way around. You need self-love and acceptance to grow and develop. It’s the foundation.

Oh, do you know that nature cheats on its own laws and if it didn’t, the Sun wouldn’t shine? Without cheating you literally would not exist. Ha!

Now that we did everything possible for self-love, where does self-worth come into the picture?

Nowhere. I understand self-worth as just how your feeling of self-love interacts with the real world. The visible projection of the most important feeling in your life.

Self-worth is a projection of your self-love and acceptance onto the world with its numbers and other validation traps.

With high enough self-love…

  • You will not need high performance to feel good. You will need authenticity instead.
  • You will not need or want achievements. You will want to give real value to others.
  • You will not need resources like money for status. You will need resources to give the real value.

You will just be fulfilled when you give it all for a good cause, no matter if you win or lose. And giving it all is the one thing under your control. Ironically when the pressure is gone, you are likely to grow and achieve a lot of achievements on paper. But you will not care very much about it 🙂

You will still need money since it’s an important source of freedom. Money as a self-worth goal or status symbol is worthless. But money as means to an end is valuable.

In a nutshell: Disregard social rules and bravely reverse-cheat; This way you open the gate to self-love too; Self-love will massively improve your Game of Self; and with good understanding of The Game of Life will demolish Inertia and bring you money and professional success. Which will not spoil you because you don’t care about status and validation.

Because your Self-worth is coming from within.

Been there, done that. And so can you. 

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

© I Grow Younger - The fun self-help blog. All rights reserved.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x

Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?