Your wit? Your beauty? Your kindness? Your friends or family? Your status? Your work? Your wealth? Your fame?
We all of us, every day, tend to make assessments of our self-worth, our value, our acceptability. When something good happens to us, we get a little release of endorphins, and then afterwards, our mind returns to that achievement, like a touchstone, and we think ‘I’m worthwhile, because I achieved this’. For example we think ‘I’m worthwhile, because this person loves me’ or ‘I’m worthwhile, because I got this job’.
And likewise, when something bad happens to us, and we feel we’ve failed somehow, our emotions veer down, and afterwards, our mind goes to that event, we ruminate over it, and it seems to affect our self-worth. We think ‘I’m less worthwhile, because they didn’t call me’ or ‘I failed to get that job, I’m not worthwhile’.
So our self-esteem constantly fluctuates according to how we perceive ourselves to have fared, and how this matches our expectations of ourselves. I, for example, traditionally have very high expectations of myself, so hardly ever feel like I’ve done well, let alone excelled myself.
We are driven on, relentlessly, by the thought ‘what will I have achieved by the time I die? Will I have piled up enough achievements, enough accolades, to somehow confer significance and meaning on my life? Will there be an obituary of me in The Times? Will anyone care or notice when I’m dead?’
But occasionally, just occasionally, it occurs to me that I don’t need to base my self-worth on any external achievements or accolades. After all, there is a great deal of chance involved in whether something I do succeeds or not. When I get an article published in a magazine, it might be because I did a good job, or it might simply be because I know the commissioning editor, or because they needed to fill some space. If someone likes me or dislikes me, it is as much to do with who they are and how their day/month/life is going as it is to do with who I am (on that particular day).
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, my self-esteem was very much based on how I performed socially. If I was on ‘good form’, if I received positive feedback from others after a social performance, I felt validated and alive. If I was on ‘bad form’, if I received negative feedback after a social performance, I felt unhappy, a failure, a shadow.
This was a form of sickness. Why should my self-worth depend on a particular social performance? What did it matter how others rated my performance?
Many of you would perhaps accept that this way of thinking was destructive and illogical. But are other reasons for rating your self-worth any more logical or helpful? Are we more worthwhile, as a human being, if we have brought out a book? If we have earned a million pounds? If our wife is a model? If our children are wonderfully talented? If our child then becomes a drug addict, does that makes us less worthwhile?
I have been reading a book by Albert Ellis, the creator of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), and one of the two founders of cognitive behavioural therapy, called The Myth of Self-Esteem. Ellis suggests that basing our self-worth on external conditions – which he calls ‘conditional self-acceptance’ – is a sickness, and is the main cause of mental illnesses such as depression and social anxiety.
The antidote to this sickness, he suggests, is ‘unconditional self-acceptance’. We can accept ourselves as inherently worthwhile, not for any reason at all, but just because we can.
Something in us rejects it immediately. What if we’re bad? What if we’ve hurt others? What if we’re lazy and don’t achieve anything? Surely, in that case, we’re not worth as much as, say, an Olympic athlete, or a world famous actor, or a courageous peace activist, or a Nobel-prize-winning physicist…
Ellis rejects what he calls ‘self-rating’, when we try to rate ourselves or others as ‘better’ or ‘worse’. We constantly do this, labelling ourselves a ‘winner’ or a ‘loser’, a ‘somebody’ or a ‘nobody’. But this way of thinking doesn’t make any sense.
You could perhaps rate someone as a better scientist in a particular line of research, or a better athlete in a particular race…but a better human being? How can you rate a human, totally and for all time? By what criteria? Humans are far too complex and changeable beings to give them a rating, as if they were participants in a beauty parade.
Yet we constantly do this to ourselves, rating ourselves, comparing ourselves to others (often people we don’t know well) and feeling higher or lower status compared to them, as if you can give someone’s essence a grade.
In the same way, Ellis criticizes the way we label ourselves and others as ‘bad’ or ‘good’. This way of thinking, and of speaking to ourselves, also makes no sense. ‘There are no good or bad people, just good or bad acts’, he insists. Even Hitler, he suggests, was not a bad person, he’s a person who acted very badly.
We can accept ourselves, even while we reject behaviour of ours which is unhelpful, negative or destructive. But there’s no point, no logic, in labelling ourselves or others as somehow inherently worthless or bad.
In some ways, Ellis’ theory of unconditional self-acceptance reminds me of Stoicism and Buddhism, the two philosophies that CBT is closest to. Both of those philosophies reject the idea that your self-worth is somehow wrapped up with externals, whether that’s how many friends you have, how nice your house is, how attractive other people think you are, etc.
However, these two philosophies still have self-ratings of a sort. They rate people according to how enlightened they are, how mentally controlled, how free of passions. At one end of the Buddhist scale, you have beings in hell. At the other, you have the enlightened ones, the sages. These states are relative, of course – we are all equally inherently worthwhile according to Stoicism and Buddhism, it’s just that some of us are more aware of our true inherent worth than others.
But this inherent value relies on something transcendent, on our divine inner nature – which Buddhists call ‘the Buddha Nature’ and Stoics call ‘the Logos’ or ‘the God within’. It is this, supposedly, that gives us our self-worth. Or, in modern human rights theory, which is very influenced by Stoicism, we have worth because we are humans (to which one might object, do animals have no inherent worth, because they are not humans?) Is it life that confers worth? In which case, do I stop being worthwhile when I am dead?
Ellis’ theory is more radical, more Nietzschean, one might say. We are valuable simply because we choose to confer value on ourselves, simply because we can do so. I choose to accept myself as worthwhile, because that makes me a lot happier than basing my self-esteem on external conditions.
But what if you’re a monster, a child molester, a despot? Labelling, says Ellis. There’s no such thing as ‘a monster’, there are merely monstrous acts. You can accept yourself, even while you reject your negative behaviour patterns.
Of course, you can’t just automatically move to a serene state of unconditional self-acceptance. Your mind is in the habit of basing its self-esteem on external conditions, and it will do this a hundred times throughout the day. Something good happens to you, and your self-esteem automatically goes up a bit, or you receive a knock-back, and it goes down a little.
But you can remind yourself…why should I base my self-worth on externals? Why not choose to accept myself, even if I fail, screw up, annoy others, fail to meet my targets? That way, I’ll be happier and more secure, and I’ll be just as likely to achieve my goals, and what’s more important, to enjoy my life while I’m trying to achieve them.
I think it’s one of the most brilliant ideas I’ve come across.