We often feel bad about ourselves.
As a result, we often engage in painful habits and thought patterns connected with these negative feelings.
For example, how often do you find yourself doing some or all the following things?
Worrying about other people’s approval.
Comparing yourself to other people.
Trying to accomplish amazing things to earn people’s approval.
Fretting constantly about mistakes and failures.
Being a perfectionist in your thoughts and actions.
Scrutinizing your perceived imperfections and deficiencies constantly.
Criticizing yourself harshly for these perceived imperfections and deficiencies.
Feeling like a good life is unobtainable because of your perceived imperfection and deficiencies.
If you are like a lot of people, you probably engage in these kinds of habits and thoughts regularly.
And if you are like a lot of people, such habits and thoughts cause a lot of suffering in your life.
“Sepulcre Arc En Barrois”, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A Painful Mindset
One of the primary reasons so many people struggle to feel good about themselves is that we often live according to a mindset I call the Extrinsic Worth Mindset.
This mindset tells us that we do not possess anything valuable or worthy inside of us.
Rather, it tells us, we must do or achieve more to be worthy. As a result, many of us spend most of our time trying to achieve different types of success to prove our worthiness to other people.
For example, we might try to be the most beautiful or handsome person; have the perfect body; or be really smart or funny or wealthy or talented.
We desperately hope that if we just work hard enough, people will finally realize we are worthy. And we will finally feel worthy.
On the other hand, we may feel like it is impossible for us to be beautiful, handsome, wealthy, or talented enough. Accordingly, we may despair.
This Mindset is Everywhere
If you pay attention to a lot of the messages we receive through the media or through our culture, you will soon find that the Extrinsic Worth Mindset is everywhere.
For example, advertisers continually communicate some form of this message. They imply that if we buy their product, we will be better, happier people.
This is one aspect of advertising that makes it so psychologically seductive. It makes us feel we can purchase a sense of self-worth and fix our painful feelings.
Another common source of the painful Extrinsic Worth Mindset is controlling leaders (like authoritarian and demeaning politicians or other leaders ).
Such leaders imply that only they have the answers for how to live or what to do. They further imply that we cannot figure out the right thing to do without their authority.
And they also imply some people are better than others–namely the people who follow them with unquestioning obedience.
And this is why such leaders are so psychologically seductive.
They make us feel like we can elect a sense of self-worth politically or achieve it through obedience, thus fixing our painful feelings.
These are two common sources of the Extrinsic Worth Mindset.
Nevertheless, trying to prove our worth through meeting external standards is, in fact, exhausting and ultimately impossible.
For example, consider how different people and social groups hold different and even contradictory standards.
In fact, even single individuals often hold contradictory standards unconsciously.
Or consider how quickly standards for success, beauty, or talent change over time.
Because of these reasons, as well as many others, trying to earn our worth by meeting external standards is an exhausting, impossible, and even self-undermining task.
A Different Mindset
The good news is that another view is possible. Instead of living by an Extrinsic Worth Mindset, it is possible to live according to an Intrinsic Worth Mindset.
The Intrinsic Worth Mindset tells us that we already possess the most valuable and worthwhile thing inside of us. So, our job isn’t to do more to prove our worth. Our job is to cultivate and express the worth we already possess inside of us.
What is this inner worth we possess?
Different writers and thinkers over the years have called it different things. The Ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius called it the seeds of goodness.
For instance, Mencius suggests that all of us possess seeds of goodness like the ability to love others, to act justly, and to know the difference between right and wrong.
Picture by Francesco Gallarotti, courtesy of Unsplash.
Initially, such a view of worth sounds rather boring, especially if you have tried your whole life to prove your worth by achieving big and amazing goals.
But consider this: Many of the things we pursue to try to prove our worth aren’t worthy in themselves.
For instance, goals we pursue like good looks, talent, success, wealth, and even intelligence are not good and worthy in themselves.
In fact, such goals can bring us a lot of suffering.
For example, people can use good looks, talent, success, and intelligence to make themselves and everyone around them miserable.
In fact, people have used the pursuit of such goals (or their achievement) to destroy their lives.
And even when we achieve such goals, our sense of worthiness doesn’t last for long. That’s because someone soon comes along and is more beautiful, handsome, talented, successful, and intelligent.
So, pursuing and achieving typical standards of worthiness won’t necessarily make us happy or make our life better.
The only consistent source of happiness and goodness is the cultivation and expression of internal goods. These are goods like love, wisdom, creativity, justice, courage, and generosity.
Many people refer to such internal goods as virtues.
The Power of Virtue
Now, people often think of a virtuous person as a prim and proper goody-two-shoes. But the philosopher Aristotle suggests that virtue is, in fact, power. Specifically, it is human power.
And he further suggests that we express this power when we use reason and emotion properly to respond to a specific situation we face in life. Thus, the more virtuous we are, the more powerful we are!
And writers in various religious traditions suggest that such virtues are in fact an expression of the power of the Divine.
For instance, the Christian New Testament notes that the fruit of the spirit is
“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
And a beautiful verse in the Chandogya Upanishad tells readers,
“As large as the universe outside, even so large is the universe within the lotus of the heart. Within it are heaven and earth, the sun, the moon, the lightning, and all the stars . . .”
Certainly the lotus of the heart contains the power of virtue.
Picture by AARN GIRI, courtesy of Unsplash.
Such spiritual ideas suggest that each person can connect with Divine Power or, as I like to think of it, as Divine Magic inside of them.
This Divine Magic is, simultaneously, the fabric of the Universe, the heart of God, and the very catalyst for our humanity. It helps us cultivate and express all our beautiful human capacities.
And in cultivating these virtues, our spiritual traditions suggest, we express Divinity, as well as our true self. We are powerful.
This is our intrinsic worth.
One of the most helpful ways for me to think of intrinsic worth is to think of a tree.
Thinking Like a Tree
We know that every tree has a beautiful power inside of it that helps it to grow and express every aspect of its beautiful tree goodness.
The tree doesn’t have to worry and strive to become a tree. It doesn’t have to compete with other trees and try to be better than them.
Rather, all it needs to do is connect with the beautiful tree power inside of it which is the power of the Universe or the Divine Magic inside of it.
And, barring external threats like fungi or pests, it grows.
Now, humans are a little more complicated than trees. Humans, in contrast to trees, have free will. And that’s means we can use our will to act in bad ways that trees cannot. On the other hand, we can also act in just, gracious, and other virtuous ways trees cannot.
Although we can use our free will to make bad choices, or negative external forces can disrupt our connection to this power, it is still true that we possess inner power or Divine Magic.
And when we connect with it regularly, it helps us cultivate and express every beautiful human capacity.
That power and magic is the very stuff of the Universe and our beautiful human essence.
The more we think like a tree, the less we try to do more to prove our worth. And the more we rest peacefully and connect with the worth we already possess. As such, we express it beautifully in the world around us.
If you would like to learn more about connecting with and cultivating your intrinsic worth, you might like this course I recently published on our intrinsic worth: The Four Basic Truths.
This course teaches you that you are worthy, capable, connected, and called to adventure!
And this is a guided visualization I recently published that helps you connect with your Intrinsic Worth: The Greatest Grocery Store.