This month we have been discussing values and how they impact our lives. This week, we will be talking about how values contribute to self-esteem and self-worth – an important topic in a world where so many of us believe we are worthless.

The loss of a bright line

While we seldom think of it, as our culture becomes less and less religious, we no longer have a ‘code’ by which to live our lives. Sure, there are laws, but these only prohibit the worst of behaviors. It was the realm of religion that provided a list of ‘right and wrong’ by which we conducted our daily affairs. We could use said list to determine what was the proper behavior, and perhaps more importantly – whether we should be proud of ourselves for our actions.

Without religion, we are left to ascertain what makes a good person; what courses of action we should uphold and champion; what we should stand against. In my experience, most people don’t directly consider this problem.

It is important to.

When we know what we believe and why; we can act in confidence.

How values give esteem

When we act in line with what matters to us, we are stronger in our convictions. When we truly believe that our actions and words are ‘right’, we no longer need approval, or justification or even agreement. We can be proud of our behaviors and words because they are in line with our values.

This is how we build self-esteem.

I recall when I first started this work having a ‘ah-hah moment’. I was on the bus late and night pondering life (as I often do). I realized that I didn’t have self esteem because I didn’t respect the person I was. I would make myself promises and break them; I watched myself behave in ways I didn’t like; I didn’t have self-restraint; I was empty and needy; I was concerned primarily with what other people thought of me.

I realized ‘self’ esteem is developed the same way as esteem for others. I didn’t respect myself, because I was behaving in a way that I didn’t respect. In order to develop esteem for myself, I had to earn it.

So, I sat down and I wrote out a list of all the things that made me respect someone- honesty, hard work, compassion, respect for self and others, politeness, reliability, a person who managed their life and challenges with dignity, grace, tact.

This is the person I have sought to make myself into. A person I respect- a person I have esteem for.

What do you respect?

So how can we use this ‘ah-hah’ for our own growth?

  1. Consider what qualities are present in those you most respect. This doesn’t need to actually be a person. It can be conceptual. I remember one of the things I found most difficult about this exercise was the lack of role models I respected. Thus, instead I simply made an internal role model based on conception.
  2. Consider what each word means in practical reality. The word ‘honesty’- what does that mean in the moment? If we fail to consider how it applies to our everyday behavior, we will not do it.
    • For example, for myself honesty means: (1) I do not lie for self-benefit, (2) I do not lie if the stakes are more than nominal, (3) my feelings and opinions are not the ‘truth’.
    • This translates to: (1) I will lie to preserve someone’s feelings if the matter is nominal (like an outfit, or how much I like a gift); (2) I will lie to preserve someone else where the matter is nominal (contradicting someone, outing someone for a comment, creating drama); (3) I will reserve my feelings and thoughts on a matter where they are not relevant or of service (I would tell my partner if I was upset with them, but not the check out girl at the grocers. I would call out a racist joke, but not a joke that hurt my feelings).
  3. Consider how your values clash. The world gives us moral grey zones. Thus, at times you cannot honor all your values. For example, at times kindness will trump honesty, while ethics will trump kindness. We have to make judgement calls about what is most important in the moment. When we think about problems through the lens of values, we can choose which value is more important to honor in a given situation. This helps us arrive at, and feel sure in our decision.
  4. Choose a way to remind yourself to follow your values. In moments of hardship, it can be easy to panic. We must find a way to remind ourselves to use our tools. For myself, I simply as ‘what do I need to do to make myself proud?’ Sure I might freak out for 15 minutes or a day before I remember this, but I get to that place where I am deciding based on my internal guide.
  5. Be proud of your behaviors. Not everyone who goes through this exercise has been behaving in a way they regret. More likely, they simply do not have a bar by which to measure their behavior. This exercise is helpful because it can assist in the realization that you are a good and honorable person. As you go through these values, you can see that you do in fact live in line with what you respect and cherish. Be proud of what you do and who you are.