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Inside Outside: Internal vs. External Self-Worth

Internal vs. External Self-Worth

Not like the Disney movie, but instead, we're looking at inside messages vs. outside messages that may stabilize self-worth. You might be proud of yourself, very much so in fact. You may pat yourself on the back for that new promotion. You may treat yourself to a new coat because you obtained that new degree. You may feel so good because your parents finally said 'I am proud of you.' These are all wonderful things and accomplishments that you should reward yourself though. However, take those away. Take away the material items, the significant other, the approving parents, the job, the degree, the grades, the money. Are you still able to pat yourself on the back, to feel as good about yourself? What about the other way, though? Do you find yourself struggling to tell people of your accomplishments? Do you find it to be 'bragging?'

These questions might cause panic. You might think, 'well I never had issues with my self-worth before!' Maybe you haven't and that's so great. Nevertheless, maybe your self-worth is also based on either internal or external factors only. If all you had right now was a caring spirit, a loving personality, your intelligence, or your loyalty, would you have a hard time loving yourself as much? Think of it on the other hand. Are you proud of yourself and what qualities you inhabit, but can't bring yourself to acknowledge your achievements? These potential differences can lead you towards identifying if the love you have for yourself is skewed one way or the other. Here's the difference between internal and external self-worth:

  • internal self-worth includes the respect, love, and care you have for yourself based on the characteristics that make you, you. They are internal and are made up of your personality, spirit, values, successes, and failures.

  • external self-worth is the opposite. Your respect, love, and care for yourself is based solely on the things you have. It's based on the things you obtained in your life or the adoration that others may have for you.

How Does Self-Worth Develop?

In order to understand how you may have developed internal or external self-worth, it's helpful to look at the messages you've been given while growing up. As a therapist who loves the psychodynamic theory, I think that peering into your upbringing and attachment style helps increase insight into how your own self-worth developed in the first place. You can ask yourself these questions:

  • Did I grow up receiving praise for my accomplishments or my character?

  • Were my caregivers focused more on my moral development than my studies?

  • What things did I feel cared for, loved, or noticed for when I was younger?

  • Did I feel pressured to outdo my caregivers' accomplishments?

  • Was I provided support when I didn't do so well in certain areas?

  • Was I punished for talking about my achievements?

Look at the patterns of how you love, care, and respect yourself now and in the past. Do you feel like the balance is off? If so, how much? What percentages would you assign to the amount of internal vs. external self-worth you may have right now?

  • External self-worth may look like basing worthiness on:

    • the amount of money I have

    • the type of career I have

    • the compliments I receive

    • the education I have

    • what my parents think of me

    • having a significant other or not

    • what others think of me

  • Internal self-worth may look like basing worthiness on:

    • who I am as a person

    • the amount of resilience that I have gained

    • bringing other people joy

    • what I am passionate about

    • how I handle personal struggles

    • the internal strengths that I have

    • the things that I value

How to Balance It Out

So maybe you've noticed a pattern here. I don't honestly think that external self-worth = bad and internal self-worth = good. External accomplishments make us feel good and that's okay too. Everything in balance. If you find your scales tipping too far towards internal self-worth, you might feel guilty to share your accomplishments with others or rewarding yourself for your hard work. If you find that you're relying too heavily on external self-worth, you may find your self-worth extremely fragile when these things may be taken from you (a relationship, a job, money, praise, etc.)

Here are some keys to finding that balance:

  • Identify the ways in which you give praise to yourself. Notice the patterns and be curious about the ways in which you feel good about yourself.

  • Create more of a balance by listing the things you like about yourself. Take into account both the internal or external characteristics you may be leaving out and focus on having equal amounts of both.

  • Implement closure of the ratio. Challenge yourself to give yourself one internal compliment for one external accomplishment you celebrate.

    • For example, when feeling empowered by a really nice compliment, also remind yourself that this person must have liked your (insert internal trait) too to feel comfortable to say that to you.

    • When feeling good about the passion you have for a certain cause, also remind yourself that (insert external trait) has allowed you to follow this passion and feel good about that also.

  • Practice! Every new skill you learn takes practice. Sometimes it takes a long time to undo patterns that have been upheld for years. Practice the balance and be mindful of old patterns and new patterns that emerge. Don't forget to give yourself praise when you achieve this skill!


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