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How to Develop a Sense of Self and Build Self-Worth in Young Adulthood

Reading Time: 8 minutes

As young people launch from their families of origin into the “real world,” their lives transform. Many move into their own living spaces, develop romantic relationships, start careers, and begin managing their finances—all symbols of adulthood.

How they feel about themselves as they take these steps affects the choices they make. Young people with a strong sense of self and high self-worth are more likely to welcome new experiences than avoid challenges. They tend to bounce back from discouragement rather than dwell on negative thoughts, and stand firm instead of being swayed by others. They’re also more apt to set goals and follow through.

In a nutshell, having a strong sense of self and a high level of self-worth provides the foundation young adults need to lead satisfying lives.

What Does Self-Worth Mean?

Self-worth is the intrinsic belief in your value as a human being. When you have self-worth, you feel deserving of consideration, respect, and love—not because of anything you’ve done, but simply because of who you are.

5 Questions to Measure Your Self-Worth

To get a basic gauge of your self-worth, see how many of the following questions you answer yes to:

  1. Do you like, value, and respect yourself?
  2. Do you feel worthy of being treated with respect and kindness?
  3. Do you feel worthy of love?
  4. When you think about yourself, are your thoughts generally positive?
  5. If you were describing yourself to a stranger, would you choose mostly positive words?

If you answered yes to all these questions, it’s a fair bet that you have a high degree of self-worth. If you answered no to all or most of these questions, you may have a lack of self-worth.

What’s the Difference Between Self-Worth and Self-Esteem?

The main difference between self-worth and self-esteem is that self-esteem fluctuates more than self-worth and is more externally based. Self-esteem arises from judgment, evaluation, and comparison to others. Self-worth, on the other hand, comes from within. It doesn’t change according to your successes or failures.

Self-Worth vs. Self-Esteem

Self-esteem describes people’s feelings about themselves based on circumstance, performance, mood, or others’ approval. Young adults who get good grades, have a great job, or enjoy a large circle of friends are more apt to enjoy high self-esteem. People with low self-esteem struggle to feel good about themselves. They have less confidence in their abilities.

Whether someone’s self-esteem is high, low, or somewhere in between, self-esteem tends to be more fleeting and situational than self-worth. It can increase when you receive a compliment or buy a new car. Similarly, it can drop when you experience a breakup or lose a job.

But self-worth doesn’t have conditions that need to be met. It doesn’t rely on comparisons, and it’s not something you need to earn. Self-worth is a more stable feeling that comes from having a strong sense of your value as a human being. Fortunately, even if you have a lack of self-worth, it can be cultivated.

Once we start basing our self-esteem purely on our performance, our greatest joys in life can start to seem like so much hard work, our pleasure morphing into pain.

Kristin Neff
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself

Signs of Low Self-Esteem and Lack of Self-Worth

  • Fear of failure
  • Poor boundaries
  • Self-doubt
  • Negative self-talk
  • Trouble accepting compliments
  • Difficulty asking for things.

The Role of Self-Compassion in Self-Worth

Young adults who struggle with feeling unworthy and unlovable may be at a loss as to how to acquire a healthy level of self-worth. In fact, they may even believe they are inadequate and that they don’t deserve to feel better about themselves. While developing a sense of self-worth takes time, practicing self-compassion is something young adults can do right away. And it can make a huge positive impact.

Self-compassion means treating yourself with same care and understanding that you would treat a close friend. It means being kind and gentle towards yourself rather than judgmental and critical. That includes being mindful of your pain rather than ignoring it. And it means acknowledging your humanity, realizing all people are imperfect and experience hardship. It’s not just you.

Psychologist Kristin Neff is a pioneer in the study of self-compassion. Her research has shown that self-compassion leads to better mental and physical well-being. Dr. Neff says one of the benefits of self-compassion is that it’s not based on self-evaluation or comparisons. Self-compassion doesn’t require you to feel better than others to feel good about yourself (which is often the case with self-esteem).

In one study of 177 undergraduates, Neff and her colleagues found that self-compassion was positively associated with self-reported measures of happiness, optimism, initiative, agreeableness, and curiosity. Because self-compassion gives people the freedom to be imperfect, it ultimately enhances their resilience and feelings of self-worth.

The Impact of Self-Worth and Self-Esteem on Mental Health

If you feel good about yourself—your accomplishments, skills, talents, appearance, or basic value as a human being—you’re likely to enjoy greater mental health and a higher quality of life. One study found that young people with high self-esteem suffer fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as fewer problems with attention.

Believing in yourself makes it easier to release negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences rather than ruminating on them. If a romantic relationship ends, for example, you may be sad, but you know it’s possible to find love again because you believe you’re worthy of love. Believing in your value as an individual makes you less susceptible to peer pressure, too. For example, friends may offer you drugs, but you feel comfortable turning them down because you don’t require others’ approval.

However, young adults who lack self-worth and self-esteem tend to …

  • Experience depression, anxiety, dissatisfying relationships, and problems at work or school
  • Be diagnosed with social anxiety
  • Avoid taking healthy risks and big steps forward in life because they’re afraid of being judged, which can lead to failure to launch 
  • Use alcohol or other drugs in order to fit in and feel less self-conscious and self-judging
  • Struggle with body image issues and eating disorders
  • Be so hurt by others’ criticism or rejection that they withdraw into themselves

The Importance of a Sense of Self

Your sense of self is your perception of the characteristics that define you. These might be your skills and talents, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and beliefs and values, as well as your core personality traits. Having a strong sense of self means you have a well-developed self-image: You know who you are and what you stand for.

If you can easily identify the primary elements that comprise your unique identity as a human being, you likely have a strong sense of self. If you struggle to name even a few characteristics, your sense of self is less defined.

Whether you realize it or not, your sense of self has a powerful effect on your life. If you lack a solid sense of identity, it’s harder to know what you want. Feeling uncertain or indecisive, you may struggle to make important choices. You may have a harder time setting boundaries because you don’t know your own values and limits. You may feel life is happening to you rather than feel you’re creating it.

Having a strong sense of self is akin to having an inner compass that stabilizes and grounds you, buffering you from others’ judgments and clarifying what serves you vs. what doesn’t. You know yourself well enough to know you aren’t perfect, but you still possess an unshakable sense of your own value.

Social Media and Self-Worth: Pros and Cons

The ubiquitous use of social media can’t help but have an effect of young adults’ sense of self-worth. Research shows that 90 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 use social networks. Curious to quantify its psychological impact, researchers have investigated the relationship between social media and self-worth, or self-esteem. The conclusions have been mixed. 

A meta-analysis of 121 independent samples showed that greater use of social media was associated with lower self-esteem. Because social media triggers superficial comparison with others—their appearance and self-promoted successes—frequent use of it can erode self-worth. This can potentially lead to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Social media overuse is also linked to an increase in narcissism in young adults.

However, social media also provides a forum to share opinions, preferences, and beliefs. Hence, it can play an important role in identity development for young people, allowing them to present their own unique viewpoints. In one survey of 219 freshmen at a state university, researchers found that students who expressed their opinions on social media experienced greater well-being. Another study found that those who communicated more online had more “self-concept clarity”—a clearer sense of themselves.

How to Build Self-Worth

Many young adults may believe they need to improve their self-esteem. However, developing a stronger sense of self is what ultimately enhances self-worth. Thus, it’s more likely to offer lasting benefits, as both come from within. With a more developed inner core, young adults have an easier time managing the inevitable ups and downs of life.

Here are some of the best ways to develop a stronger sense of self and hence, higher self-worth:

Spend Time Alone

If you want to know yourself better, spend some time exploring who you are. Take walks in nature and notice your feelings, invest in a hobby just for the joy of it, or read books that speak to you. As you spend more time with yourself, a better sense of your natural inclinations and preferences will arise.

Keep a Journal

When you make a practice of writing out your thoughts and feelings, you develop a deeper understanding of your core values, beliefs, and personality traits. Journaling helps you become clearer about your desires and goals. By recording what’s happening internally, you can also develop greater acceptance of who you are.

Meditate

When you meditate, you become more mindful. Greater mindfulness equals greater self-awareness, which ultimately enhances your sense of self. In fact, University of Utah researchers gave over 1,000 undergraduate students questionnaires that inquired about the students’ self-concept, well-being, and mindfulness. (Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of one’s thoughts and feelings and respond to them with judgment). The results showed that the more mindful students reported greater well-being, due in part to having a greater sense of self.

Practice Self-Compassion

Treat your body with care. Speak kindly to yourself. Look in the mirror and name your favorite qualities. Tell yourself you’re doing your best. Forgive yourself when you make mistakes. Every act of self-compassion is a deposit in your piggy bank of self-worth.

Affirm Your Strengths

Identify your strengths—in writing or in your mind. Then affirm them aloud when you wake up in the morning, before you go to sleep, or whenever you need a boost. When you make a habit of focusing on your strengths, you develop a strong inner core.

Stop Comparing and Start Connecting

When you notice you’re comparing yourself to others, stop. Interrupt the unhealthy comparison cycle. Take a breath. See if you can switch gears by looking for similarities between you and others instead. Find ways to bond with people instead of competing with them. Developing the ability to form authentic connections is a sure-fire way to boost self-worth.

How Young Adult Treatment Builds a Sense of Self and Self-Worth

Newport’s clinical team specializes in helping young people gain the skills and self-knowledge to enhance their sense of self-worth. During their time with us, young adults come to know themselves more fully, build self-compassion, develop mindfulness, grow their relationship skills, and identify and cultivate their strengths. 

Contact us to find out more about our specialized approach and schedule a free assessment.

Key Takeaways

  • Self-worth is the inherent belief in your value as a human being. People with self-worth feel deserving of consideration, respect, and love because of who they are.
  • While self-esteem describes people’s feelings about themselves based on external and fluctuating factors like appearance or income, self-worth is a more internal and stable sense of intrinsic value.
  • Having a strong sense of self—your talents, preferences, core personality traits, and values—enhances feelings of self-worth.
  • Social media can erode self-worth because it perpetuates endless comparisons and between you and others. On the other hand, sharing viewpoints through social media can also enhance young adults’ self-concept.
  • To build self-worth, spend time alone, journal, practice mindfulness and self-compassion, affirm your strengths, and cultivate authentic relationships.

Frequently Asked Questions About Developing a Sense of Self

What does it mean to have a sense of self?
A sense of self means knowing who you are, what you value, where you find meaning and purpose, and what you’re all about.

Why is it important to have a sense of self?
People with a sense of sense of self have an easier time making decisions, setting boundaries, and pursuing their goals because they know who they are and what they value most.

What’s an example of self-worth?
An example of self-worth is getting out of a relationship with someone who doesn’t treat you with respect and kindness.

How do you develop self-worth?
There are many ways to develop self-worth. Some include turning inward and spending time alone in nature, writing in a journal, meditating, or practicing self-compassion. Others include affirming your strengths, refraining from comparing yourself to others, and cultivating authentic connections.

Sources

Annu Rev Psychol. 2023. 74:7.1–7.26. 

Child Adolesc Psychiatry Ment Health. 2017; 11:68. 

Pers Individ Dif. 2020 Jan; 153: 109639. 

Pers Individ Dif. 2017 Feb; 106: 334–339.

 

Mental Health / December 12, 2022

Newport Institute

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