Our self-help writer Gemma Rose suggests that before you know what you are worth, you first have to know who you are
Albert Einstein demanded: “Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value.” Value, worth, self-esteem. These are words which are often trumpeted when it comes to self-improvement and self-help. Business magazines advise us to “upgrade our value” in the same way as we would do with our products. Leading female public figures shout at other women from the roof tops to “know their value” in order to demand higher salaries and shatter glass ceilings. Relationship experts beg us to “appreciate our self-worth” and walk away when we are treated poorly.
Although I share the good intentions behind these sentiments, I am left wondering what this term ‘know your value’ actually means. Perhaps, we can identify the typical traits of a person of value: honesty, integrity, courage, generosity, kindness, fairness, patience, resilience, confidence and so on. But in all likelihood, how many people do we know who possess some or all of these traits (and more) at any one time, let alone all the time? And if we are perfect enough to possess such traits, how sincere are we in demonstrating them? Can we honestly say that we act with pure intentions when we are being generous? Or is there some other underlying motive to our actions, regardless of how negligible it is?
Despite my scepticism, I do believe in the importance of knowing our worth or value because by doing so we can lead healthier and happier lives. But to know our value, we need to first know ourselves.
The 17th century French philosopher René Descartes stated: “I think, therefore I am.” By asserting that human beings are able to think, he was trying to prove our existence: that our world had not been concocted by an evil demon, deceiving us into thinking we are real when in fact we are not. This line – considered the most famous of Western philosophy – has provoked controversy ever since, partly because it has led us to believe our thoughts define who we are, and they make up what we call ‘the self’.
For example, if our thoughts are telling us that we are stupid, we will tend to believe that we are. But a number of sources argue that we are not our thoughts. Buddhism and ‘spiritual authors’ such as Eckhart Tolle (of the New York Times best-seller The Power of Now) claim that we are not our minds and thoughts have no ownership of us. The 18th century Scottish empiricist philosopher David Hume claimed that the mind is purely made up of a ‘bundle’ of memories, processes, thoughts, passions and experiences rather than there being an owner of the content: the self or the ‘I’. Neuroscience has illustrated that the left and right hemispheres of the brain can act independently from one another, showing that there is no central command which directs everything.
Without delving into the complexity of our existence, if we simply recognize that we can extricate ourselves from our thoughts, then we can critically evaluate who we are. What makes us happy or sad? How do we react to certain people and situations, and why? How do we treat others, ourselves and how do others treat us? How do we think others see us? By taking the time out to engage in honest and impartial self-reflection, we can discover ourselves as well as how to live.
Another key to self-awareness is self-acceptance, warts and all. A lot of self-help literature has focused on increasing our worth by raising our self-esteem. But focusing on self-esteem can actually make us unhappy. The highly-esteemed late American psychologist Albert Ellis regarded self-esteem as a sickness because it involves rating the whole self rather than the individual action. If we praise our whole self for a good deed, our esteem goes up but then if we do a bad deed, our esteem plummets because we berate ourselves. By focusing on self-esteem we do not accept that we are imperfect: sometimes we behave well, other times less so. Ellis recommends that if we have to rate anything, rate the action, not the self.
All this week as I was contemplating how to write this article, I grew increasingly apprehensive. I questioned whether I had the authority to write about this subject because I know that I don’t always or even often exemplify the characteristics of what I consider to be a person of value. But this thought holds no weight. The characteristics above are merely suggestions. The truth is that part of being a valuable person is deciding for myself the principles and standards that I choose to live by and understanding why I chose them.