What is self-worth?

I'm stupid,” “They don’t like me,” or “I'm bad at this”. We all have these kinds of thoughts.


Self-worth is the most common thing talked about in therapy. We all grapple with it. Often, what you’re dealing with here is the core belief: “I'm not good enough” or “I don’t belong.” We all have these beliefs and thoughts.

There are many reasons for this. So, here I'm going to introduce you to what self-worth is and how a lack of self-worth occurs. Understanding what these reasons are is the first step to being able to change this way of thinking. 

What factors can influence self-worth?


The way our brains are wired is one cause. Neuroscience tells us that the reward system in the brain (and the parts relating to the sense of self) relate strongly with the self-esteem parts. Brain imaging also shows us that, left idle, the brain tends to go towards shame, self-critic, and judgment.


Self-worth is also bound up with our culture. Normal everyday life can easily invoke negative beliefs or thoughts. We are often thinking that we could do better. For example, in keeping a child safe or happy, we unconsciously tell ourselves that we could always do better at this job. Partly out of protection and fear.


There is a belief that we must be the best in our culture. It’s in our physiology to aspire to being dominant, for survival. This can lead to all kinds of self-deprecation if we are not.


The fear of not belonging can come from shame; the function of shame is to keep you quiet so you 'fit in'. It comes from needing to belong in a community to survive. Shame shuts the system down. It's numbing, and it makes us wonder if we are inadequate.

Social media

We also have a constant stream of messages that we are not good enough in the media and social media. Passively using social media (following, scrolling, liking) provokes social comparison and envy, or approval seeking.


The current trend for articles about ‘The x number of things that will fix you’ inherently makes us feel inadequate and unable to receive any help when those things do not fix us. Being human is just not as simple as that.

Good or bad

We automatically think it's our great qualities that make people love us. But, that’s not actually the truth of it. It’s more complex and instinctive than that.

This is a common sentiment that we often hear: “I'm good because I eat this... way and weigh this... much”. Or“I did something bad; therefore I am bad.” We assume a correlation between what we are, and what we do. We equate being a good or bad person with the good or bad that we do for our bodies.


Feeling inadequate in some way is an unconscious, reactive feeling. We never stop wanting to be validated and to fit in. It’s normal.


Of course, it may also be that you learned to feel bad about yourself from an early age, because of the conditional love of your primary caregivers. In this case, you may ask yourself, how old were you when you first thought you weren't good enough in some way? If your story is chronic, it’s likely that this feeling came first when you were very young.

The body brings back memories into the present over and over again, triggered slightly by anything similar. You could have interpreted not being good enough and not fitting in from different events in your history. From the perceived rejections of childhood, and even birth. You could have interpreted disapproval from any criticisms or ideals that you felt you had to live up to, in any of your relationships. 

This disapproval is registered, and then becomes internalised. We can never get enough approval. In daily life, when your self-esteem takes a hit, you will usually find it reflected in the way your family communicates.

When you see people who are married to someone disapproving, you might wonder, did their mum or dad show that they valued them? Often behind an affair will be something similar. An affair is often about seeking approval for parental lack of care and attention. Every new lover is another opportunity to get the love we always wanted.

Thinking we are not good enough comes from trying to adhere to other people's values, either historically, or in the present. Generally, most of us try to please others. 

But self-esteem, like any other human feeling, is also fleeting.

Who really has the power to judge us? It’s not our doctor, our teacher, our parents, our partner, or our boss. It's really only us. 

In my next article, I’ll show you some ways to shift how you feel about yourself. So, stay tuned!


Some ideas here were inspired by a NICABM training on working with anxiety.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bristol, Somerset, BS4 2DS
Written by Shelley Treacher, Therapy for anxiety, depression & relationship difficulties.
Bristol, Somerset, BS4 2DS

Shelley Treacher BACP Accred. "Having experienced and overcome chronic worry, loneliness and comfort eating myself, I now empower you through the process. I support people from around the World through feeling anxious, unhappy, ashamed or unloved, with compassion, experience, knowledge, and a touch of humour."

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