- Self-worth, or your belief in your own value as a person, generally comes from within.
- Self-esteem, or your opinion of your traits and abilities, often comes from outside sources.
- You can boost both through self-compassion and building relationships with people who value you.
Do you tend to be hard on yourself when you make mistakes, look to others for constant validation, or struggle to advocate for yourself?
These common issues relate to self-worth and self-esteem — two terms that share some overlap but don’t mean the exact same thing.
Self-esteem describes how you think and feel about yourself, while self-worth describes how much you value yourself, according to Steve Carleton, a licensed clinical social worker and Executive Clinical Director at Gallus Detox.
Both self-esteem and self-worth can affect many aspects of your life, from your mental health and motivation to your professional success and romantic relationships.
Here’s how to tell the two apart — and how to foster both in your own life.
Difference between self-esteem and self-worth
Self-esteem and self-worth come from different sources:
- Self-esteem stems from external factors — like approval from other people or how you perform on certain tasks, according to Angel Minuto, a licensed psychotherapist and behavior change specialist in private practice.
- Self-worth, on the other hand, comes from within, Minuto says. You can think of it as a deep-rooted internal belief that you are worthy of love and respect, regardless of your accomplishments or abilities.
Factors that affect self-esteem and self-worth
According to Carleton and Stephanie Gilbert, a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice, a number of factors can improve your level of self-esteem and self-worth:
While your caregivers often model and shape your self-worth early in life, Minuto says you can still build up your sense of self-worth even if you didn’t get enough love, support, or encouragement as a child.
Alternatively, Carleton and Gilbert say other factors might diminish your self-esteem and self-worth:
Why do they matter?
Both self-esteem and self-worth can play a part in your overall well-being, as well as your ability to maintain relationships, advance your career, and function in everyday life.
Low self-esteem and self-worth may lead you to:
Some evidence also links low self-esteem with anxiety and depression.
Other research suggests students with low self-esteem often have defense mechanisms that can get in the way of success and take a further toll on self-esteem. You might, for instance, be:
- More likely to “self-handicap,” or not make an effort to avoid the possibility of failure
- More prone to “defensive pessimism,” or imagining and planning for the worst possible outcomes
Benefits of high self-esteem and self-worth
On the other hand, high self-esteem and self-worth can make it more likely you’ll:
Both self-esteem and self-worth are important, but Gilbert says self-worth may have a more essential role. Unlike self-esteem, self-worth provides a stable sense of mental and emotional armor that external forces can’t sway easily.
How to boost self-worth and self-esteem
Maintaining healthy levels of self-esteem and self-worth isn’t easy and often requires continuous effort, Carleton says — but effort and self-compassion can help you nurture a strong sense of self.
With that in mind, consider these five tips for improving your self-worth and self-esteem:
1. Acknowledge — and get curious about — negative thoughts
Minuto recommends becoming more aware of your inner dialogue, particularly when things go wrong.
If you tend to speak to yourself with reproach or criticism rather than kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, ask yourself whether this inner voice sounds like someone else from your life — for example, a parent who frequently scolded you.
Also, consider whether you’d talk that way to a friend in a similar situation, Minuto says.
Finally, try reframing your mindset: Can your “flaws” or “weaknesses” also be strengths? How can you view your missteps as opportunities for learning or growth?
2. Nurture your relationships
Making an effort to stay connected to friends and family can do a lot to improve the way you feel about yourself.
Evidence suggests positive social relationships and social support can boost your self-esteem — and higher self-esteem can help you maintain those relationships, in turn, creating a beneficial cycle.
“Surround yourself with supportive and loving individuals who believe in you and reinforce your worth,” Carleton says.
3. Recognize all wins, no matter how small
In the face of challenges, it can be easy to lose sight of all you’ve accomplished. That’s why Minuto recommends making an ongoing list of all your achievements — even seemingly small things, like getting enough sleep for a full week or remembering to pack a healthy lunch for work.
Keeping the list where it’s easily visible then offers a constant reminder of your successes.
4. Reframe your comparisons
Instead of comparing yourself to others, who have a completely different set of circumstances, resources, needs, and challenges, Minuto suggests comparing your present self with your younger self.
In your journal, or as a freewriting exercise, try asking yourself a few key questions:
- What have you learned?
- How have you grown?
- What accomplishments might surprise your younger self?
5. Practice positive affirmations
Positive statements that are genuine, specific, and rooted in the present may help you focus more on your strengths, thus increasing your self-esteem. Some examples include:
- “I deserve love, and I give love generously.”
- “I love and appreciate my body given all it does for me every day.”
- “I am strong and capable of handling whatever life throws at me.”
In fact, practicing these kinds of affirmations can activate certain pathways in your brain involved in processing information about yourself and your own worth.
When to get support
If low self-esteem or self-worth begins to negatively affect your ability to function day to day, and the above strategies don’t seem to make a difference, Minuto recommends reaching out to a licensed mental health professional.
A therapist can help you figure out the root of your low self-esteem or self-worth and help you learn how to turn things around.
They can also help you pinpoint any mental health symptoms, like anxiety or depression, that may have an ongoing impact on your self-esteem and sense of self-worth.
Self-esteem — how you view yourself — depends on external factors. Self-worth, on the other hand, is a belief that comes from within about the treatment you deserve.
For instance, winning an award or receiving a compliment may boost your self-esteem, while advocating for yourself in relationships or forgiving yourself for mistakes may build your self-worth.
The early messages you receive from caregivers can have an impact on both your self-esteem and self-worth.
However, you can cultivate both by reframing your mindset about mistakes and shortcomings, focusing on your achievements, and nurturing relationships with people who lift you up.