Can you have high self-esteem and low self-worth? Absolutely. I have struggled with this a lot during my professional journey.

Even when I successfully delivered an impactful TEDx talk, I still found myself being hyper-critical of my physical appearance and likeability factor. Getting on the prestigious TED stage made me feel more accomplished, which boosted my confidence, but it simultaneously brought my deeper insecurities to the surface. It unearthed a great deal of self-criticism. The worst part was that I felt like I had to rush to the next significant achievement, or I would lose the increased self-assurance I gained from reaching my goal. Basically, I was chasing my self-worth, and it was exhausting.

Self-esteem vs. Self-worth

Despite their personal progress and mounting professional achievements, many successful people suffer unnecessarily because they confuse self-esteem with self-worth.

Self-worth is the deep-rooted internal belief of being good enough and worthy of love, of feeling secure to belong just as you are. Conversely, self-esteem is the feeling of confidence and competence in one or more specific areas of your life.

You can have low self-worth but high self-esteem regarding your physical abilities, appearance, career, and social media presence. The problem with relying on self-esteem is that it’s based on external factors, which are unstable and inconsistent. So, it is also essential to bolster your self-worth, independent of things that might cause high self-esteem. You can do this by recognizing that you are greater than any compliment, accolade, award, or accomplishment. This will give you the resilience and strength needed to keep going when you encounter setbacks, failure, or rejection.

So, how do you know if you have low self-worth? Pay attention to the narrative in your head. The inner critic threatens, “You are going to fail,” monitors weaknesses or mistakes, “You messed this up again,” commands “You should stop acting like a fool,” and judges, “You don’t look good.” Self-criticism harnesses negative emotions like fear, shame, and guilt. It is not a helpful motivator. You can learn to replace these destructive thoughts with positive growth-orientated ones through awareness and practice, which are scientifically proven to be more motivating than continually berating yourself.

The science behind self-compassion and self-criticism

We often think of self-criticism as the key to self-improvement, falling for the notion that self-criticism pushes us to perform better and live up to our lofty standards. We couldn’t be more wrong. Research shows that self-criticism is more akin to self-sabotage, hurting our performance, productivity, and wellbeing. This is due to the fact self-deprecation activates our sympathetic nervous system’s emergency response system. Also known as the Fight Flight or Freeze response.

The ‘Flight, Fright, or Freeze‘ response is your body’s way of allowing you to act quickly so you can protect yourself against harm. The issue is that it can also be stimulated by psychological threats, not just physical endangerment. Your inner bully is perceived as a danger to your brain, making you both the attacker and the attacked. When you enter this state, you reduce your ability to think clearly, manage your emotions, or make good decisions. Not only that, but you also undergo physical changes such as an increase in blood pressure and a rise in the stress hormone cortisol.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, is a powerful prompt for the release of oxytocin. High levels of oxytocin increase feelings of calm and safety, which lowers your cortisol levels, making you feel better and allowing the body to operate at a more optimal and healthy level. When you soothe your painful feelings with self-compassion, you shift your body chemistry, changing your emotional experience.

The first element of change is awareness.

How to relax your mind and release negative thinking

When you start to feel overwhelmed and overrun by critical thoughts, one of the best ways to invoke a sense of relaxation and turn off your emergency response system swiftly is through your breath. By inhaling slowly through your nose, you trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, which calms you down.

When you are in a more relaxed state, take a moment to pause and witness your thoughts without judgment. If they affect your mental wellbeing or create fear and self-doubt, take the time to shift to a more empowered way of thinking.

Both deep breathing and being aware of intrusive thoughts allow your prefrontal cortex, or your brain’s ‘executive function,’ to take charge and put you back in control. Thus, enabling you to choose a positive and beneficial response to your current circumstances.

Four ways to increase feelings of self-worth

1. Embrace mistakes

When we doubt our abilities, it’s often because we don’t want to make any room for error. However, mistakes are also how we learn and grow. We can mitigate self-doubt and fear of failure by practicing being kind to ourselves, no matter the outcome. We all make mistakes along the way, and it’s okay to do so.

2. Remember your past achievements

It helps to reflect on concrete achievements where something which challenged you became something great. Many achievements are born out of initial uncertainty or doubt, so it helps to remind yourself about the times when things have gone right.

3. Try not to compare yourself to others

Everyone’s journey and ideas of success are different. Focus on your own path and where you want to take it, regardless of where other people are or what they have done. Never compare your beginning to anyone else’s middle or end.

4. Spend time with supportive people

Our friends and family, who believe in us and everything we’re capable of, will always be on our side. When you’re feeling self-doubt, surround yourself with these people. They can remind you how talented and resilient you are when you’re not feeling that way about yourself.

Sadly, there is no permanent mute button for our inner dialogues – they are part of the human experience. The good news is we can catch ourselves and course-correct if we remain mindful and aware. Your greatest power is your ability to choose your own thoughts, and self-love is a decision you must make every day. Remember that tools and strategies can only get you so far if your thoughts are working against you.

Never forget, you are worthy now, not when you land the perfect job, have the biggest house, fanciest car, or nicest things. Knowing your worth, independent of your success, sets you up for greater happiness, health, and achievement in the long run.

So, the next time you are about to beat yourself up for something that went wrong or for simply not being perfect, remind yourself your thoughts are having a physiological impact on you. Make it your mission to show yourself kindness, tolerance, generosity, and compassion. Take care of how you speak to yourself because you are listening.