The Paradox of Self-Worth

In my last post I wrote about the paradox of choice. How, after a certain point, having more choices in your life makes you feel worse because it leads you to think about everything you're missing even if you make all the best choices for yourself.

Today I want to talk about another paradox that I've often faced, one I call the Paradox of Self-Worth.

What It Is

  1. You try do something (get a job, make friends, get an A in a class, quit an addiction, etc.).
  2. You fail to do it and blame yourself for it.
  3. You want to improve and not fail the next time, but some part of you believes that you're the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world and don't deserve to get better or are not capable of getting better. You doubt your self-worth.
  4. You decide that no, really, you do want to get better and deserve to improve in this area of your life that's really dragging you down.
  5. You look in the mirror, forgive your past wrongs, and tell yourself: "YOU ROCK. LIKE, NO JOKE. YOU ARE LEGIT SO AWESOME. YOU CAN DO ANYTHING YOU SET YOUR BEAUTIFUL MIND TO."
  6. This gets you pumped up to be great so you head to the library or club or SAA meeting or whatever. Finally motivated and high off your improved sense of self-worth, you actually accomplish what you set out to do. You do your homework or talk to that girl at Tchotchkes. Congratulations! You've proven to yourself that you don't suck.
  7. Wait, you don't suck? That's just perfect. Now you're right where you want to be. You don't have to work anymore because you were only working because you thought you sucked. Now you can sit around in your underwear watching every movie in the Avengers franchise back-to-back knowing you totally don't suck.
  8. You realize you totally suck again.
The Paradox of Self-Worth is a specific instance of the 'lapse-response cycle' in which you get cocky and lazy when things are good so you only take care of things once they've started tumbling downhill again. It's just a relatively slippery instance so I thought it was worth pointing out.

What To Do About It

You've got a couple options here and each works better for different things so I'm not going to omit any in the interest of parsimony.

1. View your successes in context of a longer progression.

Successful weightlifters pat themselves on their back when they lift a new personal record, but they still go back to the gym the next day and do it all over again. How do they self-congratulate and then tighten their bootstraps without taking a day's rest?

They understand that their successes, however real and impressive, are nothing more than a step in the right direction. They often plan ahead very detailed "progressions" of what to do next with increasingly harder challenges on and up to basically impossible ones. This gives context to their actions and allows them to view their efforts as a concrete journey.  (Here's an example of the first in a series of progression charts. Even when you finish this one, you're nowhere close to being done, and anyone who tries it knows that.) Nobody would hold a 60 second stomach-to-wall handstand and think they're done because they know the next step is holding it back to wall.

At the same time, nobody would beat themselves up for holding a handstand for 60 seconds against the wall just because they couldn't do 12 freestanding handstand push-ups.

You can adapt this principle to almost anything you do. If you're having trouble getting to class the day after your midterm, make sure you're viewing the midterm in the context of a semester-long class. If you're having trouble doing well the semester after you picked up a 4.0,  make sure you're viewing the semester in the context of a four-year education, and so on and so forth.

2. Ignore your successes completely.

If you read this blog, you know I advocate forgoing goals and desires. Ignoring successes is a similar idea. Basically, you adopt the mindset that your life satisfaction and sense of self worth are not determined by external criteria like how hot your girlfriends are or how much money you make.

Isn't this just another paradox? If you don't pursue or appreciate success, won't you just end up failing and hating yourself for it all over again? I would say, first, you can build good habits that lead to success without needing an external desire for success to drive you, and second, those are two different problems. Failure's not nearly as bad as we make it out to be. It can teach you a lot and even be kind of refreshing. It's good to fail sometimes. Don't beat yourself up over failures.


I'm en route to the Bay Area where I'll be based out of for the summer. I know I promised an end-of-semester review, but I decided writing self-help theory is more interesting for all.