Dr. Cheryl Saban spent the first 30 years of her life doubting her own value, due largely to some terrible experiences — rape, two failed marriages, and for a time, she was a single mother who couldn’t afford health care. But once she learned how to believe in herself, these obstacles had no power over her, and she was able to make dramatic and positive life changes. In her book “What Is Your Self-Worth?” Saban offers a road map to help other women recognize their innate value, connect to their unique, authentic selves and validate their contributions to the world. An excerpt.
Taking inventory: Recognition and responsibility
What is your personal currency? What do you feel you have to offer to the world at large — and is that offering given the value, validity, and respect it deserves? Are you happy to be a female? When you judge yourself, as we all do, how do you measure up? Are you an equally treasured part of society? Are you predictable? Does being a woman ever make you feel compromised in any way? When you consider your worth as a woman, what comes to mind? This subject may expose emotions and responses that surprise you.
For example, what are the rulers or measuring tools you use? Do you think of:
- Your marriage?
- Your ability to provide for your children?
- Your success in the workplace?
- Your friendships and family relationships?
- Your hobbies and avocations?
- Your sense of well-being and fulfillment?
- Your dedication to helping others?
- Your faith?
Do you even consider your worth at all? Perhaps not in so many words, but the subject of worthiness or validity probably comes up for you time and again, and it’s manifested by behaviors and gender stereotypes that don’t serve you well. Does the idea of objectification conjure up significant images for you? (Think sexual plaything, object, and so on.) How about gender stereotypes? Have you ever found yourself automatically identifying with words such as weak, frail, or defenseless? Such adjectives are often used to describe women.
We live in an era when we’re obsessed with obsession — a psychological disorder in which individuals become fixated on a perceived or imaginary defect in the way they look, so eating disorders, obesity, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and body dysmorphic disorders all fall into this category. Are we making the grave mistake of using such disordered thinking to regulate our overall perception of self-worth? Do we associate thinness with perfection or consider variations in body type as flaws? When we take into consideration that nearly ten million females in the United States are struggling with eating disorders, we may begin to wonder. . . .
Are we incapable of setting our own standards? Misconceptions and maladaptations to outside and inside influences can infantilize us into a state of helplessness. The “Cinderella complex” (a theory first described by Colette Dowling in her 1981 book of the same name) suggests that women actually fear independence and have an unconscious desire to be taken care of.
While it’s possible that some of us have been preprogrammed with this particular mind-set, helpless is not the word I’d use to describe most women I know, nor should you be willing to attach that descriptor to yourself. However, do be aware that such an unconscious desire may indeed have been included in the bag of tricks you were given as a youngster, and it could invade your behavior when you least expect it. Here’s an important note for you to jot down in your personal journal or diary: resist it. Play to your strengths, not your weaknesses. Confidence is your best asset, but it’s also your most attractive fashion lure, if that’s a consideration for you.
Why is it important to understand your true value or personal currency? I’m going to be bold and say that not only is it important to recognize your innate worth, it’s critical that you do. Your survival and sense of well-being virtually depend upon it.
Discovering the meaning of worth
What does worth mean to you? How do you define or assess it? Is there a general measurement of it that holds true for everyone? Most likely, you’ve formed a conception of what self-worth and self-esteem are, but for the sake of clarity, it might be helpful to analyze these terms. We use them so often that their meaning may have lost potency.
According to the highly regarded Oxford American Dictionary, worth means “sufficiently good, important, or interesting to justify a specified action.” The thesaurus includes these synonyms: merit, value, excellence, caliber, quality, stature, eminence, importance, significance, and distinction. Such words help synthesize what can be tricky to define in a finite way.
The following list of terms may help illuminate the concept even further:
- Self-esteem: the value, respect, and honor you have for yourself
- Conditions of worth: the do’s and don’ts, shoulds and shouldn’ts, that you live by in order to feel appreciated and accepted by others
- Self-concept: the organized set of perceptions and ideas you have for yourself
- Self-actualization: a principle of human behavior stating that you strive to develop your capacities and talents to the fullest — that is, growing and enhancing the basic self
- Self-efficacy: your expectation that you can effectively cope with and master situations, as well as bring about desired outcomes through personal efforts
- Social stratification: the ranking of individuals into groups within a culture
- Resilience: being able to withstand, or recover quickly from, difficult conditions
So how do you feel about yourself? Are you your number one fan? Do you flounder along in blind acceptance of other people’s rules?
Keep in mind that our culture and environment typically stipulate markers or benchmarks for the establishment of mastery and validity. While such markers often provide the context for viability by measuring specific aptitude and/or ability for a particular undertaking (such as entrance to medical school), in other cases, cultural rituals and habits serve no greater purpose than to control our behavior. “Groupthink,” peer pressure, and media messages all exploit our vulnerabilities; and they can also coerce us to believe that we’re not beautiful, smart, or worthwhile unless we conform to a specific mind-set. Take a moment now to let your mind float away from the culturally induced markers for validity you’ve been subjected to. Can you resist the incessant outside editing and altering that society subjects you to and see the incredible person you are inside? Can you feel validated and valued? Will you grant yourself that level of respect? Understand that when you recognize your innate worth, you’re more inclined to strive to fulfill your potential, and having done that, you will be happy.
Women who are successful exude a sense of confidence in themselves. One of the things such individuals have in common is their ability to harness their own thoughts and behaviors; they bring a great deal of personal intention to their lives. They realize that they’re the directors of their own destinies and therefore take a positive stance as they look forward. They’re happy people—by happy, I’m referring to an experience of contentment, joy, or positive well-being. It’s the sense that life is generally good, meaningful, and worthwhile.
Are you in that place? Do you think you can create that kind of life for yourself? Specialists in the field of psychology and behavior say that you can. Armed with the wisdom and reflections of hundreds of women who responded to my questionnaire about their worth, I will show you how.
The first step in acknowledging and accessing your worth, value, and sense of fulfillment is to take an honest personal assessment. Set aside some quiet time where you can have privacy and think.
Now take out your journal and a pen, and answer the following questions:
- Are you happy?
- What gives you joy?
- What contributions do you make?
- Do you feel acknowledged for these contributions?
- Are your relationships fulfilling?
- Do you nurture and enjoy your relationships?
- Are you achieving goals that you set for yourself?
- Do your activities and lifestyle contribute to your sense of worth and well-being?
- Do you take personal responsibility for your actions?
- Does something or someone else dictate how you should feel or act?
If you don’t want to write down answers to these questions, at least consider them. And feel free to add additional queries of your own that are more specific to the particulars in your life.
An assessment of who you are and where you stand is vital to your ability to function freely in the world. Be creative, and assess yourself with flair. Does this sound frivolous to you? It shouldn’t, for it’s a joyful recognition of who you are. By evaluating and recognizing your abilities, you validate yourself, and you need to be able to do that before anyone else can validate you.
I’ve gone over all of the preceding questions myself, and I admit that the first few responses I wrote were brief and short on details. But as I allowed myself more time to think, I began to remember things about my life, along with how I truly feel about particular memories. My personal assessments and soul-searching answers to difficult questions have helped me get to know myself. The journal I’ve written all of this in has become my own never-ending story, and for me, it’s a treasure.
FYI, when you assess and validate yourself, you’re accepting the truth about who you are. This is not a form of surrender, although your insecure mind may take you to that conclusion temporarily. Please resist that. Accept your assessment as intentional recognition — which actually sounds more like power and self-determination than surrender. When you can accept yourself as an individual, you become even more credible as a participant in the collective.
Assessing your life demands a certain level of pride, respect, and courage because it means you’re taking responsibility for it. Responsibility also suggests ownership—of your feelings and actions, as well as the outcomes of your actions. The easiest road may not be your chosen path, and growing pains will be part of your overall development. Nobody said life and growth would be easy.
It’s a good idea to learn to take responsibility at a young (that is, eager and absorbent) age. So if you’re a mother, I hope you’ll teach your children to be independent and self-assured when they’re still little. Give them opportunities to work out their problems, which includes allowing them to fail occasionally so that they can figure out for themselves how to succeed. It takes courage to let your kids individuate away from you — but trust me, they’ll benefit, and you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment as well.
Individuation is a psychological term used to describe when individuals separate or distinguish themselves from others, and it’s a big part of personal discovery. We’ve all done it — it’s a natural, yet sometimes difficult, transition. If we have teenagers, we know how this feels, and we can be certain our mothers felt the same way.
When cultures, rituals, and customs establish constraints to it, individuating can be especially tricky. For example, in various parts of the world, females are continually stratified and marginalized: Many women are relegated to roles and duties prescribed by antiquated cultural mores and rules that make life difficult, arduous, and at times seemingly hopeless. Girls are routinely denied education, ownership rights, and power over their bodies. So the suggestion that they buck the system and take charge of their lives may seem as disingenuous as telling them to fly like birds.
Yet stories continually surface of women in dire, restrictive circumstances who manage to take action to change their lives for the better despite the odds against them. One notable example is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who so eloquently shares her personal saga in her book Infidel.
Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, Ali has dared to criticize Islam, a defiance that could cost her her life. Her screenplay for Theo Van Gogh’s movie “Submission,” which criticizes the position of women in Islamic societies, resulted in death threats against her. (Van Gogh himself was murdered in 2004 by a Muslim.) Despite the very real dangers facing Ali, and perhaps in spite of her upbringing as an obedient Muslim daughter, she’s become an outspoken advocate for women and a political activist. Even though she now lives and works in an undisclosed location in the Netherlands, her story as recounted in Infidel reveals her deep convictions and unfaltering courage. Read it and weep ... Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a true hero.
Excerpted from “What's Your Self-Worth? A Woman's Guide to Validation” by Cheryl Saban. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Hay House.