02/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Much Are You Worth?

I'm a reject. At least I am this week and it's gotten me down.

Granted, I have put myself in a position with ample opportunities to fail. I am an academic, a writer, and single. This is a lethal combination when it comes to rejection because it is so relentless. It comes daily.

Each of these markets is highly competitive and have become even more brutal because of the economy. I submit an abstract to a conference and am told that while it is of the "highest quality," there isn't enough room this year. I hand in a scholarly manuscript and am told to "revise and resubmit" to be considered for publication. I pitch a story to a magazine, and the editor says that while I will "surely sell this," I am not the writer for them. I ask the new neighbor out on a date and he says he is "not ready to be in a relationship right now."

Don't get me wrong. There are successes too. I get some grants I apply for. I have published in scholarly journals and in mass-market papers. I have gone on more than one date. I am a fairly content and emotionally even person. Most of the time I am filled with a general sense of well-being and immense gratitude for the good things in my life. But. There are ten rejections for each success and it's hard.

When one of these rejections happen, I get irritated, angry, and exasperated. "Again?!" I ask myself. I think about quitting. I think about moving to a desert island with my books, my journal, and my Raggedy Anne Doll. I think that life sucks. I stomp around my apartment, eat ice cream, and watch reruns of Gossip Girl to feel better.

It seems unreasonable that external factors completely outside of my control can make me feel this bad. But they do, and it got me thinking about our cultural emphasis on self-esteem and what it means to truly feel good about oneself.

For years psychologists have been focusing on self-esteem. We talk about enhancing the self-esteem of children and about watching how we speak to our colleagues, our subordinates, our students, and our spouses so as to maintain their positive sense of self. We take self-esteem workshops and rationalize other people's bad behaviors as being a result of low, or absent self-esteem.

This theory makes sense when things are going well. If we have self-esteem we feel good about ourselves. Nothing wrong with that. The problem is what happens when the things we base our esteem on don't go our way? I feel great as an academic and a writer as long as I am getting published and people like my work. But one rejection can throw me off and can ruin the whole week.

Self-esteem, after all, is based on achievement. We feel proud when we have accomplished something meaningful to us. What that is will change depending on who you are and what you value, but the principle is the same. We feel good when we have done good.

Having self-worth, however, is a different story. Self worth is feeling like you have value as a human being simply by virtue of existing. It means that you believe in your own inherent goodness and worthiness as a person regardless of how much you weigh, who you are dating, what you have published, what kind of job you have, or how much money you make. It is about being loved for who you are, because you are, and not for what you can do, represent, or achieve.

This is a hard concept to understand in our capitalistic society where self worth is based on achievement and being productive as markers of success, but it is not impossible to imagine. We need to shift our emphasis from self-esteem to self worth and that means going back to basics.

Corny as it may sound, the only way to develop true self worth is by being loved unconditionally and by loving others this way.

I know this is true because I was once loved like this and it made all the difference in the world. I was lucky enough to have one of those moms who not only loved unconditionally but would tell us we were wonderful just because we were hers. She died four years ago, and while I got rejected then just as often as I do now, things were different when she was alive. I still felt the sting of failure, but it never penetrated my belief that I was a good, worthy, and valuable person simply because I existed. My mother's love was a buffer against the big, bad world out there and in many ways, it still is.

The feeling of self-worth she instilled in me is still present. It is why I can write this post and remember that even though rejection feels bad in the moment, it is not who I am, but only what I do. This makes me feel better. Much better. And it motivates me to try again. My mother didn't go to college. She was happy being a mom and working at a local store. She read a lot, but only fiction. She didn't like to travel much and stuck mostly to what she knew. Nonetheless, I think she was onto something important, even something genius, when she insisted on nurturing a sense of worthiness in us instead of a sense of self-esteem.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
We’re basically your best friend… with better taste.