08/30/2012 02:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Note to Self: Why We Need a Self-Worth Reboot


I came across this fantastic image in Pinterest (the latest and greatest, most delicious time suck, er... I mean "creative forum) and pinched it faster than the last cream-filled doughnut left languishing on a break room plate. I run a program for women caregivers designed to help build resilience through helping women discover and implement self-worth practices called HerSelf First. I knew this graphic would be a perfect addition to the "Daily Spark" inspirations I readily post to our Facebook page. It was. Likes occurred, virtual high-fives happened, our wonderful community of tireless and often invisible women "got it" and all was right with the world. But...

It caused me to think: What has happened to us, as women, that we need sticky notes to remind us of something so fundamental as our own self-worth? What shifted in our personal and cultural consciousness that took us from celebrating our simple "being-ness" to reserving that praise for occasions when it "really counts" such as earning a promotion, accomplishing a big goal, or reaching a milestone?

Historically, women have been conditioned to adhere to the qualities defined by nineteenth-century beliefs as those constituting the Cult of True Womanhood: purity, piety and submissiveness. Oh yes, you read that right, and while those qualities could pass for something buried in a Romney/Ryan women's health care bill, they were actually incredibly influential governing principles. As such, women based their self-worth on their abilities to keep up hearth and home, produce and rear God-fearing children and remain a moral center for the rest of the family. And that was what antebellum gals called "Monday."

In some ways, this measurement system provided women with a distinctive gauge to track self-worth. Solid home, dutiful children, a pristine ethical record: Give yourself a gold star, you deserve it! Broken home, derelict children, dubious moral behavior: Go straight to hussy-dom, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred. The evolution of cultural ideas about gender coupled with the expansive opportunities afforded to women created a much more complex landscape where self-worth is concerned. Today, women divine their value through social relationships, activities and hobbies, professional pursuits, spiritual affiliations, community involvement and the domestic space. And of course there is also media, celebrity culture and political trends that equally factor into the way women view and understand their self-worth.

In short: We have ended up with a much longer list of potential ways to assign value to our selves than the antiquated trifecta of purity, piety and submissiveness. The population I work with are mothers of children with disabilities, specifically Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a muscle-wasting disease that currently has no cure. For many of these moms, self-worth is an exhausting ping pong match between less and more: How involved you are in activism and fundraising; how proactive you are in drug and clinical trials; how involved you are in the school system; how good you are at your job, at being a mother, at being a wife, at being a caregiver; how much you do for the community -- for everyone else but yourself. Fatigue is a virtue, the mark of someone who must truly be incredibly invaluable. In reality, it is all exhausting, depleting, unfun and measures little more than sheer stamina. Hence, the sticky notes, tiny and simple prompts that help us cut through the inane chatter and bring us back to basics. Why do we need sticky notes like the one in the graphic? Because somewhere along the way, we tuned out our inner-voices and tuned into the pitching, whining, increasingly voluminous frequency that is "out there" and that characterizes our daily reality.

This is why I am calling for a self-worth reboot. We need to look at what contributes to our sense of self-worth and ask ourselves: Am I basing my self-worth on beliefs, accomplishments or standards that no human person can achieve? If that answer is yes (hint: I bet it is), then we need to make adjustments and tune to a new frequency, one that sounds and feels more like a lapping creek rather than a roaring turbine. We need to create a new checklist, perhaps with fewer items from the piety, purity, submissiveness model, but you know, not as nineteenth-century-women-still-can't-vote-cringey.

Maybe your self-worth checklist sticky note would include this: Does my child know he/she is totally loved? Do I like who I see when I look in the mirror? Did I do my best to add something positive to the day today? Maybe we need to return to a Stuart Smally-esque reminder of "You're good enough, smart enough and doggone it, people like you!" Start simple, build carefully, respectfully. Because the more we try and derive value from extrinsic entities like the blogs we read from "super women doing and having it all" or what our politicians are telling us about right and wrong ways to be productive women, the further away we get from authentic notions of self-worth and true, long-term happiness and personal harmony.

After all, there's a reason why they make those sticky notes so small: Sometimes the biggest, most powerful messages are the ones that take up the least amount of space.