Self-worth is an extremely valuable commodity. It makes people healthier and happier. If we have it, we do a better job of taking care of ourselves and each-other. Since it is so valuable, it makes sense to try to figure out how to produce as much self-worth as possible.
For an individual person there are two basic strategies for generating self-worth:
(a) Valuing yourself, your qualities and achievements, for their own intrinsic merit.
Example (a): a runner trains for a marathon, and feels pride and satisfaction because she has increased her speed, strength, and fitness. She comes last in the race but this does not diminish her sense of accomplishment. After all, the fact that she came in last doesn’t say anything about her, it just says something about the other runners. If she had participated in a different race against a less-fit group, she might have come in first instead of last. She values her accomplishment for its own intrinsic worth, and doesn’t worry about how she stacks up compared to others.
(b) Valuing yourself, your qualities and achievements, in that they make you better than others.
Example (b): a runner trains for a marathon. She’ll feel great about herself if she wins, and if she comes in 2nd or 3rd she’ll feel pretty good about her accomplishment. If she loses, however, she will feel disappointed in herself. Her sense of worth depends how she performs relative to others, not on any intrinsic value of her accomplishments.
It seems that for many people strategy (b) is a quicker, easier, and more clear-cut route to self-worth than strategy (a). However, let us look at this problem from the perspective of a community of people, with an ecology of thoughts. At this level, it is clear that strategy (a) is much more effective in providing self-worth to everyone than strategy (b). With strategy (b), with every player who gets to feel good about herself, another player is made to feel bad about herself, whereas with strategy (a) there is a potentially unlimited amount of self-worth to go around. Furthermore, even if a particular player is really successful at getting self-worth by playing strategy (b), she nevertheless has to live under a constant threat: if you slip up, your self-worth will be taken from you.
It is very difficult (though not impossible) for a person to function as an island of unconditional regard, treating herself and others as intrinsically valid and valuable, while surrounded on all sides by a sea of competition. After all, the way we view ourselves depends on the way others see us (or, more accurately, on the way we think others see us). The problem of self-worth is similar to the Prisoners’ Dilemma, in that the cooperative strategy is the best bet for any player – but only if she knows that the other players are also going to cooperate. Just as, in the Prisoners’ Dilemma, the players could only reap the benefits of cooperation if they found away to communicate and trust one-another, players in the real-life game of BAH* can only gain the benefits of unconditional self-worth if they find away, working with others in their community, to provide each-other with unconditional regard and respect.
* Being A Human