Contribution from Shobha Nihalani

In last week’s column, we summed up how we can understand and deal with the inner critic. In short, a lot of what happens to us internally is the result of our interactions with the world. The external stimuli trigger our inner dialogue, and we tend to be hard on ourselves.

When you interact with others, you perceive yourself in a certain way, sometimes undermining your self-worth. To better understand this, ask yourself these three questions.

  • Do you regularly put other’s needs ahead of yours?
  • Do you let others make decisions for you?
  • Does external validation motivate you to do more?

If you answered ‘yes’ to two or more of these prompts, then it indicates that you are afraid of what people think of you or worry obsessively that they will not like you. You fear external disapproval, which leads you to bend backwards to comply to other’s needs.

What is self-worth?

measuring self worth
Covington says that self-worth is measured by factors like how successful we are (© Caroline Veronez via Unsplash)

You have heard a lot of ‘self’ words, and they all relate to a particular aspect of how we think, feel, and behave towards ourselves. Each of these words – esteem, confidence, respect, love, care, compassion – become uniquely related when ‘self’ is added as a prefix. Cultivating all of these self-related phrases helps us get a better sense of who we are and what we want from our lives. In other words, having an understanding of our own value.

According to psychologist Martin Covington’s self-worth theory, our self-worth is determined by how we perceive our abilities and performance in different areas of our lives, and relates to how valuable we feel. For example, when we look at ourselves in the mirror, if we are not happy with what we see in terms of weight, clothes, or the kind of attention we receive, then we tend to devalue ourselves. Similarly, how you relate to your career, social circle, and even your school grades, all tie in with how worthy you feel.

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The fact is that you are the only one who decides how valuable you are. No one else decides this. It is as simple and as complicated as that.

Signs of low self-worth

Low self-worth is a belief, and when we believe that we carry no value, it makes us feel small and insignificant. According to therapists, low self-worth stems from unresolved past experiences and emotions. It becomes a behavior pattern when it becomes habitual. Some signs of low self-worth are:

  1. Changing yourself for others
  2. Seeking verbal approval constantly
  3. Diminishing your own needs
  4. Letting others take advantage of you
  5. Being afraid to be yourself
  6. Lack of desire to do self-love practices
people pleasing in office setting
People-pleasing can really propagate in an unhealthy workplace (© Tim Gouw via Unsplash)

We often tie our self-worth to our jobs or relationships. Very often, if our boss or partner is displeased, we strive harder to make them happy. This goes on day after day, and eventually our personal worth is tied to the happiness of the boss or a partner. The need for praise, validation, and approval triggers the people-pleaser to do more and more.

The problem with people-pleasing is that the response received defines the pleaser’s self-worth. Someone else is in control of how people-pleasers feel about themselves. And how they feel about themselves is that everyone else is better than them.

What is people-pleasing?

People-pleasing, which typically involves not asserting yourself, is hard to define. No doubt, the desire to make someone else happy is a positive quality; thinking about other people’s needs is altruistic. Having a charitable nature can be great, but there needs to be a balance. People-pleasers tend to go all out to be helpful to others, in many cases, while sacrificing their time and energy.

Why do we people-please?

Very often, we say ‘yes’ because we respect other’s seniority or simply don’t want to upset them. Saying ‘no’ or setting boundaries in a professional, or even personal, context can prove to be difficult for some. It may be motivated by a desire to impress others or by the fear of being negatively judged.

Researchers have found that fear of rejection or abandonment is the most likely driving force of people-pleasers. No matter what the reason, this behaviour pattern is all tied up with self-worth. Other people’s needs take precedence, and we forgo our own.

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How does people-pleasing affect us?

This becomes the dynamic of the people-pleaser’s life. Every aspect of their joy and sadness revolves around another person. This can mean choosing to accept the role of a victim. Failing to set personal boundaries results in feelings of guilt when saying ‘no’, being burdened by endless to-do lists, or being constantly alert about what others think. It is difficult to stop being a people-pleaser when you have been doing it for years. There is a way to bring about change and that starts with valuing yourself.

Boundaries build self-value

flowers growing behind a wire fence
Beautiful things happen with appropriate boundaries (© Anchor Lee via Unsplash)

Before you set boundaries, it is necessary to take ownership of your worth. This revolves around how you see, feel, and think about yourself and your abilities. Then set boundaries to honour your own values and priorities. Just like walls are built to ensure that no one infiltrates your personal space, similarly the demands of others need not interfere with your self-worth.

If you are uncomfortable or feel forced to do something you don’t want to do, simply say ‘no’. It’s possible to say ‘no’ firmly and with grace simultaneously. This will seem difficult at first, and you will feel a sense of guilt. Ride through it. When you see the benefits, you will notice an inner sense of satisfaction that starts to build around the statement, ‘I don’t need to be so nice all the time.’ Or ask yourself, ‘Am I behaving like a doormat?’ If yes, then you know you’re on the right track by refusing to do something you don’t want to.

There are times when you feel compelled to say ‘yes’ and that’s fine. Just ensure you strike a balance that includes respecting your needs. Make some me-time for yourself to reset and reflect on your values and beliefs.

Sometimes we are not sure how to respond to an ask. In such a situation, observe how you feel emotionally and physically when you are thinking of saying yes to someone. Checking in on your physiology will indicate what you need to do. Your feelings are a guide to what is important to you at that point in time. Having boundaries also means having the choice to say yes or no. Remember, when you say ‘no’ to others, you are saying ‘yes’ to yourself.

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The work of asserting your self-worth

woman dancing in a sunflower field
Recognizing your value and what you want is a journey (© Jennifer Marquez via Unsplash)

Awareness starts with recognising our value. As much as we want to put other people’s feelings, time, and money above ourselves because it feels safer, we need to assert the worth of our own existence. We are responsible for respecting our own dreams and goals.

It is important to find what makes us distinctive, what sets us apart, and to embrace our unique qualities as our guiding star. We need to be fearless in order to bring our true self out into the world. Being true to oneself will invite respect from others.

When we are resilient to value ourselves, we can plan our future as we see fit, free to write the story of our own lives. We will not expect anyone else to take care of our needs. We can choose to shift self-deprecating behaviours in the direction of self-development. The accumulated experiences of valuing our needs will lead to courage that helps us achieve our greatest potential without being burdened by external validation.

Many people spend their whole lives hungering for approval. As a result, they end up neglecting the opinion that matters the most: their opinion of themselves. 

Never let others define who you are because most are still trying to figure out who they are.” — Rodney Walker

💡 Read more advice from Shobha Nihalani on self-esteem 💡

Shobha Nihalani is a multi-genre author, ghost-writer, and mindset coach. She has been writing for over 25 years. Her recent book on self-esteem – Reboot, Reflect, Revive: Self-Esteem in a Selfie World – has become popular and is recognised for raising awareness on self-esteem.

Shobha believes that the way we communicate with ourselves, and others, has the power to impact our lives. Her expertise as a writing consultant and writer’s coach has given her the opportunity to guide people to acknowledge their own amazing potential to be unique, creative, and resilient in achieving their goals.

Learn more about Shobha Nihalani at or contact her at

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of The HK HUB.

Header image credits: Isaiah Rustad via Unsplash

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