Does Achievement Contribute to Our Sense of Self-Worth or Diminish It?
Lately, the subject of accomplishment is coming up a lot in my private practice with women of all backgrounds as well as in my personal life. Something seems to be cooking in the atmosphere around this question: to accomplish or not to accomplish?
Generally speaking, I don’t believe that a life filled with accomplishments is by any means the most important indicator of a meaningful life or a life well-lived, especially if those accomplishments and achievements are our only link to our sense of self-worth. Our culture already overemphasizes productivity and efficiency, pressuring us to perpetual achievement to feel worthy. Similarly, many of us spend too much time comparing our lives to the seemingly perfect lives of others on Facebook and Instagram only to feel constantly less than everyone else urging us to do and acquire more. I believe it’s critical people derive their self-worth from other sources than accomplishing more—to the threads that connect us with our unique nature and the gifts of our essential self or soul.
What does that mean exactly? It means feeling good about who you are deep down, underneath what you’ve accomplished, whether that is a recent promotion, another advanced degree, buying a nice house, affording a new car, or even garnering an award or public recognition.
It means following the impulses of your soul rather than ideas of what you think you should be doing or are criticizing yourself for not doing enough. It means doing activities you are passionate about and doing them in a way and at a pace that feels pleasurable, as opposed to doing things your heart is not behind or trying hard to perform at a standard that is meant to please a critic, not your soul. It means enjoying what you are doing in the moment rather than necessarily trying to get to any particular place of completion.
Who are you deep down in your essence? Who are you without all of your accomplishments that appear to make you you? Perhaps it’s your particular aesthetic eye that gives rise to art that has its own unique expression, or maybe it’s the sound of your singing voice and the creative spirit that gives birth to it. It might be how your body moves to certain music that connects you with the divine. Or how you really see people in a way that no one else does, or your love of learning that compels you to spend hours discovering life under a microscope or under a rock. Maybe it’s the pureness of your heart, how you bring laughter to any room even in dark times, or your unrelenting passion for social justice or environmental protection. Perhaps it’s the one in you who is most at home sitting on the beach, listening to the ocean, and dreaming of leaving the regular world behind.
These and countless other sources of self-worth are sustainable because they all originate from your soul. They can live and even thrive through illness and injury when we aren’t able to produce or accomplish at the same level as when we are illness-free and our minds and bodies appear to be fully functioning. Deriving our self-worth from essential aspects of ourselves is everlasting, whereas deriving it from sheer performance or accomplishment alone is not nearly as reliable over time.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about achievement itself—but does it contribute to our sense of self-worth
or diminish it instead?
Consider, for example, when you want to break an old “bad” habit and start a new, healthier one (a form of accomplishment). This can be tricky if you don’t align the new habit with your essential self. Instead, so many of us are terrorized by inner bosses who demand perfection, have exceedingly high standards for our performance, or require nonstop production and efficiency. These inner rulers are not benevolent; they are tyrants who rule without compassion or leniency and who don’t care about what feeds us, what our souls want, or how we feel.
For those of us who suffer under this kind of tyrannical inner government, trying to accomplish new things might simply reinforce this inner dictator in the same old oppressive ways, and the results of our efforts may prove unsustainable and simply feel hurtful.
Dieting is perhaps one of the most poignant examples for those of us who live under the thumb of our inner tyrant, but quitting smoking or drinking alcohol or starting an exercise program from scratch—basically, changing any habit that has previously been loaded with shame and self-hatred—are equally appropriate examples.
Let’s say you have decided you want to curtail your current eating habits and adopt a new dietary regimen. In the past, your inner tyrant has used its power to berate you about how you look and how lousy your eating habits are. In part, you have agreed with this assessment so now have decided to go on a diet to try to lose weight, thinking this would be healthier. You’re trying to care for yourself.
However, without you knowing it, your tyrannical inner government simply replaces the berating self-talk about your body with an impossibly strict inner atmosphere around the new dietary program. If you manage to lose weight under the reign of this oppressive dictator, you will likely gain it back as your soul resists this new form of internalized self-hatred.
You may think you are once again “sabotaging” your life. But what you don’t realize is it’s actually your deep inner love and respect for yourself that says, “Hell, no!” to this tyrannical treatment, no matter what form it comes in. This is a new, seemingly paradoxical way that you are caring deeply for yourself. 
To unravel this internal dynamic, you may need to work on your relationship with your internal tyrant figure, empowering yourself and questioning its motives, in order to speak back to that oppressor and/or hear if it has any worthwhile wisdom behind its nasty treatment of you. The particular energetic force behind the tyrant’s tone and content might also be important to harness and apply to other areas of our lives where we need its confident, penetrating, empowered approach (without the demeaning content and tone). This is often difficult to do on our own, but with a trusted facilitator/therapist, these dialogues can be incredibly insightful.
However, like all good and seemingly helpful psychological advice—one size does not fit all.
For some of us, or for us at different moments in our life, it can be extremely important and life supporting to accomplish something whether that is aiming for an entirely new goal or replacing a bad habit with a good one. Making progress toward a goal—be that small or large—can boost our self-esteem and confidence in profound ways, leading to feeling empowered with the tested knowledge that we can indeed make changes in our life for health and well-being and overcome hurdles that previously appeared giant or fears that seemed insurmountable. In this scenario, it is not an inner tyrant who is motivating the desire for change, but rather a sustainable and trustworthy care for our self and a genuine hunger for a new life-giving direction.
To work towards a new goal or shift from one way of living, from one set of habits, to another requires discipline as well as determination, passion, and motivation (what most refer to as “willpower”). If the new direction is really right for you—and if timing and the Universe all say yes—applying some discipline can reap marvelous changes that promote a much-needed uplift in self-esteem (“I feel good about myself”) and therefore self-worth (“I am a fundamentally worthwhile and valuable being”).
Particularly when you feel that life is going nowhere or that you’re on standby, when you feel like life is lacking in direction, when you simply want to experience more purpose in daily living, or when your current ways of living (habits) are no longer supportive and life-giving, then setting attainable goals and taking regular small actionable steps toward those goals can boost our self-confidence and contribute to our overall sense of worth in powerful ways. Of course, change still takes motivation, but if the timing is right and the goal aligns with your inner nature, this motivation may be a gentle nudge of encouragement from a trusted friend or advisor to “go for it.”
No matter what, though, striving toward accomplishment must come from your soul. If your soul has not yet bought in to your new goals, then any changes you implement are unlikely to last.
But if your soul says, “Yes, this is what I want, this is who I am,” then get ready. As the old adage goes, “Be careful what you ask for; you just might get it.”
In my next blog post, I’ll offer some ideas about how you might go about connecting with your essential self and aligning your accomplishments and habit changes with your soul.
 A special thanks to my partner and fellow process-oriented facilitator and psychotherapist, David Bedrick, for his extensive research and teaching on women, diets, body image, and shame, out of which my idea for this example derives.