Psychology Sociology

How Self-worth Affects Identity

...Identities gained from toxic roles fueled by a low sense of self-worth are diametrically opposed to identities gained from healthy roles fueled by a secure sense of self-worth.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how our social environment affects our identity. Our social environments shape us from birth, often unconsciously, instilling a sense of security, self-worth, and identity. Those growing up in dysfunctional families may lack a fundamental sense of self-worth, causing them to seek a sense of significance in ways that are unhealthy and unsustainable.

To gain a sense of significance, some take on the hero role, seeking praise for their achievements. Some become jokesters, making others laugh while suppressing their inner turmoil. Some become rebels, seeking approval from deviant peer-groups. Lastly, some may retreat into isolated fantasy worlds. The book, Another Chance by Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, elaborates on these roles among families dealing with addiction issues.

Coming from a dysfunctional family plagued by addiction, individuals take on one or more of the above roles, carrying the negative long-term effects into adulthood. These may include underdeveloped coping strategies, low self-esteem, acting out, attention-seeking, self-isolation, drug use, gambling and sexual addiction, hoarding, work addiction, codependency, in addition to heightened levels of mental health issues including depression and anxiety. Overcoming these effects requires confronting the unique role one has played throughout childhood to gain a sense of significance. Let’s take a closer look at the hero role mentioned previously.

One way individuals attempt to gain a sense of self-worth is through the identity of the hero. At an early age, this consists of over-achievement and praise seeking, but can later turn into codependency. This occurs when the individual becomes dependent on an addict/alcoholic for their sense of identity.  Under the guise of being “the responsible one”, they feel like a victim, living in a state of anxiety amidst the chaos of addiction. The enabler feels like they need to hold everything together, taking on extra responsibilities, while trying to change the alcoholic through manipulation that quickly fails, breeding discontent.

“If I don’t do it, who else will?” the enabler askes. While they manage to hold the dysfunctional household together, they are also unknowingly contributing to the addiction by making excuses for the addict, taking on the extra responsibilities so the addict does not experience the full negative consequences of their behavior. Specific enabling behaviors may include calling the addict’s workplace to lie about why the addict cannot show up, taking on extra employment to compensate for financial strain, in addition to keeping the household in working order to compensate for the addict’s neglect. This role sacrifices one’s personal boundaries, leading to resentment.

The identity of the victimized hero provides a false sense of self-worth, rooted in a mutually destructive codependent role. Without the enabler, the addict faces the full consequences of their behavior; without the addict, the enabler loses the unhealthy foundation to their false identity that protects them from having to experience their inner lack of self-worth. Their high achievements and/or moral excellence in the eyes of others provide external validation, but this is still only a thin veneer hiding their inner guilt and sense of “not being enough”.

Frustrated, they may project their inner criticisms of themselves onto others. Like the Jungian Shadow, they despise in others what they truly despise most in themselves. This criticism causes resentment among others who begin to perceive the hero as arrogant and difficult to be around because of the high expectations placed on them. This high expectation of others is a projection used to cope with their high expectations of themselves. The problem is that these expectations are just as unattainable for others as they are for the hero, leading to a spiral of constant disappointment and distancing relations.

Identities gained from toxic roles fueled by a low sense of self-worth are diametrically opposed to identities gained from healthy roles fueled by a secure sense of self-worth. Rather than being drawn to play a dysfunctional role to gain a sense of self-worth, individuals who have an assumed sense of self-worth pursue healthy roles and maintain a sense of personal boundaries. Secure attachments during early childhood foster this fundamental sense of self-worth.

To summarize the theoretical model I have laid out, here is how I believe self-worth affects identity:

  1. Our identities come from the ways we define ourselves in relation to the social roles we play (Based on Erik Erickson’s concept of “Identity vs. role confusion”).
  2. If we lack a fundamental sense of self-worth, we often take on toxic roles, creating unhealthy identities.
  3. Early childhood attachment experiences significantly affect our fundamental sense of self-worth.
  4. Although our social environments have a profound effect on our identity, clinical interventions and introspection can help individuals overcome issues in this area.
  5. Beyond clinical interventions and introspection, we need to consider ways to prevent these issues by facilitating better social environments, particularly among children, adolescents, and persons undergoing major life transitions including veterans in transition to civilian life.

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27 comments

  1. “Frustrated, they may project their inner criticisms of themselves onto others. Like the Jungian Shadow, they despise in others what they truly despise most in themselves.” This is just spot on, I know so many people around me who are guilty of this, probalby not excluding myself from time to time. Self-worth is everything, but the source of it and its manifestations are even more significant. Thanks for following my blog, and I’m so glad I stopped by! 🙂

  2. Those messages, often in early childhood, are a contributing factor.and those injured by them must replace them with positive messages which can be a daunting task. It can be done.

    Thank you for choosing to follow one of my blogs. I hope you continue to enjoy the posts and if you go back through the older posts, no doubt, you may find ones relevant to these issues. Léa

  3. This is helpful, however, again roles are based on nature v nurture and more systemic processes. Familial roles definitely shape what roles an individual will subconsciously/consciously live out.

  4. Informative and enlightening but I am not a product of my parents as though an assembly line created me. My family influenced and colored my beginnings but did not control me. That would make me a victim and unaccountable to myself and to life. I’ve read many books about children from alcoholic families offering up the same message as yours. Read “Born A Crime” by Trevor Noah and you’ll get insights into family beginnings and the discovery of personhood which Erickson espouses. Blessings.

    1. Thank you for another well-informed comment, Rev. Joe. I agree that it’s not a deterministic system. Rather, it’s as you said, “informed and colored”. For some, it puts them into a downward spiral from an early age, but that doesn’t mean they are destined to be an eternal victim of their upbringing.

  5. Thank you for following my blog and allowing me to find yours! Reading through your posts this is fascinating and the kind of awareness into anxiety and depression I was looking for
    I definitely took on the hero role growing up, and even though I have achieved a lot (good grades, extra curricular) I feel the need to constantly justify my actions and am constantly looking for external validation- I’d like to say it’s SAD but I fear it has become more ingrained
    Your social media post is brilliant too, I’ve come to realise my self- worth is so based on photos I upload, I feel terrible if a picture gets less that 25-30 likes, which if those people were sat in a room, that’s a lot of people!
    Your blog makes me feel a bit less ridiculous, I’m called ‘silly’ for my need of approval from peers and they joke about it but to me it’s a real fear
    So yeah, thanks for helping me identify this further!

    1. Thank you for this wonderful comment! I’ve read a bit about your background and it looks like you have been through a lot. Great work for deciding to write about your experience. I hope it is a form of healing for both yourself and others who read it. I approach the subject from an academic background rather than a personal one, but am glad to hear it provides insight into these important issues. You are for sure not alone in your issues. The topic of ‘external validation’ is one I want to explore a bit further in future posts. Thanks again for reading!

  6. The definitions of our selves first formed, with how our parents interact with us (from externally), and, although we’re influenced by environmental stimuli that help shape us into who we are, but i don’t believe, that the importance of defining our selves based off of our psyches should be overlooked…

  7. “…we need to consider ways to prevent these issues by facilitating better social environments, particularly among children, adolescents, and persons undergoing major life transitions including veterans in transition to civilian life.”

    Preventative measures would be great and I support the idea, but, while it might be ‘easier’ to identify persons undergoing major life transitions, especially transitional veterans, how would children at risk be identified?

    Fear, blind devotion, need for familial acceptance, and co-dependency already lead children and teens to mask or hide serious emotional trauma. How would you get to them as children to help them not become adults with low self-esteem?

    Great post!

    1. Thank you for this well thought-out comment! I agree. This is the main problem for public health policy. It is an issue I didn’t tackle in this post, since it goes beyond the question I was working through (conceptualizing the interplay between social roles, identity, and self-worth).

  8. I think we all have an innate personality. You know…startled baby, happy baby, fearful, baby, shy baby, etc. Each family is different from every other family. Only children vs siblings. Neighborhoods, race, economics, societal brainwashing/conditioning. Everything plays a part but not in the same way to each individual. Some people are born into horrific families, sexual abuse, torture, addiction, psychological abuse, and they still turn out to be well adjusted and healthy, others are scared for life by the slightest thing. Then there are targeted groups who are not allowed to have proper housing, education, personal power, and all the rest. Gangs, shootings, rape, is an everyday occurrence. Violence against women and children. Rape on campus. As you said, all of these things impact who we become how our basic personalities copes with real life. The dreadful media also plays a huge part in the lives of children, regardless of their family life.

    Who decides what a functional family is? Is the definition simply another way to control the masses? Is the definition made up by white people, as usual (used to be by white males only). Will the definition be something people will strive for, feel bad about, fail at, or pat themselves on the back for a job well done?

    It’s all how you look at it. Is religion a form of child abuse? Are kids who are taught racism, hatred and violence by parents who are in the KKK, being raised in abusive and dysfunctional families? A lot of people would say yes to both.

    We can’t even define love. It means something different to each of us. City people vs country people. Competition, violence, agism, sexism, racism, hate greed…even families who do everything “right,” don’t always raise healthy kids. We live in a society that pits us against each other. Competition, sorts kids out. Bullying, class differences.

    Definitions are written by people of a certain class. Like the ridiculous standardized tests. MEANINGLESS. All of these things are used to put people into boxes. They ignore the real problems, which are the “isms.” Patriarchy is literally killing us…that’s the problem. Men raping their children, that’s a problem. Violence against women and children, that’s a problem. Different rules for different people, that’s a problem. Police brutality, that’s a problem. Racism, that’s a problem. Poverty, that’s a problem, Hatred and elitism, those are problems.

    All the guys in the cave described the elephant in different ways…Plato was right. This is exactly the same thing.

    Instead of worrying about self worth in families we need to stop the violence on our streets, in our schools as well as in homes. No one seems to be able to do anything about THOSE things. The things that shape all of us. The things that keep women prisoners, afraid to go out alone at night. No one is doing anything about rape on campus, colleges lie and hide it. Girls are carrying mattresses on campus to show how bad rape is in their school. Those are the things that shape our lives. Women treated as prey. Women working for less money, kept poor on purpose. Surely you know what I mean. You can come from the best home environment but you still can’t get into an elevator when there’s a man inside and feel safe. So, if society cleaned up it’s act maybe we would all feel better.

    Life is getting harder for he average person. Families are struggling and kids are exposed to the terrible media, which tells them one lie after another. Life has become a sick fantasy for many of them. They are committing suicide because they think they’re ugly. Bullying is out of control…more suicides. And that’s across the board. So, I think we have bigger problems that need to be addressed. No one stops fathers from raping their kids. Priests rape kids on a daily basis and they lie and cover that up as well. That’s real life for a lot of people. How does the definition of dysfunctional families help? Our society is TOXIC. That’s a good word. Defining ‘dysfunctional’ can’t happen until we define the people who are writing the definition and who will define them? Seriously. This is just one more thing. One more label, one more box. There is no end to this…none at all. We are all poisoned by our own culture. And seriously, people who write definitions are a big part of the problem. There isn’t a single person who can’t be labeled or excused for their behavior because they were the middle child, or the oldest, or the youngest, or this or that. Our beliefs and expectations are based on the definitions that have been put into our heads to control our thinking. And again…who writes them? Just like history books where women and minorities don’t exist. We can’t believe anything, or anyone.

    1. Thank you for sharing this passionate response! I agree with all of the grievances you share. I didn’t talk about broader social issues for the sake of brevity and focus, since I was trying to think through the specific question of how self-worth affects identity. Beyond the family, I agree that all of these other forms of violence also impact self-worth.

      1. Thank you. The most important questions are: who writes the definitions and are the definitions part of a social agenda? How are the studies run and who is truly paying for them? For years studies showed that mother’s were to blame for autistic children. The definitions were that the mothers were cold and distant. Studies show all kinds of things. They show what you want them to show. They target who they want to target and they they are always written by those who are after grants or well educated. I just have a Master’s in Women’s Studies and Political Science. I don’t have a PhD. I got my degrees to fight against things like this. The injustices in society are there for a reason. War makes money, peace does not. The definitions we are given to continue war are lies. Everything that keeps certain ethnic groups poor and uneducated is done on purpose. The definitions of these groups are also lies. We are now deporting people based on definitions that are lies.

        The definition of functional/dysfunctional families could be written by someone who was abused as a child. The definition doesn’t mean anything when the real issue is society itself. It’s all about control over others. How do you recognize a functional family? Who makes up the standards by which the family is judged? We don’t know what functional is…like everything else…we make it up. All the made up definitions become our reality and that just adds to the lies we are expected to live by. I’ve worked with kids who were considered to be behavior disordered. They aren’t. They are simply kids who threaten the status quo, so their definitions make sure they are punished for not obeying commands put in place by a society that will not tolerate cleverness, creativity, intelligence and freedom. Definitions are simply labels that use more words. They can be used as weapons and we never know who is behind them.

        1. Thanks again for the well thought-out comment! Your commentary is very much in line with the post-structural critical approach I used in my masters thesis looking at the representation of gender in weight-loss television. Hopefully my article didn’t come across as trying to posit an ideal family model. Although I like Durkheimian functionalism, I use the word dysfunction to indicate social dynamics that cause suffering. I will focus on broader social issues, including social media in future posts.

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