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“You are precious in My eyesand honored, and I love you.”

—Isaiah 43:4

LIFE IS MESSY. A lot of us spend our time trying to control it. To minimize the bad. To maximize the good. To be perfect. To be happy. We all want to be happy. In fact, for many of us it is the supreme goal in life. Terms often used in connection with happiness are self-esteem and self-worth. Although they seem similar, they are different at their core.

Self-esteem is based on the concept that feeling good about yourself leads to superior achievements and, therefore, happiness. Self-esteem programs often include awards, despite no real effort or accomplishment by the recipient, based on the theory that this fosters good feelings about oneself.

The problem is that this can result in either people who mistakenly think they’re good at everything—or people who never take a risk because they don’t want to feel bad when they can’t accomplish something the first time they try.

Self-worth, on the other hand, is the sense of confidence and respect a person feels from knowing their true, unique value. We may be flawed or fail, but we still have value that is independent of our imperfections. What makes us feel worthy of love and belonging?

Accomplishments and Failures
Self-worth, surprisingly, often comes from almost the exact opposite strategy as those designed to give us self-esteem. People with strong self-worth know that their accomplishments must be earned, even if it takes lots of practice and failure along the way. They know that doing something risky such as, for example, being the first person to say, “I love you,” carries a chance of failure, but they also know they will never succeed without such risks.

Key researchers are beginning to be heard speaking up on the subject of self-worth although, interestingly, they often come at it from different angles.

Kathryn Schulz, in her book Being Wrong, encourages us not to fear error. She sees it as inevitable, transformative and necessary for creativity.

Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling into Happiness, has done studies showing that all our worrying often just leads to unnecessary dread. In fact, even if the negative event we’re concentrating on does occur, many people find that it’s not as bad as all the dread they experienced beforehand. Our imaginations often take us to a darker place than reality does.

Brené Brown, a social work research professor, believes there’s power in vulnerability. She has found that those who are willing to take risks in order to “be authentic” have an innate sense of self-worth. In a speech she gave entitled “Daring Greatly,” Brown said, “When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make. Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience.”

In short, what many people are advocating are the very things that we fear deep down: taking chances, making mistakes, putting ourselves in positions where we may be judged as weak. The truth is that we know, and God knows, that we are flawed and imperfect beings. When we admit it in daily life and take chances despite our fears, we give ourselves room to stretch, to learn, to love, and to soar.

Made in His Image
This is something that Maura Byrne discovered. A 26-year-old struggling to recover from years of physical abuse, an eating disorder, and serious self-image issues, she found courage in Blessed John Paul II’s words: “Do not be afraid. Do not be satisfied with mediocrity.”

She says, “Those words taught me to rise above all that was going on in my life and to not be afraid to take those small leaps of faith, knowing that God the Father is right there next to me. John Paul II’s words helped me gain confidence and strive to take my life back, to turn from a victim to a survivor. I still have those words on my wall and I turn to them all the time.”

Byrne eventually founded “Made in His Image,” a ministry for women with eating disorders. It began as a blog, but is now on its way to becoming the first Catholic inpatient medical center for females recovering from eating disorders and abuse. The patients who come to “Made in His Image” will be treated holistically—body, mind and spirit. Taking risks on her own behalf has set Byrne free to help others.

Nobody’s Perfect
Knowing we are imperfect, but nonetheless worthy of love and belonging, allows us to be patient with our imperfections. St. Francis de Sales in the spiritual classic, Introduction to the Devout Life, points out, “Though it is reasonable to be displeased and sorry when we fall into faults, it should be without bitterness, anger or sulkiness. ...

In any case, this sort of annoyance and bitterness with ourselves springs from self-love and leads to pride, for we are merely upset and disturbed at finding ourselves imperfect.” In other words we need to be kind to ourselves when we fail, just as we would in the case of a friend’s failure.

Interestingly, taking the risks we fear often leads to connecting with others because we are at our most authentic in those moments. When we share ourselves in that way, others recognize it. Often we don’t know what is happening until the experience is behind us because we’ve been working so hard to overcome obstacles. However, that’s when we surprise ourselves, not only with our accomplishments but with how we’ve grown.

When Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson earned the silver medal in the individual all-around competition at the 2008 Olympics, she was disappointed that she didn’t come in first place, but also proud that she had performed as well as she had. Her joy was soon replaced by tears when reporters asked her what it felt like to lose, as if she had something to be ashamed of.

That experience taught Johnson an important life lesson. In her memoir Winning Balance, she wrote, “God created you in His image; that is where your worth comes from…I realized gymnastics was no longer the most important thing to me…I knew that my friends and family loved me, that God was watching over me, and that I had represented my nation well at the Olympics. All in all, I knew that my life was solid and balanced.”

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