Contingencies of Self-Worth: Why They Explain Your Reaction to Everything

TWO GIRLFRIENDS WALK INTO A BAR.

Both start talking to handsome prospects. And both are rejected with a trailing “I think my friend just walked in….” shortly therefore.

One girlfriend pouts in a corner, dejected, sucking down a vodka soda. The other shakes it off, unaffected… also sucking down a vodka soda.

Why do two people have different reactions to the same situation? Because we each have unique domains in which our self-worth is staked.

Psychologist and philosopher William James called these domains, “contingencies of self-worth.”

We make self-worth judgments based on outcomes in domains we find important. This is why a bad work day is devastating to you, but laughed off by your partner. Or a moral failing is easily forgotten by you, but grounds for an existential crisis to your friend.

We each have our own combination of weights and variables that factor into our self-worth. These domains can include everything from appearance, to competency, to family approval. To each his or her own worth.

Your self-esteem increases and decreases as you succeed or fail in domains on which you have staked your self-worth.

A bad outcome in a contingent domain can be paralyzing. But a bad outcome in a non-contingent domain may not affect your self-esteem at all. I can fail at beer pong all day long and still feel confident as a clam. Beer pong fame just ain’t that valuable to me.

Our day-to-day lives are a conscious and unconscious battle to maintain happiness, equilibrium, and harmony across the domains that our self-worth is perched on.

We self-regulate by avoiding glass houses of self.

We tiptoe around domains that might threaten our worth. We actively seek out relationships, experiences, and environments that let us succeed in contingent domains. We avoid threats at all costs. Our self depends on it.

Mapping out your contingencies of self-worth is a powerful predictor of your behavior.

This knowledge can help you understand your motivations, areas of psychological vulnerability, and reactionary behavior. It lets you navigate times of unexpected self-doubt and understand your sideways responses to relatively benign assaults.

So read up on the contingencies, find yours, and see if you can avoid future self-esteem booby traps…
 

1. APPROVAL: “AT LEAST YOU APPROVE OF ME”

Love me, love me. Say that you love me.

I need to know what you think of me. I know you told me last week, but I forgot. No I’m not fishing, but I must have your blessing… and your likes on Instagram.

Approval might be a contingency of self-worth if: You cannot stand when someone has a negative opinion of you. You view gossip as deeply threatening. You have a bad day when others throw shade. You are happiest when you are accepted, loved, and validated. You have a hard time respecting yourself if others don’t respect you.

2. COMPARISON: “AT LEAST I’M BETTER THAN YOU”

As long as I’m prettier, smarter, richer, and more interesting than you, then we’re good. This domain is a wee-bit sensitive for Kanye West and Donald Trump..

Don’t swerve into my domain, because I will compare myself to you. You are my point of reference for myself. I will claw my way over your success if necessary.

Comparison might be a contingency of self-worth if: You don’t like being with people more attractive than you. You often took classes below your skill level. You constantly compare your career trajectory to your peers. You are the most successful person in your friend group. You like to feel superior to most people in your life.

3. APPEARANCE: “AT LEAST I’M PRETTY”

Don’t mess with my selfies, online shopping, and Kylie Jenner lip kit.

Don’t dunk me at the pool. My hair is wet and mascara is running. I gained five pounds on vacation and will most certainly torment my friends with my obsessive relationship with the bread basket.

Physical Appearance might be a contingency of self-worth if: You’ve cancelled a date because of a pimple. Your mood is influenced by your current weight. You won’t be seen if you’re not “fully dressed.” You’ve considered physical augmentation like implants or steroids. You can’t think of aging without your eye twitching

4. COMPETENCE: “AT LEAST I’M SMART.”

I’m the teachers pet. I’m the 4.0. I’m the meltdown over the 89% grade. I’m the person at the party you who tells you about every TED Talk I’ve ever watched.

It’s extremely important that I’m smart, that you know I’m smart, that I know that you know that I’m smart. And capable. And competent. When my smarts are threatened, I fight for my intellectual dominance.

Competence might be a contingency of self-worth if: You need to win every argument. You are happiest when you’re the “smart one” in the group. You are haunted by the debate you lost or presentation you flopped. You never accepted a B without a fight. You start most conversations with a fact or “interesting thing.”

5. FAMILY SUPPORT: “AT LEAST MY MOM THINKS I’M SPECIAL.”

Mom and Dad, tell me I’m special and supported. Cheer me on when I suck. Wipe my snot without judgement. Deal with the lifetime of crap I pull.

Let me call you on a near-daily basis. You are my therapist, sounding board, and obliged congratulatory machine. When you disagree, get mad at me, or withdraw your love, my world crumbles.

Family Support might be a contingency of self-worth if: You never make a big life decision without asking them. You would breakup with someone they didn’t like. You are unmoored if you haven’t talked to them in a few days. You are doubtful pursuing something they might not support. You get out-of-sorts when you’re in a tiff with them.

6. VALUES & MORALS: “AT LEAST I’M A GOOD PERSON”

Watch me save puppies. Let me tell you about my vegan diet. I wash and rewash all of my recyclables. I never lie… except when the doctor asks me how many drinks I have each week.

My virtues and morals give me a compass in life. I ruminate on the bad karma I picked up last weekend. And I always change my Facebook picture with those advocacy awareness filters.

Virtues and morals might be a contingency of self-worth if: You feel guilt about moral failings. You share your virtuous wins. You would feel impotent without your causes and rallies. You lean into your morals when life is getting away from you. You get a big self-esteem boost when you act virtuously.

7. GOD’S LOVE: “AT LEAST GOD LOVES ME”

Good ol’ God. With your big sky and abundant grace. I know you love me, even when I’m an asshole.

If I didn’t have your love, I would have nothing. Without your salvation, I wouldn’t be able to deal. I need to know that something bigger guides me when life gives me a hangover.

God’s love might be a contingency of self-worth if: You feel worthless when you doubt the existence of a God. Your feelings of worth is tied to God’s love for you. Your self-esteem is boosted after church or prayer. You feel super guilty when you make God mad.

To wrap up…

What domains that are most sensitive for you? What domains do you not give a f*** about? Knowing both of these answers is equally important.

Perhaps this explains why the same situation evokes an opposite reaction in you and your best friend. It’s not important to them, but it’s everything to you.

Trust me, I know how important it is to be the queen of your domain.

 

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