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Is Self-Worth Tied to Our Net Worth?

How NOT to depend on a number to validate your success.

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money puzzle on green
Bruce Peterson/Gallery Stock
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Imagine if we walked around with price tags hanging around our necks. Even if this sounds ridiculous, in many ways we do it metaphorically.

Even the healthiest of us measure our self-worth by external factors like how much we’re paid, the number on the scale or how many times a friend calls. We compare and contrast, especially around status. We’re conditioned to believe that if we have more, we’re worth more.

Is this true?

From an early age, we want to understand how we fit into the world. We start by learning how to count, classify and behave. We’re told what to care about and even how to think. This is where the seeds of discernment grow into defining who we are and how we value ourselves and others. This is where the worthy muscle starts to flex and where money comes in.

“Mom, are we rich?”

Most parents face the inevitable question from their child: “Are we rich?” When asked how to answer, I try to offer suggestions knowing that there is no right or wrong or even simple answer. As a child we learn about money at home and through messaging constructed around the paradigm of rich versus poor. 

  • Rich is good and poor is bad. 
  • Hard work and high pay mean we are smarter, better, stronger.
  • Happiness can be bought.

Robert T. Kiyosaki captures this rich versus poor paradigm so effectively in Rich Dad Poor Dad, first published in 1997. In it he tells the story of his two dads: his real father, whom he calls his “poor dad,” and the father of his best friend, the man who became his mentor — his “rich dad.”

Kiyosaki shares six key lessons for building wealth that combine mindset with practical information, like the definition of an asset versus a liability. He clearly struck a chord with the book — it’s a number one best seller, with over 32 million copies sold in 51 languages and 109 countries. Why? Because he tells us we don’t need to be born rich to become rich. We just need to know what the rich teach their kids about money that the poor and middle class do not. In other words — being rich shouldn’t define us.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

My Own Money Journey

As a child of Depression-era parents, I learned that money was stressful. I also learned that greed was bad, that there was more to life than getting rich, and that I am capable of doing anything if I “put my mind to it.”

When Rich Dad Poor Dad came out, I inhaled the messages. I was living in a city focused on what you do, juggling a job, raising our young daughters, being a good partner and “doing all the things.” I had always aspired to make more than what I would earn in a job, to be an entrepreneur, and to prove to myself that I have what it takes to be successful. I functioned and continue to function with the idea that if I achieved “x” I would feel satisfied, complete, done.

The challenge has been defining that “x” factor and then syncing it up with reality. I’m not great at taking risks. I worry about losing money. I fear failure. And I continue to struggle with my why. Am I proving that I can do this despite these challenges or because of them? Either way, the irony is not lost on me. Either way, I am connecting my self-worth to my net worth.

Striving to Measure Up

This striving to measure up and now to meet basic needs like food, housing, and health care has caused financial hardship and stress for so many. It has also created a booming personal finance and self-help industry. In her book, Pound Foolish, Helaine Olen exposes the dark side of the personal finance industry through extensive research and reporting. She even references Kiyosaki, whose company has made millions off selling get-rich-quick courses. (Full disclosure, I sell courses on how to have a positive relationship to money based on all I have learned the hard way.) 

As parents, we want our kids to be financially independent but can feel limited in our ability to prepare them. We still expect our educational institutions to do the job for us and hope for the best. We pay and pray, saddling ourselves or our children with an average college debt of $32,731 according to the Federal Reserve. Though we don’t want to equate education with social mobility, we do. And the world of work endorses this practice, using measures of degree and performance to determine the value we bring to the table.

I’m not saying this is all bad. What I’m saying is that we can easily get caught up in a system that we think defines our self-worth when, in fact, it shouldn’t.

Self-Worth and Net Worth Are Measured Differently

The measure of self-worth uses different principles than the measure of net worth. Meadow Devor, my coach and author of The Worthy Project, writes, “Worthiness is the quality of deserving attention, energy, and respect. It’s not confidence. It’s not bravado. You can’t fake worthiness, nor can you accidentally end up with it. Worthiness is like a muscle. There are things you can do to strengthen that muscle and there are plenty of things that will weaken it.”

Our net worth is a number. It can change like the weather or depend on what country we live in or currency we use.

When we focus on our self-worth, we focus on what we need and can offer. We let go of self-doubt. When we do this, we are driven by an inner compass that doesn’t depend on a number to validate our success.

A few tips for boosting our self-worth:

  • Look in the mirror each morning and tell yourself at least once — even better, several times — “I am worthy.”
  • Create a list of criteria you have created for yourself to feel worthy. Write it out on a piece of paper and then physically burn it. (Example: I need to lose 10 pounds in order to be loved.) Make a celebration of that moment.
  • Next time you find yourself wanting to buy something to make yourself feel better, put that money into a savings account, take a deep breath and tell yourself how much you love everything about you, even your imperfections.

As for our net worth?

This can be a powerful tool for measuring our financial health and a practice built around financial literacy, the study of markets, and a willingness to take risks and suffer losses. Even where it is tied to our mental, physical and spiritual health, remember that whatever the price tag, it is just a number and has no bearing on whether you are worthy.

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