This was a question the great psychotherapist and father of CBT Albert Ellis attempted to answer decades ago. In answering it, he acquired a critical insight. He had been exploring how best to assist patients increase their self esteem with conditions such as depression. This led him to analyse what the term meant , and therein his journey of discovery began. He realised that the issue was not how best to increase self-esteem , but rather the belief that it could be defined or measured at all. Ellis’s insight was that we are attempting to define and measure something that is non-existent. And we are making ourselves anxious , depressed and ashamed in the process.

Despite this insight , we continue to use words like self-worth and self-esteem as if they are definable or measurable concepts. If asked to define on paper the term’ self – worth’ , it should be a simple task .

Is it not obvious?

Is it not how we value ourselves as human beings , and therefore easy to measure and improve?

Let’s explore this concept further.


The rating exercise

This is a wonderful exercise to challenge our whole concept of self-rating . It is an exercise I regularly request that individual patients and large groups of people do. The results are astoundingly disparate . Let’s see how you do.

1- On a sheet of paper , draw a straight line. At one end of the line , write’1′ and at the other,’100′ . Now rate yourself as a human being between one and a hundred, with the former being useless and latter , fantastic .

2- Having marked in the score for your personal rating , now mark in where others would rate you.

3- Next, imagine you were recently diagnosed with depression and are on medication. With this information, where would you now rate yourself on the scale.

4-Then, mark in where you think others would rate you on hearing this news.

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The results of the first part of this exercise will impart some important information about yourself. If your personal rating is, for example , ninety – five to a hundred , you are clearly setting the bar extremely high , and are thus more likely to become anxious or frustrated if not constantly achieving these levels. If your personal rating is under twenty , you may feel you are not making the grade in life , and are thus more likely to suffer from conditions like depression . Most of us rate ourselves somewhere in between these extremes.

Reviewing your assessment of what others think of you can also be revealing . If the ‘others’ rating is extremely high , you may feel under pressure to match up to other people’s perceived high expectations. This can also lead to us becoming anxious. If extremely low , this may suggest that others do not think much of us, so may be prone on occasion to feel depressed or ashamed . Once again, most people mark themselves comfortably between the two extremes , assuming others have a reasonable opinion of them.

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Now for the results of the second part of this exercise . How many ‘changed’ their rating when asked to visualise the situation where they were diagnosed with depression and requiring medication?

My own experience from performing this exercise over many years is that some will mark their self- rating down but not their ‘others’ rating . The majority will mark down both. This underlies the shame and stigma surrounding depression and other mental health conditions.

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In my experience, almost everyone falls into the trap! They immediately begin to rate themselves as human beings . They also allow others to rate them. In addition , they will frequently vary their rating depending on circumstances .

Now for the sting in the tail.

On what grounds or using what scale did you apply these ratings to begin with? Most of us, on reflection, admit that we cannot answer this question. In practice , no such scale exists.

It becomes more complex . Suppose I put five of your friends or colleagues in a row, requesting you rate them as human beings, each against each other, detailing the grounds on which you have awarded your scores.

Which scale did you apply?

It is impossible task to perform , as no such grounds or scales exist.

This is because of the wonderfully individual nature of every human being. All of us are special, unique and totally undefinable. There is no scale or book to measure our worth as human beings . Yet we constantly fall into the trap of believing that people can be measured , as such, either by ourselves or others.


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