depression, voices, self-criticism, self-worth theory

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Self-worth theory

According to this theory, an individual’s main priority in life is to find self-acceptance, and that self-acceptance is often found through achievement (Covington & Beery, 1976). In turn, achievement is often found through competition with others. This means that people who base their self-worth on external factors such as what others think of them are more likely to engage in behaviours that will enhance their perceived competence and avoid behaviours that will expose their perceived incompetence. Self-worth theory also suggests that people may adopt different strategies to cope with threats to their self-worth, such as self-handicapping, defensive pessimism, or self-enhancement. In this article, we will explore the origins and development of self-worth theory, its main concepts and assumptions, and its implications for education, work, mental health and self-transcendence.

What is the self-worth theory, and why is it important?

The self-worth theory is a psychological theory that proposes that one of the main goals of human beings is to achieve self-acceptance, and that this is often based on their ability to succeed in competitive situations (Covington & Beery, 1976). According to this theory, people tend to equate their worth as a person with their level of competence or skill, and they try to avoid situations that might threaten their sense of worthiness. The self-worth theory is important because it helps to explain some of the motivational and emotional aspects of achievement behaviour, such as why some students avoid challenging tasks, procrastinate, cheat, or give up easily.

Some examples of how the self-worth theory can be applied to different contexts are:

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  • In education, the self-worth theory suggests that students who have a high need for self-acceptance may adopt different strategies to protect their sense of worth in the face of academic failure. For instance, some students may avoid effort and claim that they did not study hard so that they can attribute their failure to lack of effort rather than lack of ability. Other students may avoid difficult tasks and choose easy ones so that they can ensure success and avoid failure. These strategies may help students preserve their self-worth in the short term, but they may also undermine their learning and achievement in the long term (Covington, 1998).
  • In sports, the self-worth theory suggests that athletes who have a high need for self-acceptance may also adopt different strategies to protect their sense of worth in the face of athletic failure. For example, some athletes may avoid practice and claim that they did not train hard so that they can attribute their failure to lack of effort rather than lack of ability. Other athletes may avoid competition and choose easy opponents so that they can ensure victory and avoid defeat. These strategies may help athletes preserve their self-worth in the short term, but they may also undermine their performance and improvement in the long term (Covington & Omelich, 1984).
  • In work, the self-worth theory suggests that workers who have a high need for self-acceptance may also adopt different strategies to protect their sense of worth in the face of work failure. For instance, some workers may avoid responsibility and claim that they did not work hard so that they can attribute their failure to lack of effort rather than lack of ability. Other workers may avoid challenges and choose easy tasks so that they can ensure success and avoid failure. These strategies may help workers preserve their self-worth in the short term, but they may also undermine their productivity and advancement in the long term (Covington & Mueller, 2001).
How does self-worth theory relate to motivation, achievement, and well-being?

According to self-worth theory, people have a basic need for self-acceptance, which is often based on their ability to perform well in competitive situations. Therefore, people tend to seek situations where they can demonstrate their competence and avoid situations where they might fail or be judged negatively. This can have both positive and negative consequences for motivation, achievement, and well-being.

For example, a student who has a high sense of self-worth may be motivated to study hard for an exam because they believe that doing well will enhance their self-esteem and earn them respect from others. This student may also experience satisfaction and pride when they receive a good grade, which reinforces their positive self-image. However, a student who has a low sense of self-worth may be afraid of taking the exam because they fear that doing poorly will confirm their inferiority and expose them to ridicule. This student may also experience anxiety and shame when they receive a bad grade, which lowers their self-esteem even further.

Self-worth theory suggests that there are different strategies that people use to protect their sense of worth in the face of potential failure. Some of these strategies are adaptive, such as seeking feedback, setting realistic goals, and attributing failure to external factors. These strategies help people maintain a positive attitude and learn from their mistakes. Other strategies are maladaptive, such as avoiding challenges, procrastinating, not trying hard, and making excuses. These strategies help people avoid the pain of failure, but also prevent them from strengthening their skills and achieving their potential.

Self-worth theory has several implications for education and counselling. Teachers and counsellors can help students develop a healthy sense of self-worth by providing them with positive feedback, encouragement, and support. They can also help students adopt adaptive strategies for coping with failure, such as emphasizing effort over ability, focusing on mastery rather than performance, and fostering a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. By doing so, they can enhance students’ motivation, achievement, and well-being.

How did self-worth theory develop and evolve?

This theory was developed by Martin Covington and his colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s, based on their observations of students’ motivation and behaviour in academic settings. They noticed that many students were more concerned with avoiding failure than with pursuing learning, and that they used various strategies to protect their sense of competence and self-esteem. Some of these strategies included procrastination, self-handicapping, withdrawal of effort, and making excuses. Covington and his colleagues argued that these strategies were motivated by the need to preserve one’s self-worth in the face of potential failure, which would imply low ability and low worth.

Some examples of empirical studies that support self-worth theory are:

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  • Covington and Beery (1976) found that students who believed that their ability was fixed, and that success depended on ability, tended to avoid challenging tasks and to attribute their failures to lack of ability rather than lack of effort.
  • Covington and Omelich (1979) found that students who valued achievement highly but doubted their ability tended to procrastinate more than students who had high confidence in their ability or low achievement values.
  • Covington (1984) found that students who were exposed to a failure experience showed lower levels of intrinsic motivation and interest in the task than students who were exposed to a success experience or no feedback at all.
  • Covington and Mueller (2001) found that students who adopted failure-avoiding strategies such as self-handicapping or making excuses reported lower levels of self-worth, academic satisfaction, and achievement than students who adopted success-oriented strategies such as seeking help or strengthening their skills.
What are the key concepts and assumptions of self-worth theory?

Self-worth theory proposes several key concepts and assumptions, such as:

Self-worth is based on the perception of one’s ability or competence, which is often evaluated by others or by social standards.

  • Ability is seen as a stable and global trait that cannot be easily changed or improved. Therefore, failure implies a lack of ability and a threat to self-worth.
  • People adopt different achievement goals and strategies depending on how they define success and failure, and how they cope with the possibility of failure.
  • Some people adopt performance goals, which focus on demonstrating high ability and outperforming others. They may use self-enhancing strategies, such as setting high standards, seeking feedback, and attributing success to internal factors, or self-protective strategies, such as avoiding challenging tasks, procrastinating, or attributing failure to external factors.
  • Other people adopt mastery goals, which focus on developing and improving one’s ability and learning from mistakes. They tend to use adaptive strategies, such as seeking optimal challenge, persisting in the face of difficulties, and using effective learning methods.
  • Self-worth theory suggests that people can change their beliefs about ability and self-worth by adopting a growth mindset, which views ability as a malleable and specific quality that can be enhanced through effort and feedback.
The seven principles for learning

According to the self-worth theory of motivation, which is adapted from the original theory of achievement motivation, individuals seek to protect their sense of self-worth by avoiding failure and pursuing success. This theory applies especially to students in the school context, where their ability and competence are constantly evaluated and compared with others. The self-worth theory of motivation proposes seven principles for learning based on this perspective:

Principle 1: Students need to feel accepted and valued by others to maintain their self-worth. For example, students who receive positive feedback and encouragement from their teachers and peers are more likely to have a high sense of self-worth than those who face criticism and rejection.

Principle 2: Students tend to equate their academic ability with their self-worth, and therefore strive to maximize their academic competence. For example, students who perform well on tests and assignments tend to feel proud and confident about themselves, while those who perform poorly tend to feel ashamed and insecure.

Principle 3: Students are motivated by the desire to demonstrate their ability rather than to develop it. For example, students who are confident in their ability may choose to take on challenging tasks that showcase their skills, while those who are unsure of their ability may prefer to stick to easy tasks that guarantee success.

Principle 4: Students are more likely to engage in self-enhancing behaviours when they perceive a high probability of success and a low probability of failure. For example, students who believe they have the necessary skills and resources to complete a task may work hard and persist until they achieve their goal, while those who doubt their capabilities may give up easily or avoid the task altogether.

Principle 5: Students are more likely to engage in self-protective behaviours when they perceive a low probability of success and a high probability of failure. For example, students who fear that they will fail a task may use strategies such as self-handicapping, defensive pessimism, withdrawal of effort, and avoidance of challenging tasks to protect their self-worth from being damaged by poor performance.

Principle 6: Self-protective behaviours include self-handicapping, defensive pessimism, withdrawal of effort, and avoidance of challenging tasks. Self-handicapping is the deliberate creation or exaggeration of obstacles that interfere with one’s performance, such as procrastination, illness, or test anxiety. Defensive pessimism is the deliberate lowering of one’s expectations and goals for a task, such as predicting a bad outcome or setting a low standard. Withdrawal of effort is the reduction or cessation of one’s effort on a task, such as not studying or not trying hard. Avoidance of challenging tasks is the refusal or reluctance to take on tasks that require high levels of skill or effort, such as complex problems or unfamiliar topics.

Principle 7: Self-protective behaviours can have negative consequences for students’ academic performance, satisfaction, and well-being. For example, self-handicapping can lead to poor grades, low motivation, and reduced learning opportunities. Defensive pessimism can result in low self-confidence, anxiety, and depression. Withdrawal of effort can cause underachievement, boredom, and frustration. Avoidance of challenging tasks can limit one’s growth potential, curiosity, and creativity.

How does the self-worth theory apply to the work environment?

One way that the self-worth theory of motivation can affect the work environment is by influencing the employees’ motivation and behaviour. For example, some employees may adopt performance-approach goals, which means they strive to achieve success and gain recognition or rewards from others. These employees may have high levels of self-efficacy and confidence in their abilities, and they may seek challenging tasks that can showcase their skills. On the other hand, some employees may adopt performance-avoidance goals, which means they try to avoid failure and negative feedback from others. These employees may have low levels of self-efficacy and confidence in their abilities, and they may avoid challenging tasks that can expose their weaknesses. These different types of goals can have different effects on the employees’ performance, satisfaction, and well-being.

Another way that the self-worth theory of motivation can affect the work environment is by influencing the employees’ use of coping strategies. For example, some employees may use self-handicapping strategies, which means they create or claim obstacles that can interfere with their performance. These strategies can serve as excuses for poor performance and protect their self-worth from being damaged by failure. For instance, an employee may procrastinate on a project, complain about a headache, or blame the lack of resources for their low-quality work. However, these strategies can also backfire and lead to lower performance, dissatisfaction, and stress. Another example of coping strategies is defensive pessimism, which means they set low expectations and goals for themselves before a task. These strategies can help them reduce anxiety and prepare for potential problems. For instance, an employee may anticipate all the possible difficulties and negative outcomes of a presentation, and plan how to deal with them. However, these strategies can also limit their potential and prevent them from achieving higher levels of success.

In conclusion, the self-worth theory of motivation can help us understand how employees’ self-esteem and sense of worth are affected by their achievements and failures in the work environment. It can also help us understand how employees’ motivation, behaviour, and coping strategies are influenced by their goals and expectations. By applying this theory to the work environment, we can identify the factors that can enhance or hinder the employees’ performance, satisfaction, and well-being.

How does the self-worth theory apply to the field of mental health?

The self-worth theory of motivation has important implications for the field of mental health. It suggests that people’s self-worth is closely tied to their perceived competence and performance in domains that they value, such as academics, work, or relationships. Therefore, people who experience failure or low achievement in these domains may suffer from low self-worth and related problems such as depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem. Conversely, people who achieve success or high performance in these domains may enjoy high self-worth and positive wellbeing. However, the theory also warns that relying too much on external indicators of success or failure can be detrimental to one’s self-worth and mental health. People who base their self-worth on their achievements may become overly anxious about failure, perfectionistic, or dependent on others’ approval. They may also neglect other aspects of their identity and well-being that are not related to performance.

Therefore, the self-worth theory of motivation suggests that mental health professionals should help their clients develop a more balanced and stable sense of self-worth that is not solely dependent on their achievements or failures. This can be done by fostering a growth mindset that views failure as an opportunity for learning and improvement rather than a threat to one’s self-worth. It can also be done by encouraging clients to recognize and appreciate their intrinsic worth as human beings, regardless of their performance outcomes. Additionally, mental health professionals should help clients identify and pursue goals that are meaningful and personally relevant to them, rather than imposed by external standards or expectations.

how does the self-worth theory apply to self-transcendent individuals?

One group of people who may have a different perspective on self-worth are those who are self-transcendent. self-transcendence is the ability to go beyond one’s own ego and personal interests and connect with something greater, such as a higher power, a universal value, or a humanitarian cause. Self-transcendent individuals may have a more intrinsic motivation for their actions, rather than a need to prove themselves or impress others. They may also have a more flexible and adaptive sense of self, rather than a rigid and defensive one.

Therefore, the self-worth theory may not apply well to self-transcendent individuals, as they may not base their self-worth on external standards of achievement or comparison with others. Instead, they may derive their self-worth from their inner values, their spiritual beliefs, or their contribution to society. They may also be more resilient to failure, as they may see it as an opportunity for learning and growth, rather than a threat to their self-esteem.

What are the key strengths and challenges of self-worth theory?

One of the key strengths of self-worth theory is that it can explain various phenomena related to motivation, such as self-handicapping, procrastination, avoidance of failure, and achievement anxiety. Self-worth theory suggests that people may engage in these behaviours to avoid or reduce the threat of failure and the consequent loss of self-worth. Another strength of self-worth theory is that it can provide insights into how to foster intrinsic motivation and positive self-esteem in students and learners. Self-worth theory implies that educators should emphasize mastery goals rather than performance goals, provide constructive feedback rather than evaluative judgments, and create a supportive and caring learning environment that values effort and improvement rather than ability and outcomes.

However, self-worth theory also faces some challenges and limitations. One of the challenges is that it may not account for individual differences in how people define and measure their self-worth. For example, some people may have a more stable and global sense of self-worth that is not easily affected by external factors, while others may have a more contingent and specific sense of self-worth that depends on various domains of achievement. Another challenge is that self-worth theory may not capture the complexity and diversity of human motivation. For example, some people may be motivated by intrinsic factors such as interest, curiosity, and enjoyment, rather than by extrinsic factors such as approval, recognition, and rewards. Moreover, some people may seek failure rather than avoid it, as a way of challenging themselves or expressing their identity. Therefore, self-worth theory may need to be integrated with other motivational theories to provide a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of human behaviour.

Further reading

If you are interested in learning more about self-worth theory and its implications for education, counselling, and personal development, here are some weblinks for further reading:

Self-worth theory of motivation – Wikipedia: This article provides an overview of the main concepts and assumptions of self-worth theory, as well as some empirical evidence and criticisms.

What is Self-Worth & How Do We Build it? (Incl. Worksheets): This article explores the meaning and importance of self-worth, how it differs from self-esteem and self-value, and how it can be enhanced through various activities and exercises.

Self-Worth Theory (Covington – 1976) – 7 Principles of Learning: This article summarizes the key principles of self-worth theory as proposed by Martin Covington, one of the leading researchers in this field.

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