Self-Worth Lessons From “The Breakfast Club”

Woman in yellow shirt looking into the mirror and smiling at her reflection. Keri Magnis.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio:

Combative, comparative, and conditional types of self-worth are temporary and ego-based whereas constitutional self-worth isn’t dependent on any outside situation or person.

You already know that a healthy sense of self-worth is essential for overall well-being. But do you know the origin of your self-worth? Can your self-esteem survive any number of rejections? Do you have a sense of inherent value even when no one is around, or in the aftermath of a failure or disappointment? Or, is your value built from combative, comparative, or conditional situations?

Not all self-worth is created equal. Until and unless we connect with our constitutional self-worth, an intrinsic sense of worth that is not dependent on anyone or anythingour self-worth is frail and temporary, subject to getting torn down, seen through, or exposed as nothing more than a sheen of bravado.

All of us were born with a sense of inherent worth. It is our birthright. But we generally lose touch with this feeling of worthiness as we move out into a world built on conditions and comparisons. In its place, we substitute these less than whole ways of building our self-confidence. They might work for a while, or in certain situations. But at some point, they fail. And then what?

It’s time to surrender these false styles of self-worth forever. They are immature and not resilient enough to sustain us for a lifetime — certainly not a lifetime that involves entering “the arena getting you’re a** kicked,” as Brené Brown would encourage.

Here’s a description of each type of self-worth, followed by 11 ways to reclaim our inheritance: our constitutional self-worth.

With combative self-worth, you feel good about yourself when pushing off someone or something else. It’s the difference, or the opposition, that gives you a sense of identity and value. Groups often define themselves in contrast to another group. For teenagers, it’s practically a rite of passage to push off mom or dad as they explore their identity and start building up self-esteem. There’s something gratifying in identifying oneself as not like someone else or some other group. You can even find some satisfaction (albeit temporary) in being excluded, finding your identity and self-worth in being labeled an outsider.

The movie “The Breakfast Club” offers a great example of comparative self-worth. Each of the main characters — the rebel, the prom queen, the athlete, and so on — have built up a sense of self-worth in how they are different from everybody else. You can imagine them walking the halls with a kind of bravado that can only be attributed to their status as an outsider.

When rejection happens to someone with combative self-worth, the inner dialogue (and maybe even outer dialogue) sounds like: “I knew they wouldn’t let me in.” “They don’t know what they’re missing,” “I’ll show them,” or “I’m too good for them anyway.”

Combative self-worth might work when you’re young and working on finding yourself. But at some point in life, the feel-good sensation you get from being different or oppositional wears off or becomes exhausting to upkeep. That’s because this is not true self-worth, but rather a shield for hiding our inner woundedness and insecurities. It is important that this veneer eventually cracks, so that your true self — with all its vulnerability, fears, and gifts — can be seen, shared, and valued.

Like combative self-worth, comparative self-worth needs other people for its development. In this case, rather than pushing off from them, you find value in stacking yourself against them.With this energy fueling you, you may feel good about yourself when you do better than someone else — on a test, at a skill, or some other measurement. But comparative self-worth is a hungry lion, always needing to be fed. It’s not possible to sustain it, because it’s not possible to win all the time. Comparative self-worth eventually crumbles and leaves us feeling worse, and more alone, than before. From Psychology Today:

“If we compare ourselves and conclude that we are better than the other, we may feel superior, contemptuous, and dismissive. We may not want a connection with someone so beneath us. Again the cord of human connectedness feels sliced. And we are once again alone in our superiority.”

Aloneness is the enemy of comparative self-worth because underneath the bravado there’s nothing but hot air.

Conditional self-worth is dependent on reaching markers and goals for yourself, or, perhaps, goals that others set for you. This type of self-esteem is boosted when you receive accolades, praise, certificate, or awards, but quickly vanishes when you do not.

“I’ll feel good about myself when…” is the inner dialogue of someone with conditional self-worth. Conditional self-worth is a ladder with no end. The moment you reach any stated goal, another if/then milepost appears above you. And if you don’t reach your goals, the pain can be overwhelming.

Combative, comparative, and conditional self-worth are all ego-motivated and externally focused, which means they can only ever be temporary means of accepting, loving, caring for, or valuing oneself. You need a more permanent kind of self-worth, one that doesn’t come with conditions, comparisons, or oppositional attitudes — a sense of your own value that no one and nothing gives or takes away. This is what we get when we reclaim our constitutional self-worth.

“Your self-worth is determined by you. You don’t have to depend on someone telling you who you are.”


Constitutional self-worth arises from the part of you that you might call “soul,” or your “highest self.” It is an inner reservoir that has always been there, from birth, but gets forgotten in the rush to satisfy the ego’s desires. When you reconnect to this intrinsic self-worth, you know who you are. You don’t have to define yourself for anyone, and you don’t need to prove yourself to anyone, either. You can reclaim your power and authenticity and build the foundation you need to live your best life. You are worthy because you exist, and it’s not more complicated than that.

Constitutional self-worth doesn’t need anyone else to oppose, compare with, or prove yourself to. It is not subject to reaching goals, getting accepted into a group, or any other outside measurement. You don’t need accolades or praise to boost it up, because once this intrinsic self-worth is tapped, it’s with you for life. It’s unconditional. It’s not just a safety net that catches you in disappointments and frustrations; it’s a trampoline that bounces you right back up. If you have intrinsic self-worth, no amount of rejection or failure can touch you — not deep down, anyway. You can integrate the lessons from within constructive but harsh criticism. You can consider well-meaning advice without feeling personally attacked. And you can keep going, reaching for success, long after so many others have tapped out.

Here are 11 ways to access your constitutional self-worth:

1. Find self-worth role models
Think about someone you know who exudes this kind of confidence. This could be someone in your daily life, someone you’ve only read about, or even just a fictional character from a movie or television show. Pay attention to how they navigate their lives and disappointments. Note that they are not driven by pride, arrogance, boastfulness, or bluster. Instead, they carry an unbreakable sense of personal authority and inner wholeness. Watching how someone else with intrinsic self-worth navigates rejection can be a model for how to navigate your next disappointment. And, once you start navigating disappointments with this grace and ease, you polish your natural self-worth until it starts to shine through.

2. Connect with your deeper self
Whether through a formal spiritual practice or simply through walks in nature, discover who you are beneath the layers and the titles. Challenge your ego and its many desires for fame or fortune. Seek a relationship with the part of yourself that is wise beyond your limited earth years.

3. Heal guilt and shame
There is an inverse relationship between guilt and shame and feelings of self-worth. According to this study, “Shame feelings were associated with low self-esteem, hostility, and psychological distress in a consistent way across gender.” Of course, some amount of shame and guilt are part of everyday human life — no one wants a society filled with people who don’t ever feel shame or guilt — but sometimes these powerful emotions create inescapable, damaging patterns of thought and behavior that make it difficult to access your intrinsic self-worth. Counseling, meditation, and journaling are excellent ways to start addressing and releasing old patterns of guilt and shame and finding your innate worthiness.

4. Focus on giving
You have gifts to give to this world that only you can offer. Whether or not society as a whole recognizes them (or pays you for them) isn’t the decider of whether your gifts are worthy. What’s important is to know who you are and how to put your talents and gifts to use in this world. Psychologist Jennifer Crocker says, “Caring for another person boosts self-esteem. You get back when you give.”

5. Practice mindfulness meditation
You can only know if your self-worth is inherent if you spend some time alone and begin to take note of your thoughts. Mindfulness meditation is an exercise in which, rather than trying to stop your thoughts as in some meditation techniques, you allow them to come and go, staying watchful and attentive. The more you watch your thoughts, the more you have the opportunity to change them, and ultimately only engage in the thoughts that lend themselves to positive self-worth.

6. Invest in yourself
Self-worth is in a reciprocal relationship with self-love and self-care. So, one way to build self-worth is by showing yourself daily love and care. Eating good food, getting enough exercise, engaging in inspiring conversations, and making sure you have safe, accessible emotional outlets are easy ways you can build up a sense of worthiness. It doesn’t have to cost much money to invest in yourself: indulging in a hot, aromatic bath; listening to a fun, creative playlist when you’re feeling down; or adding a touch of honey to your tea are small ways you can treat yourself to the love and kindness you deserve.

7. Surround yourself with people who see and reflect your worth
It would be nearly impossible to restore your inner self-worth if you’re not surrounded by people who don’t value you for who you are, outside of any titles or roles. Let go of relationships that feel diminishing, hurtful, abusive, or transactional. Create boundaries wherever you can, and remind yourself regularly that you are worthy of healthy relationships. Remember, you become who you surround yourself with.

8. Daily self-talk — and use your name
You’ve probably heard that you become what you continually tell yourself. So, self-talk is critical to building up self-worth. But, there’s a twist in how to do it for the best results. A study on self-talk shows that it works best when you move away from “I” language and use your own name instead. So, rather than self-talk slanting negative (I don’t know if I can do this), it tends to run more positive (Mary, you’ve done this a thousand times before, you’ve got it!).

Psychologist Ethan Kross, who led this study, said, “What we find is that a subtle linguistic shift — shifting from ‘I’ to your own name — can have really powerful self-regulatory effects.” How you talk to yourself when no one else is listening is a key component to building up innate self-worth.

9. Surround yourself with beauty
Nothing builds up self-worth more than having a few beautiful things in your space. It could be a new comforter for your bed or a beautiful candle or photo that you love. Decorate your space at home (and at work, as much as you can) with a few things of beauty that delight and remind you that you are worthy.

10. Spend time alone
Being alone doesn’t have to be lonely. In fact, it can be incredibly healing and fulfilling. Spending time alone gives you a chance to reflect on your life, and see who you’re becoming. It gives you a chance to build up inner self-confidence from just the fact that you can find contentedness in aloneness. Emily Roberts, MA, LPC, says, “The more you practice embracing this alone time, and think of it as self-care or an opportunity to get to know yourself better, you will feel more confident and positive each time.”

11. Keep testing it
Nothing builds up stronger without first being torn down. This is true of your muscles, and it’s true about self-worth. You cannot build up inner confidence and resiliency keeping yourself sidelined and safe. You’ve got to keep getting out there — risking rejection, speaking your mind, applying for the job. Only through testing your self-worth rigorously can you find out where the weak points are and start building something stronger.


Accessing your constitutional self-worth does not protect you from feeling hurt or experiencing loss. Your humanity, and all your emotions, still exist. Neither is intrinsic self-worth a magic bullet that can ward off all pain and rejection. But, it will ensure that you have a deeper connection to the part of you that is eternal and outside of ego-based desires. You will also have a keener sense of who you are and what your gifts are. Most importantly, you will have self-worth that can outlast any and all temporary disappointments and rejections.

Constitutional self-worth is knowing, deep down, that you are worthy and have value, for no other reason than you exist. From there, the rest is just gravy.

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