If you are the type of person interested in being a better friend, spouse, parent, or leader, you need to learn what motivates other people to behave the way they do. Often this is called empathy, and it is one of the most challenging skills to master. The unfortunate truth is that if you can’t feel a specific emotion, it will be difficult to put yourself in another person's shoes.

Many people experience intense emotions due to questions of self-worth. It might be hard to understand why other people question their self-worth or how that impacts their emotions and behaviors. But if you are interested in understanding the intent behind other people’s actions, you will need to understand how their emotional logic works. If you are lucky, you will be able to experience the emotions as well, even if you haven’t felt them in a while. To explore these emotions, we will have to define self-worth and understand its role in behavior.

Self-worth is not an abstract idea. It is literally defined as what a person thinks they are worth and why. We live in a transactional society. The transaction we are concerned with is what behavior, action, or appearance will cause people or institutions to reward others with love, attention, or acceptance. In a way, we set a value on behavior by providing acceptance or attention when other people do what we want. In essence, behavior has a specific value, and the transaction is trading behavior for attention or acceptance.

Many people ascribe certain behaviors, actions, traits, or appearances with a level of worth. They strive to exhibit actions that they think are the most valuable. Internally, they judge themselves against a scorecard that was created to determine how valuable they are. They are then motivated to change themselves to match the score they are striving for. Deep down, they believe that by scoring high, exhibiting specific behavior, they will get what they, and all of us, deeply desire, which is love, acceptance, or attention.

This scorecard also determines the types of behaviors some people are not willing to exhibit. Some behaviors are risky. By risk, we mean certain kinds of behaviors that can reduce the score on the internal scorecard. If the conduct or action could reduce the score, people will do their best to prohibit that behavior.

The perception of self-worth will impact behavior. Most people are not conscious of this process, and as a result, have little control over their lives. Think this isn’t you, ask yourself why you are doing something. Do you really want to be doing whatever it is you are doing, or are you doing it because you feel that you are expected to be doing it? This is the tell-tale sign that the unconscious pull of self-worth is impacting your behavior.

It is important to understand the role emotions play in determining behavior and how the concept of worth impacts emotions. Think back to the scorecard of self-worth; whenever there is a risk of losing or gaining points, emotions rise. For now, we can define emotions as physical sensations and thoughts happening concurrently. The pressure or intensity of those emotions motivates people to take action. If someone hasn't developed a significant amount of self-awareness, the emotional reaction will force actions in accordance with how they perceive worth.

Why do emotions insulate people from damage to self-worth? Emotions are part of the neurological response that is helping us to survive. At the heart of the emotional reaction to self-worth are needs. Needs are complicated and contested. We know that needs have an impact on our biology, mental health, and development. When those needs aren’t met, we experience certain types of dysfunctions. The most dramatic example is babies that don’t survive because they weren’t held.  

To visualize another example of needs, imagine surviving in our society without being accepted; life would be difficult. For example, how could we earn a living if our job didn’t accept us? Consequently, our emotions are part of a neurological system that activates to motivate us to behave in ways that serve our self-interest by fulfilling our needs.

The irony is that our needs can only be genuinely met when we are accepted and loved on our terms. This requires people to overcome their emotions and to choose how they will behave consciously. It also requires a great degree of courage because people have to risk being rejected.

The transaction of behavioral worth for acceptance erodes real self-worth and leads to self-hatred. To be accepted by behaving in ways that other people have determined is worthy takes a significant amount of effort. Think about it like this, how would someone feel about themselves if they felt they needed to change or act like someone else to be accepted. The conclusion would be that something must be wrong with them, or else why would they need to change to complete the transaction?

Given the impact that self-worth has on self-acceptance and love, it is easy to see why some people behave the way they do. We need to remain mindful and ask ourselves why a person is exhibiting their behavior. We need to ask ourselves whether this person is asking for our acceptance or reacting to being rejected. By keeping this awareness at the forefront of our minds, we will continue to develop empathy by understanding the mechanics of other people’s emotional logic.