Sunday, April 17, 2011

Self Esteem

I've been thinking a lot about Self Esteem since I read the article I linked to last week.

To Esteem something is to hold it in high regard.  So if you have self esteem, you hold yourself in high regard.

And for decades, we've been pushing esteeming oneself as the ultimate emotional goal for children.

We are told that we ought to hold ourselves in high regard, that this is important.

But to hold yourself in high regard, you have to think about yourself a lot. And, more importantly, you have to compare yourself to other people constantly. Holding something in high regard is a comparative concept. "High" can't exist separate from "-er than ____". In reality, in order to hold yourself in high regard, you must hold something else in lower regard than yourself. Otherwise, what is your estimation of yourself based on?

I don't think this is healthy. I don't think it's right to feel your value is based on how you measure up to some standard you set based on looking at other people, or some other way you just made up. For one thing, there's ALWAYS going to be someone better than you on every measure you can think of. That's just the nature of life. There is (or has been) someone smarter, prettier, more accomplished, etc. than every other person. While logically we conclude there must be a supreme end-point, in reality, that's just not a part of human existence.

Self-esteem is a waste of time. You spend your whole life thinking only about yourself and how you measure up, and since you can never truly be better than everyone else (or even anyone else, if we look at it realistically), it's a futile activity that cannot possibly lead to happiness.

Further, holding yourself in high regard is damaging to relationships because the very nature of esteeming oneself highly is competitive. In order to maintain your chimeric idea of your own value, you have to constantly prove to yourself that anything anyone else does, you can do, too, and better. They draw? You draw--just to prove you can. They cook? You cook. They write? You write. And inevitably, you feel lousy because you "can't do as well as they can" or you make them feel lousy by stepping on their toes to prove you can do it, too, and better. It is a selfish, narcissistic way of looking at the world that prevents you from really seeing anything except yourself--even when you look at other people, it is through that lens of how you compare to them, instead of seeing their value.

Constantly seeking high self esteem would prevent you from connecting with other people deeply, from rejoicing with them, from forgiving when they make mistakes (or even do something downright mean). Getting constant positive feedback would be paramount, and being able to change course, accept that you're fallible, make a mistake, or (gasp) repent would potentially bring the whole house of cards down on your head. Self-esteem is not stable--one little mistake, one slight, one offense, one error (even by accident) could destroy your whole identity, making it impossible to actually allow yourself to be human.

Self esteem is caught up in the concept of "because"--"I consider myself highly because I am good at art." Or "I am important, and hold myself in high regard because I am prettier than most people."

This is so fragile. What happens if you suddenly aren't prettier? What happens if suddenly you lose your abilities? What happens if you're paralyzed in an accident or are otherwise completely humiliated by something?

Self esteem is a pretty mask for pride, which is destructive.

The article I linked to earlier suggested that self-compassion is better than self esteem. I agree with that, but I think the idea can (and should) go further.

Rather than regarding yourself highly (having high self-esteem), I think the healthy thing to have is a solid sense of self-worth, ideally based on an understanding of who and what you are in God's eyes.

That would foster a confidence and strength and stability independent of how you compare to others. You don't have to be better than someone else, or compare to them at all because you have worth regardless of what others do, look like, accomplish, or seem to be--even, amazingly, regardless of what YOU do, look like, accomplish, or seem to be. Mistakes, instead of devastating, become something we learn from.

You see it around sometimes. People in happy marriages have a calm confidence, an ability to reach out to other people and to love them, an ability to brush it off when other people are mean or selfish instead of taking it to heart and being deeply damaged by slight or insult. Why? Because they know they are worth a great deal  to their spouse, and so they don't need to esteem themselves highly. Where they fit in the world's continuum doesn't end up mattering because they have worth and value--even if they get old or fat or lose their arm in an accident. They don't have to be valuable "because"--they are valuable.

I have occasionally seen it in new moms, too. Suddenly, instead of having value because of what they do at work, or how they look, or what they have, or how they compare to others, the women discover that they are worth a great deal to their baby, to their husband. And suddenly they can let go of all the competition, all the spending time on self, and embrace their own worth and then move forward, confident and happy.

Self-worth is not best gained by examining yourself and comparing until you find something you're best at. Self-worth is fostered by forgetting yourself and getting to work helping other people, loving other people. It is fostered by sharing your talents (regardless of how they compare to others), by giving what you can give (even if it's not as much, or as good, or as impressive as someone else can give).  Self worth is partners with humility (true humility, not the false humility that is actually pride in disguise and expresses itself as self-abasement) and charity. They work together, feeding and strengthening one another. Self worth breeds confidence--not self-confidence, which is false, but confidence separate from self, that doesn't require you to focus on yourself. Self worth is not competitive. It's not greedy. Unlike self-esteem, it doesn't need to be constantly fed, and it doesn't shrivel and die when the compliments and praise go away, or, worse, when things go downhill and suddenly everyone is angry at you (which happens to all of us at one point or another).

"Self-worth" and "self-esteem" might seem like synonyms, but they are drastically different. Take, for example, a tiny baby. Do we have any reason to hold them in high regard, to esteem them highly or over all men? No. They can't DO anything, and. in fact, cause their caretakers a great deal of trouble and pain.

But do they have worth?


And you'll find that a baby that knows that brings great joy to everyone around them.


C. Wilson said...
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C. Wilson said...
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Anonymous said...

great article!