Pride & Low Self-esteem (I): The Root of Human Problem

Many emotional problems (other than chemical imbalances) are due primarily to people having unwarranted feelings of low self-esteem. The underestimation (and even, hatred) of self is so prevalent that many of us can identify with it.

Those who know me know that my favorite cartoon is Peanuts! Its main character is Charlie Brown, who is a caricature of a person who sees himself as a loser. Charlie Brown is not an inadequate person – but he sees himself with an inadequate personality. He functions inadequately, and consequently everyone else sees him as being inadequate as well. Charlie Brown personifies the vicious cycle of person who perceives himself as being negative in every way, and thereby becomes that which he thinks himself to be. He suffers from low self-esteem.

The issue of self-esteem is a tricky one (with confusion and controversy) and can pose a dilemma for Christians. The self-esteem (positive thinking) movement initiated by Robert Schuller and others in the early 80s urge Christians to value and “feel good” about themselves. Their concern is to liberate individuals from the unjustified negative evaluation of self which can be crippling in its consequences.

It is not uncommon to find people feeling “nothing” and “totally worthless or useless.” From a psychological perspective, this sense of worthlessness seems to lie at root of many problems and difficulties. When people feel this way, they are not able then to contribute anything to their own lives, to others, to society or the church. As a result, both they and others are impoverished.

Yet the concern to promote positive self-esteem often seems to rest on highly questionable theological foundations. Central Christian ideas like the reality of sin and demand for humility and self-denial seem to have been abandoned or compromised. The price for positive self-esteem is often the dilution or distortion of gospel. Thus, there is powerful criticism from Christian psychologists like Jay Adams and Paul Vitz, who argued that this new concern for self-esteem is a little more than an excuse for self-worship! And with the resurgence of New Age and humanistic philosophy – that man in charge of destiny and can solve all problems – many Christians are understandably wary of this tendency.

They, together with other conservative Christians, reckon that the essential human problem is sin, mainly manifested in pride (an overvalued self) rather than low self-esteem (an undervalued self).  Pride, or excessive self-regard is manifested in various forms, the main of which is narcissism – where one is in love with one’s idealized image (a grandiose self). It’s having the conviction that one is better or superior to others; thus, such a person tends to want to dominate or control others. They have a “conquest mentality” in wanting always to win and be superior.

Narcissists also tend to have a sense of entitlement (to good things and fair treatment) but they regularly trespass the rights of others without feeling bad or making any sort of amends. They have perfectionist standards which provide them the sense of being superior as well as being able to control life. Being competitive and always wanting to win or be right can also lead to being vindictive if they don’t win or aren’t right.

In the Peanuts cartoon, the other main character who is the opposite of Charlie Brown is Lucy. She is the person that can do no wrong and has a valid excuse for anything that goes haywire. She sees herself as eminently successful. She thinks too much of herself and her perspective is just as disastrous as Charlie Brown. She fits under the category of a prideful narcissist. These are the people who are apt to be self-righteous and consider themselves the ultimate authority in everything. 

Such people also actually have low self-esteem, but they bolster that by acting superior. It does not mean that they are putting on a façade; they actually do believe in their superiority and aren’t acting at all. However, the conviction of their superiority is a reaction to an underlying and unconscious feeling of inadequacy or insecurity. They constantly need to criticize and belittle others as a way or technique to bolster their own self-esteem.

So, what is the heart of human problem? Pride or low self-esteem? It is really both as they are two sides of the same coin. The pride versus low self-esteem (or self-contempt) debate may not be an either-or question; it is a both-and issue.

Karen Horney (a neo-Freudian psychoanalyst) deals with this issue in her book, Neurosis & Human Growth, 1950. According to Horney, people defend themselves against feeling unsafe, unloved, and unvalued by developing interpersonal and intrapsychic strategies of defense. The interpersonal strategies involve adopting a self-effacing, expansive, or resigned solution. Her insights are summarized and evaluated by Terry D. Cooper in his book, Sin, Pride & Self-Acceptance, 2009), which I will elaborate in Part II of this reflection. Here, in a nutshell, Horney and Cooper show how a vulnerable, insecure self often underlies an arrogant appearance; and how a neurotic pride system underlies an appearance of self-contempt and low self-esteem. They are really two sides of the same coin!