Pride & Low Self-esteem (III): A Psycho-spiritual Perspective

What is Self-Esteem? Self-esteem a complex idea, involving a global evaluation or judgment of one’s personal acceptability and worthiness to be loved, which carries with it pleasant or unpleasant feelings. It is strongly related to perceived views of the person by important others in his or her life. It is a way of experiencing a sense of security and is positively linked with good mental health and a well-adjusted personality.

Albert Bandura (a social-learning psychologist) sees it from the standpoint of self-efficacy – a belief in oneself as being competent to master and exercise one’s ability or skills to control the environment, which he reckons as critical for good mental health. Problems arise when people view themselves as passive victims of environmental events and forces.

Carl Rogers (a humanistic psychologist) views human beings as basically good when external pressures and mental conflicts that caused selfish behavior are removed; thus, self-esteem for him has to do with the relinquishing of the values of others and discovering that the underlying self that is both worthwhile and likeable.

Basis of Self-esteem: How does a person gain his or her self-esteem? It could come from one’s pedigree – hereditary, social status, titles, recognition, and personal credentials. These play an important role. A simple and clear example is in common conversations of young children: “My daddy is more important than yours; he’s the manager of a bank,” “My mommy is the Principal of … (name of elite school).” A negative example could be that of Nazi Germany, who wanting to maintain racial purity, got rid of some six million Jews. Or, of the Apartheid regime in South Africa who looked down and badly treated the black Africans.

Self-esteem is often anchored on the performance of roles – what do I do, my achievements and abilities, my curriculum vitae or resume. In the Bible, a clear example of one who gotten his self-worth and identity from that is the apostle Paul, before he was converted. He not only described his personal credentials from his pedigree, as “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews … a Pharisee,” but his work performance, “as for zeal persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.”  (Philippians 3:5, 6).

Self-esteem can also come from our investment in our social roles like that of a mother, student, teacher, coach or pastor. If you invest it highly on these roles, you will feel either, very happy if you succeed but conversely, very devastated if you fail. Women who invest all their time and efforts in their children can be extremely unhappy when their kids don’t do well in school or if they decide to leave home to live elsewhere. Men who devote themselves fully to their career may be unable to cope with redundancy or retrenchment. Students who placed all their eggs in the basket of a critical examination may end up wanting to commit suicide if they fail or fail to achieve what they (or, their parents) expect.

In Carl Jung’s archetypes, he sees the “persona” as an inherited tendency to think and act in a certain (conforming) way that facilitates social acceptance and social integration. It is directly related to being “desirable” and “lovable,” and thus, appearances, sexuality, goodness, virtue and achievements are ways of earning love. If any of this is over-inflated, an unhealthy dependence upon it can result, e.g., a person is happy only if the part he is playing (parent, student, academic, athlete, pastor) is acceptable and reinforced by others.

If self-esteem rests on the above (position, job, family, sociability, or other external factors) and if any of these is suddenly knocked out under them, chances are, they will feel depressed; their whole world may collapse. Both Carl Jung and Carl Rogers see role performance as a mask that does not truly reflect the real or whole self, and that true development can only take place when a person relinquishes his or her dependence on an “omni-competent persona.”

Poor Self-esteem: Having a low or poor self-esteem essentially means that you feel badly about self, and see yourself as inferior, insignificant and of little worth. Such negative thoughts can lead to negative feelings which in turn can result in self-destructive behavior such as over-eating, abuse, promiscuity and even suicide. Montaigne (1533-1592) once said, “Of all our infirmities, the most savage is to despise our being.” 

Negative self-esteem can also cause mental-health problems such as anxiety disorders and depression and is associated with personality disorders (PD) such as Avoidant PD in which a person feels socially inept, generally incompetent, and find criticism and rejection almost impossible to cope with. As noted in the first article (Part I), it is also found in narcissism in which a person with a Narcissistic PD sees himself or herself as superior – as an extreme defense of or a compensation to a fragile self-esteem.

Healthy Self-Esteem: In contrast with the above, people with good or healthy self-esteem are those who are comfortable with themselves. They are aware of and have a balanced view of themselves (their good and bad, strengths and limitations), are in touch with emotions, and take responsibility for own lives. They find joy and satisfaction in the simple pleasures of everyday life, enjoy their own company and are even able to laugh at themselves.

They are also comfortable with others. How we feel of others is usually a consequence of way we feel about ourselves. We are to love neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). We tend to like, love, feel positively and trust others as we do so similarly for ourselves. We are able to form relationships that are lasting and satisfying, based on mutual sharing and self-revelation. We are also able to accept differences, respect others and feel and act responsibly towards them. 

The Biblical Basis of Self-esteem: The biblical basis of self-esteem fundamentally lies in three things: The 1st, in the fact that we are made in the image of God. The psalmist, David, describes that in glowing terms: We are “fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), … a little lower than the heavenly beings (angels), crowned with glory and honor (Psalm 8:5). Psalm 139 talks about receiving and celebrating the goodness of who we are as created beings, and the joyful acceptance of who we are as one of God’s greatest gift to ourselves and to others. I must add here that not only are we created in God’s image, but we are created unique and special as well. You are irreplaceable. Out of the near seven billion who inhabit our planet, there is only one you. Just as there are no two snowflakes that are alike, there’s no one who is exactly like you.

The 2nd basis is the truth that we and deeply and unconditionally loved by God. One of the deepest longings of human heart is to be known and loved unconditionally. We long to know that someone in this world knows everything about us and loves us anyway. Beyond the surface affirmations that come through our achievements and social contacts, we long to be seen and celebrated for that which is deeply good and worthwhile in us. We long for a love that is strong enough to contain all our frailty and sinfulness. Psalm 139 again is the answer and affirmation to this longing.

Our being is grounded in God’s love. Love is our identity and our calling.  David Benner, in his book, The Gift of Being Self, states: “Created from love, of love and for love, our existence makes no sense apart from Divine love.” The height and depth of God’s divine love rests totally upon the cross of Christ. In Christ’s death for us, through his righteousness and forgiveness, we are worthy of being accepted and loved. Through Jesus Christ we are “God-declared” or divinely validated. Through Christ we are now sons and daughters of God. Through Christ we are his “beloved.” 

The 3rd basis of our self-worth comes with the awareness and realization that each of us are God’s workmanship, given specific tasks to accomplish (Ephesians 2:9,10). We are made competent with the gifts of Holy Spirit and his empowerment. We believe in what God can and want to do in and through us through his gifts, our personalities and passions, education and experiences (including failures and struggles).

The early church father, Irenaeus (130-203 AD), once remarked, “the glory of God is a man fully alive.” When we know our true authentic self as created in God’s image, deeply and unconditionally loved, redeemed by blood of Christ, gifted and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the work of God and fulfil his calling for our lives, we will be fully human and fully alive – for the glory of God!