Understanding Self-Esteem

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by Philip Mamalakis, Ph.D.
Holy Cross Greek orthodox School of Theology

Self-esteem is usually defined as our sense of our own value or worth – how we feel about ourselves. Does a person, understand and see himself as good and capable, and is he secure in his value, or does a person feel, or believe, that he is bad, incapable, or worthless? Self-esteem is closely related to things like self-worth, self-confidence, self-image, and self-respect. Research shows that children who have good self-esteem, defined as a deep sense that they are good, valuable, lovable, and capable do better in life than kids with low self-esteem. They make better choices, manage well in the face of adversity, resist destructive temptations, and do better in life than kids who have low self-esteem. That seems like a good thing.

And research shows that children with poor self-esteem, who think they are worthless, bad, or unlovable, have lower self-confidence, are more likely to have unhealthy relationships, engage in more self-destructive or delinquent behavior, and engage in sexual activity at a younger age than those kids who have ‘good self-esteem.’ Kids with poor self-esteem tend to feel like they are not capable, get discouraged more easily, and fear failure more than kids with high self-esteem. That seems like a bad thing.

What gets confusing for Christian parents is that the psychological definition of self-esteem seems to go against our Christian values and virtues. Thinking highly of yourself, trusting yourself, valuing yourself, believing in yourself, or even loving yourself, do not seem to be Christian virtues, but they seem to be good self-esteem.

And much of the guidance from secular professionals on how to raise kids with healthy self-esteem seems to conflict with our Christian way of life. Giving every child a trophy, congratulating kids for silly little things they should be doing anyway, telling kids how great they are or praising them, and teaching them to think about how great they are, all seem to fuel pride more than encourage the Christian virtues of selflessness, humility, and meekness. Suggestions like, “accept yourself,” “love yourself,” “forgive yourself,” or “believe in yourself,” sound nice, but seem to have that same self-centeredness that contradicts the Gospel message. In fact, research shows that many of these strategies make kids less secure, less confident, and less able to struggle and work hard through adversity. In defense of the social sciences, they have gotten much better at understanding effective parenting strategies for real self-esteem, which we’ll talk about in a minute.

Scripture seems to speak directly against many of these self-esteem-building techniques: we’re not supposed to praise ourselves or remind ourselves how good we are; we’re warned against being puffed up with pride (Romans 11:21); we’re supposed to consider others as greater than ourselves (Philippians 2:3); we are to consider ourselves as the chief of sinners (I Timothy 1:15).

In the Patristic literature, self-esteem seems to be bad, closely related to pride and vainglory. The Fathers advise the exact opposite of praising ourselves or reminding ourselves how good we are. We read things like: man should, “…always reject the thoughts of self-praise that enter his heart, and always regard himself as nothing before God. In this way he will be freed, with god’s help, from the demon of self-esteem.” (Philokalia, vol. 1. p 92).  

“You need to extirpate [self-esteem] from yourself by all means—it is the cause of all our evil and vices. Worldly people still regard it as a virtue and as nobility, as this is out of ignorance or from darkening by the passions; while we have to oppose it in everything by humility and selflessness.”( St. Ambrose of Optina).

We even hear that praising oneself can be the reason we fall into sin.
“Guard your mind from self-praise and flee a high opinion of yourself, so that God does not allow you to fall into the opposite [passion to the virtue for which you boast] for man does not accomplish virtue alone, but with the help of God who sees all. (St Mark the Ascetic, Homilies. 85).

It seems pretty clear. A good Christian avoids self-esteem.
So, what does this mean for us, as parents? We want to raise kids who are able to thrive in difficult situations, take appropriate challenges, know they are valuable, and do it all while acquiring humility and meekness.

Understanding True Self-Esteem
It seems as though the secular research is describing that a solid and positive sense of self, a clear and deeply imbedded sense that one is good, valued, loved, and capable is an important aspect of thriving as human beings. It Is a relational quality. It has to do with how we perceive, deep down within ourselves, that someone knows, respects, and loves us. And they call that, self-esteem. When you have ‘that,’ you are less concerned about what others think about you, better able to take on challenges, hold up under stress, persevere through struggles, learn from mistakes, less afraid of failing, better able to take constructive criticism, resist peer pressure, stand up for what is right, and have healthy relationships. As Christian parents, we want our kids to be able to do all those things.

If we look a little closer at our Orthodox tradition, we will notice, in fact, that the saints and the fathers and mothers of the Church all had a deep sense that they were good, valued, and loved…by God. They professed how much, and how deeply, God valued and loved them while, simultaneously, attesting to their own, “worthlessness.”. Their ‘self-esteem,’ or ‘self-worth,’ was not found in their praise of themselves, but in their relationship with God. They understand themselves to be created in the image and likeness of God, as Christ-bearers, icons of Christ. That is true self-esteem. It is not so much that we are great, as humans, but that God is great and He is in us. They recognize that while we were yet sinners, God loved us, and they respond with the confidence and security that comes from being created in God’s image and deeply loved by God. Their esteem was not built on what they thought about themselves, but on what they thought about God and what He thinks about us. It is more accurate to call this, God-esteem, or Christ-esteem, that they carried deeply within themselves.

The saints, simultaneously, know themselves to be just earthen vessels and confess that they carry within themselves a treasure, Christ Himself. “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

When we base our ideas of our self, our self-image or our-esteem, on what we think about ourselves, we are building the house of our identity on sand (Mt. 7:24-27), and when struggles come, our image of our self crumbles. Basing our thoughts, ideas, beliefs, or image of our self on God is building our identity on a solid foundation. And, even some self-esteem research has shown that good self-esteem needs to be based on something greater than oneself.

While secular psychologists can observe and identify this phenomenon of a solid sense of self, they are not able to properly define it because their understanding of the world does not include God. Just like how Saint Paisios said, “you can’t find heaven with a telescope,” you cannot understand real self-esteem apart from God. It’s not so much that secular psychologists are wrong with what they are observing, but, rather, they are inaccurate, or incomplete, in their explanation of what they are observing.

It is always within the saints’ relationship with God, their deep awareness and experience of God’s love for them, that they could see how much they need God’s mercy, compassion and forgiveness. God’s deep love for them is the context for their repentance and the foundation of their ‘self-esteem.’ And the saints respond to God’s love by walking in complete obedience to Him as an act of love for Him. Obedience is our response to a God who loves us first.

We might say that to thrive as a human being requires this deep, internal sense of being known and loved by someone, having someone who is on our side no matter what we do. Essentially, having someone who loves us no matter what nurtures good ‘self-esteem.’ For followers of Christ, that person is God, Himself. We were created to be loved like this by God. And when we live in that reality, and love out of that reality, responding to God through obedience, we acquire God’s characteristics like humility, meekness, patience, and love. In fact, the research shows that a person with healthy “self-esteem” is less susceptible to the passions of pride or vainglory. The more positive attitudes we have about ourselves, the less we need to promote our selves, put others down to make ourselves look good, or care about what other people think about us.

Strategies for Raising our Children
As parents, we need to recognize that healthy self-esteem is grounded in our relationships with our children. The more a child knows that he is respected, that someone is on his side, cares for him, and takes an interest in him, no matter what, the better he does in life. It’s easy to slip into the thinking that parenting is about getting kids to behave the right way. In fact, parenting is more about loving our kids in the right way than getting them to behave the right way. Our children form their ideas about themselves, their “self-esteem,” from their relationships with us.

Treat your children like icons of Christ, because they are icons of Christ
We don’t worship our kids, by indulging their desires or praising them, and we don’t deface our children by reacting to their misbehaviors or ignoring them. Rather, we need to learn how to respond to their misbehaviors and attend to their struggles as we set limits to their behaviors.

Don’t build your kids up or put them down. Walk with them through life’s struggles, failures and successes.
Children don’t need to think they are great; they need to know that someone is taking an interest in them and cares for them, great or not. They don’t need to be protected from failure to feel good about themselves; they need to be prepared for failure with parents who don’t react when they make mistakes, but walk with them as they learn that successes or failures do not define them. In this way they learn how to take appropriate risks and challenges. Kids don’t need to criticized when they struggle, or protected from struggles; they need parents who walk with them through the struggles to learn how to endure difficulties. In this way they develop a sense of their own God-given abilities and strengths.

Learn to set clear, firm, and consistent limits.
They don’t need to have their desires indulged to feel cared for and respected. Rather, they need parents who love them enough to set clear limits to their desires and impulses in firm and respectful ways. Learn how to set age appropriate limits in respectful ways, which allows our children to learn how to set limits to their own behaviors. When this is done in a respectful way, our children feel respected and cared for. Think in terms of limit setting as an act of love and respect and try to set limits respectfully.

Learn to listen to your kids, all the time, and when you are setting limits.
Feeling loved has more to do with feeling heard, respected, and cared for, rather than praised or indulged. We communicate this to our children by taking an interest in who they are and listening to what they are thinking and feeling as we set limits to their misbehaviors, give consequences respectfully, and force them to do things they don’t want to do like clean their room, pick up their toys, or go to Church. Emotional intimacy, closeness, with our children, as we walk with them through life instills in our children a deep sense that someone is on their side, cares about them, and values them no matter what.

Healthy self-esteem is a natural result of a relationship of respect and love that reflects the love that God has for each of us. God does not praise us, indulge our desires, make our lives easy, or protect us from struggles but joins us in the struggle by taking on our human nature and offering Himself completely on the cross. And he continues to draw close to us and comfort us in our daily struggles through the Holy Spirit as we grow and develop in holiness.

Connect your home to the Church and the Church to your home
When our love for our children reflects the true nature of God’s love for them and when we live our home life connected to the sacramental and ascetic life of the Church, our children hear in Church what they are experiencing in their hearts in the home. They learn that God is the only one who is great and worthy of praise and he values each of us enough to give His life for us, independent of anything we do. Children learn that we don’t need to earn God’s love by good behavior, but we return His love by obeying His commandments.

They will, naturally, develop a solid sense of themselves, as icons of Christ, if they are treated like icons of Christ in a home intimately connected to the Church. When our homes are filled with love, prayer, and repentance, closely connected to the life of the Church, we foster the work of diving grace in our children (Sr. Magdelen, Children in the Church today), that forms real self-esteem in our children.

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