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Friday, January 3, 2014

Is self-esteem our greatest sin?

This is going to be a painful discourse. The first thing for which I will be excoriated is suggesting that self-esteem is sin - a term that atheists and even some religious folk will discount immediately as irrelevant and perhaps even offensive. Before we commence, let's try to agree on the definition of self-esteem.

Looking at definitions of self-esteem in several dictionaries, I sense a pattern:
1. a realistic respect for or favorable impression of oneself; self-respect.
2. an inordinately or exaggeratedly favorable impression of oneself.

World English Dictionary:
1. respect for or a favourable opinion of oneself
2. an unduly high opinion of oneself; vanity

Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
1. a confidence and satisfaction in oneself : self-respect
2. self-conceit

The first definition in all these references has to do with, what I believe, is most people's idea of self-esteem. In their Psych Basics section, Psychology Today defines (and I use that term loosely here) self-esteem as:

Possessing little self-regard can lead people to become depressed, to fall short of their potential, or to tolerate abusive situations and relationships. Too much self-love, on the other hand, results in an off-putting sense of entitlement and an inability to learn from failures. (It can also be a sign of clinical narcissism.) Perhaps no other self-help topic has spawned so much advice and so many (often conflicting) theories.

PT then goes on to offer a list of more than 25 articles readers can view covering a variety of self-esteem basics which, they say, are our best insights on how to strike a balance between accurate self-knowledge and respect for who you are.

Reviewing the definitions above and the psychological implications, it's pretty clear that self-esteem is one of those things that needs to be finely balanced in our lives. These days though, we live in a Goldilocks world. I'm sure we can all recall the fairy tale from our childhoods when the girl finds the house in the woods and samples three items: porridge, chairs and beds. Leaving aside the obvious issue with this young lady feeling so bold as to enter a stranger's house in the middle of the forest, she is quite picky with regard to her comfort.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

I've written about Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy before so I won't go into detail again. If you want to read up on his theories you can do so here. If we overlay the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears on top of Maslow's Hierarchy, we can see that Goldilocks lives in the bottom layer of his pyramid. In the fairy tale, she is completely focused on physiological needs with, just maybe, a touch of security of body (safety) thrown in. If Goldilocks had high self-esteem, she would have handled the situation differently considering where respect of (and by) others sits in the pyramid of needs.

Back to reality, how can I float the suggestion that somehow self-esteem is connected with doing bad things? Well, since I used the term sin in my blog title, I'll come at this from a Jesus perspective. In the Gospel of Matthew 20:26-28, Jesus is quoted as saying, "It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

So, does this mean that Jesus had no self-esteem?

The Gospels are full of examples where Jesus did not rise to the challenges which most of us would attack from a self-esteeming position.

Early temptations: immediately before his earthly ministry really gets rolling, Jesus is attacked in the desert and tempted by Satan who targets every attack right at the heart of self-esteem. Is Jesus hungry? If he's the Son of God, just change these stones to bread. Feeling minimized? Worship Satan and gain all the kingdoms of the earth. Are you really immortal? Cast yourself down and watch the angels catch you before you hit the ground.

Every single one of these temptations sought to encourage Jesus to respond in a selfish way. Fortunately for us, that's not what He was here for.

Time after time, Jesus was offered the chance to elevate Himself. Matthew 22 has example after example of Pharisees, lawyers and scribes trying to trip Jesus up, get him to play the big man on campus so they can arrest him for blasphemy.

Both the Chief Priest and Pontius Pilate ask Jesus if He is the Christ or King of the Jews. Jesus responds in kind to both, letting Pilate know in Matthew 27 that it is others who are giving him the lofty titles, not himself.

Finally, in one last, cruel gesture, Luke 23:39 recounts one of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!”

If Jesus were living according to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, history would have been very different indeed. Despite His selfless examples, humanity has still progressed to the point where we have elevated self above all else. Looking at Maslow's pyramid, there is no sin in Esteem. Confidence, achievement, respect of others - respect by others - all of these things are good. If each of us has managed to climb above the lower steps of the hierarchy, to satisfy our basic physical and psychological needs, then a little self-esteem helps us love others as we love ourselves. That sounds a lot like what Jesus told the lawyers in Matthew 22:39.

Self-actualization gone wrong...

One of the problems with Maslow's Hierarchy - in my opinion - is that the higher up we go, the less likely we will be to adopt a servant mentality. In today's world, if you are a servant, that means you're being oppressed. If my goal in life is to reach the top of the pyramid, what am I striving for? Maslow says I can find morality at the top of the hierarchy. What does that mean? Do I have no morality until I get there? If that's the case, then self-esteem could be a sin because it sits a level below morality. If I have no morality but I have self-esteem, what am I?

So what's my point?

Self-esteem is fine as long as it is balanced against the needs of society as a whole. There are a mountain of books that offer to help us overcome esteem-busting people in our lives. You know the ones. But if we put all our effort, all our being, into reaching the Holy Grail of self-esteem; if self-esteem becomes the be-all and end-all, then we lose sight of the big picture...the greater good.

Perhaps my biggest point is that if we focus too much on self, we will miss the real source of our esteem.

What do you think?


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