If we’re going to raise well-adjusted children who have a shot at doing well in the world, having healthy relationships, and avoiding the toxic temptations of this life, then a good first step is to stop trying to boost their self-esteem.
It doesn’t help. Quite the opposite: fostering high self-esteem in our children is a sure-fire way of warping their understanding of what it means to be human in our world.
I know this all too well. Born in 1970, right after self-esteem became the wildly popular push of psychology, I was daily overdosed in school and elsewhere with messages designed to raise my self-esteem. Told to think, “I am worthy. I am important. I am competent.” Pushed to have a high evaluation of myself. Warned that low self-esteem characterizes those who end up as criminals, who suffer from depression, who don’t do well in life. In short, I was told: the higher my self-esteem, the higher my chances are at becoming the best person I could possibly be.
Prescribing heightened self-esteem to people is like prescribing cigarettes to lung cancer patients.
It all sounded good. Now, 48 years later, I realize societal doctors dished out medicine that only aided and abetted my illness. Prescribing heightened self-esteem to people is like prescribing cigarettes to lung cancer patients.
MISDIAGNOSING THE DISEASE
We all know that if a disease is misdiagnosed, it will lead to an unsuccessful, if not fatal, treatment plan. You don’t heal a broken arm with chemotherapy. So it is with self-esteem. Because we’ve misdiagnosed the problem, we’ve administered the wrong medicine.
Our problem, our sickness, is not that we think too little of ourselves. It’s not even that we think too highly of ourselves (though that’s much closer to the truth). Our problem is that we spend way too much time thinking of ourselves, period.
On any given day, our thoughts, our emotions, our inner evaluations of where we stand in comparison to others, all revolve around the ego. We might come to the conclusion that everyone else seems better at things than we are, so we feel mediocre, or a failure. Or we might conclude that we are better than others: we’re more physically fit than the beer guts around us, our vehicle is sportier, our wife hotter, our kids get into better schools. So we feel ourselves superior. Life becomes a competition full of winners and losers. And depending on where we stand on the continuum, we esteem ourselves higher or lower than others.
The best life is not one full of high self-esteem or low self-esteem, but full of self-forgetfulness.
As long as this is the game we’re playing, no matter how many trophies we win or lose, no matter how bad or good we feel about ourselves, in the end the game is still nothing more than a sport that’s all about our egos. And if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that something that revolves around our egos is bound to produce humans who never live up to the potential that God himself has designed for them.
A life lived to the full, a life that is in keeping with how the Creator himself has fashioned it, is a life in which self is not at the center, but the periphery. The best life is not one full of high self-esteem or low self-esteem, but full of self-forgetfulness.
This is where the wisdom of Jesus shines through. Over and over, he caught his disciples comparing themselves to each other, quibbling over which of them was alpha. His counterintuitive answer to them was to turn their expectations upside-down. You want to be great? Be little. You want to be first? Be last. You want to lead? Serve.
In other words, if you want to be something, be nothing. Forget about how great you think you are, how much you want to succeed, and instead of focusing on yourself, focus on The Other. Paul puts it this way, “In humility count others more significant than yourselves,” (Phil 2:3). Find your importance, your purpose, your goal outside your ego. Find it in your neighbor’s need. Become the best human being you can be by esteeming others as people you are called to serve, to help, to love.
THINKING OF OURSELVES LESS
The foundation of the Christian’s life is that our life is not our own. We don’t belong to ourselves. God has purchased us with the currency of Jesus’s blood. To become a Christian is to lose our life and find new life in Christ. To be emptied of whatever opinions we have of ourselves (positive or negative), and to find that the only opinion that matters is God’s. And what is God’s opinion of us? That we are his children, his loved ones, his special treasure, all because we have been united with Christ so closely that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Gal 2:20).
Likewise, just as we live in Christ, so Christ lives through us in service to others. Who cares what others think of us? Who even cares what we think of ourselves? All that doesn’t matter one iota. It’s all chasing after the wind. What matters is this: God is 100% pleased with us in Christ. We have died and risen again in him. And he is active in us to love, to forgive, to serve, to pour out our own lives in sacrifice for family, friends, and even people who are mean and hateful to us.
C. S. Lewis defined humility not as thinking less of ourselves, but as thinking of ourselves less. Contrary to the self-esteem movement, Christianity says that the less we think of ourselves, the less we estimate how good or bad or mediocre we are, the less our lives revolve around our egos, the better people we’ll be because we’ll be living in conformity with how our Maker designed us.
And in that is freedom. Freedom from the prison of the ego. Freedom from constant comparisons of ourselves with others. Freedom inside the Son of God who came to set us free from ourselves, and to free us for a life of love in which we find in others our reason to live.
I am indebted to Tim Keller’s brief but weighty book, The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness, for many insights in this article.