Does happiness come from self-esteem?

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One of the adversary’s best known tactics for crippling his enemies (us) is to invite them to engage in perpetual self-loathing. Self-hate depresses our souls and distracts us from the redeeming power of Christ. It is tempting, then, to see self-esteem and self-love as the antidote for this poison — but these may be a distraction from the true antidote.

The scriptures regularly invite us to consider our own nothingness before God, not to induce self-loathing, but to help us to forget ourselves altogether and to place Christ at the center of our attention and our affections. This could, perhaps, be referred to as a sort of Christ-esteem, in which we acknowledge His merciful love for us and His greatness for it.

The hidden worldview: Self-esteem

Loving ourselves is a crucial step towards loving others and God.

Literally hundreds of books have been written and countless studies performed trying to define, understand, and advocate for high self-esteem. According to social psychologist Roy Baumeister, it is “probably the trait most studied by social psychologists.”((Baumeister, Roy F., and Eli J. Finkel, eds. Advanced social psychology: The state of the science. Oxford University Press, 2010.)) This is because, he asserts, high self-esteem “contributes to feeling good and happy,” which is generally considered one of the primary goals of life, not to mention psychological practice and therapy.

According to Dorothy Briggs, “self esteem is the mainspring that slates every child for success or failure as a human being.”((Briggs, Dorothy Corkille. Your child’s self-esteem: The key to life. Harmony, 1975.)) Indeed, Briggs thinks self-esteem is so vital she titled one of her most successful parenting books, Your Child’s Self-esteem:  The Key to Life.  If self-esteem is “the key to life,” then it must be a very, very important thing to have.  Or, at least, that’s what we repeatedly hear from not only psychologists and parenting experts but many educators, social workers, and motivational speakers.

First, however, we need to ask ourselves:  What exactly is self-esteem? Most precisely, self-esteem is “the overall affective evaluation of one’s own worth, value, or importance,” or, in other words, “the extent to which one prizes, values, approves of, or likes oneself.”((Blascovich, Jim, and Joseph Tomaka. “Measures of self-esteem.” Measures of personality and social psychological attitudes 1 (1991): 115-160.)) For the sake of precision, self-esteem is not about feeling skilled at something. For example, someone who says, “I’m not skilled at basketball,” does not necessarily have “low self-esteem.” Rather, he or she can still think highly of themselves even though they don’t feel confident at sports. Self-efficacy / self-confidence is different from self-esteem (and will be discussed in a separate episode).

According to Abraham Maslow, “All people in our society … have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, (usually) high evaluation of themselves, for self-respect, or self-esteem, and for the esteem of others.”((Maslow, A.H. (1943). “A theory of human motivation”. Psychological Review. 50(4): 370–96.)) In other words, the need for a high evaluation of ourselves is built into our psyche, according to Maslow.

It is not surprising that self-esteem is seen as intrinsically valuable. It’s conceptual opposite, self-loathing, is emotionally crippling and indisputably damaging. It is natural to assume that the antidote to self-loathing is fostering a strong self-esteem. Many go so far as to read this prescription into the scriptures themselves: The scriptures teach, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” which we often take to imply that to truly love our neighbors, we must first love ourselves.

An Alternative: Christ-esteem

Recognizing our nothingness before God is a crucial step towards loving Him and accepting His love for us.

Each and every individual is precious in the sight of God.  “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10), we read in the Doctrine and Covenants, because Christ our Redeemer has suffered for each and every one of us, and delights in the soul that repents and cometh unto Him. God values and treasures every one of us, and has made us His top priority. “This is my work and my glory,” He says, “To bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:37).

We are infinity valued by our Father in Heaven — so much so that He sacrificed His Son on our behalf: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). In the book of Matthew, Jesus taught, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father [taking notice]. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows” (10:29-31).

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf warned that the adversary would try to make us feel worthless.  He taught, “[One] way Satan deceives is through discouragement. He attempts to focus our sight on our own insignificance until we begin to doubt that we have much worth. He tells us that we are too small for anyone to take notice, that we are forgotten—especially by God.”((Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “You Matter to Him,” Ensign, November 2011.)) In the midst of these discouraging thoughts and adversarial deceits, Elder Uchtdorf reassures us:

[T]he most powerful Being in the universe is the Father of your spirit.  He knows you. He loves you with a perfect love. God sees you not only as a mortal being on a small planet who lives for a brief season—He sees you as His child.  He sees you as the being you are capable and designed to become. He wants you to know that you matter to Him.((Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “You Matter to Him,” Ensign, November 2011.))

We matter to God, and He loves us with an infinite love. There is no need to ever feel of little worth or of little value when the most powerful Being in the universe values us so much.

We should be wary, though, of certain counterfeits of this divine love. The philosophy surrounding the world’s focus on self-esteem and self-love may be one of those counterfeits. The counterintuitive truth is that the Lord’s antidote to self-loathing is not necessarily to replace negative self-thoughts with positive self-thoughts, but to replace self-thoughts with God-thoughts (and other-thoughts).

To illustrate this point, consider how the same is true of pride. The antidote to pride is not self-disparagement or self-loathing. It is self-forgetfulness. C.S. Lewis wrote:

If we were to meet a truly humble person… we would never come away from meeting them thinking they were humble. They would not be always telling us they were a nobody (because a person who keeps saying they are a nobody is actually a self-obsessed person). The thing we would remember from meeting a truly gospel-humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us. Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.((Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. HarperCollins, 2001.))

Whether we think badly of ourselves, or highly of ourselves, we are still thinking about ourselves. Just as the antidote to pride is not self-disparagement, the antidote to self-loathing is not self-esteem. The central problem with self-loathing is that the self is the focus of our attention. Because we are fallen creatures (subject to the habits and desires of the flesh), all of us develop attributes that we might loathe. There is no way around this: We all fall short of the glory of God, and the closer we get to God, the more we know Him and study His character, the more we recognize this.

We see this in Moses’ encounter with God, where Moses “stood in the presence of God, and talked with him face to face” (Moses 1:31). Following this conversation, Moses said to himself, “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:10). As Moses stood in the presence of God, it showed Moses precisely how small he was in comparison. But in that moment, Moses did not wallow in despair. He was glorying in the majesty and power of God, and rejoicing in His greatness.

In the Book of Mosiah, King Benjamin taught, “I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness … If ye do this ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God” (Mosiah 4:11-12). King Benjamin does not tell us not to pursue self-esteem, but instead to remember our nothingness before God. Further, he tells us that if we do this, we will always rejoice and be filled with God’s love. This is a fascinating paradox that runs completely counter to the philosophy of self-esteem. What does this mean in practice? Dr. James E. Faulconer, a BYU philosopher professor, explains:

Having a bad self-image, being incapacitated by depression about one’s lack of ability, looks, relations with others, or anything else is despair, and despair denies God. Those doing these things recognize their weaknesses, but they do not add to that a remembrance of the goodness and long-suffering and mercy of the Lord.((James Faulconer, “Self-image, self-love, and salvation.”))

In other words, “remembering our own nothingness” does not mean that we focus on our own shortcomings, nor should it lead us to despair. Rather, as we glimpse God’s majesty and note how merciful He is to us, and the tremendous grace He proffers us, we realize that we have nothing to boast of, nothing to offer on the table that was not His to begin with. And that’s when we understand how deeply He loves us. As we sing in our Sacrament meetings:

I marvel that he would descend from his throne divine
To rescue a soul so rebellious and proud as mine,
That he should extend his great love unto such as I,
Sufficient to own, to redeem, and to justify.((Charles H. Gabriel, “I Stand All Amazed.”))

We cannot feel this gratitude when we are “puffed up” and full of self-concern. It’s when we truly grasp our own nothingness before God, how little we merit this ongoing divine rescue, that we grasp its infinite mercy and the gratitude it warrants.

Then, as King Benjamin continues, we learn self-forgetfulness by involving ourselves in a divine cause so much grander than our own concerns that we forget them altogether. We invest ourselves in service to our fellow beings, and participate wholeheartedly in a covenant community of other deeply flawed people. G.K. Chesterton wrote:

How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure … You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.((Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. Orthodoxy. Moody Publishers, 2013.))

Chesterton’s remarks dovetail those of C.S. Lewis earlier, and highlights why the Gospel of Christ is more than an individual endeavor. We cannot escape self-concern by ourselves: we need a community to invest ourselves in, a people to call our own, whose causes and concerns we take on as our own. And so it is that we take upon ourselves the name of Christ and commit to share the burdens of His people — to “mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). “What we need,” former BYU philosophy professor C. Terry Warner wrote, “is to drop the self-preoccupied concern about image altogether. Spiritual wholeness consists in self-forgetfulness.”((Warner, C. Terry (1986). “What We Are, ” BYU Studies Quarterly, 26(1).))

So what of the need for “self-love”? Faulconer explains that the verse quoted earlier — “Love thy neighbor as thyself” does not actually imply that we need to love ourselves before loving others:

We can imagine that I am an ambulance driver on an emergency run and someone says, “Drive as your teenage son does.” Clearly the person wants me to drive as he supposes my son does–speeding–but it is unlikely that he is also saying my son should drive that way. He has given me something to compare my driving to without approving–or disapproving–of the standard of comparison. By the same reasoning, the command to love another as myself is not a command to love myself. It assumes I do, and it tells me to use that as a standards for loving others. Without adding something to it that isn’t there, it says no more than that.((James Faulconer, “Self-image, self-love, and salvation.”))

Later, Christ gives his disciples clarifying instructions: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34). Instead of loving others as ourselves, in this higher law we are instructed to love others as God loves them (and us). And there is no scriptural reference to divine self-love.

In conclusion, then, pursuing high self-esteem will not bring us closer to God. Paul taught, “For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself” (Gal 6:3).  While the modern world teaches us that we should learn to be content as we are (despite our sometimes errant or wrong behavior). God’s love, however, is always and ever an invitation to live differently, do better, reach higher, and change our very natures through Christ. The antidote to self-loathing is not self-love, but encounters with the divine majesty of God, coupled with a realization of His infinite love for us as His children. These experiences invite us to love God and place Him at the center of our thoughts and affections (rather than ourselves), and to invest ourselves in building His kingdom.

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