Is the Gospel at Odds with Self-Esteem?
(Meridian Magazine Myth of the Month, March 1999)
Picture a person with high self-esteem. Probably that person is talented and confident. Ironically, one of the ways that we may be sure that that person has high self-esteem is that we always feel inferior around him or her. We wish we were as impressive. And we are told we should be.
For over thirty years, the psychological imperative has been: You must love yourself. You must celebrate yourself. One man who seemed to have such self-assurance expressed it this way: “I happened to catch my reflection the other day when I was polishing my trophies, and, gee, it's easy to see why women are nuts about me” (Robert Byrne, 1911 Best things anybody ever said, New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988).
But how does such self-regard fit into a gospel perspective? Is it a necessary core to our personalities? Without it are we unable to serve others? Or is self-esteem is simply Satan’s attempt to clean up pride and make it respectable-even desirable? A closer looks shows us that in its worldly version, self-esteem is dangerously close to arrogance, boastfulness, cocksureness, conceit, condescension, egotism, haughtiness, narcissism, piousness, pomposity, presumption, self-centeredness, self-righteousness, smugness, snobbery, superiority, and vanity.
Let’s take Jesus Christ as our test case. Did He have high self esteem? He clearly knew who He was. He had confidence that He would succeed in His mission. Yet, when called “Good Master,” He protested: “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God…” (Matthew 19:17).
What does it mean for us that the most righteous person who lived on this earth deflected all praise to His Father? “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise” (John 5:19).
Popular thinking tells us that we gain self-esteem by being unique, by being the best, by being assertive, by being the person who stands on top of the pile. Scriptural thinking provides a different mindset. Consider the following antonyms of pride and their application to Jesus and his disciples in all ages: common, humble, lowly, meek, mild, modest, plain, simple, submissive, unassertive, unassuming, unpretentious.
Scriptural descriptions of Jesus could be amassed to support the point. But His own words were: “I can of mine own self do nothing…I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me” (John 5:30). Jesus simply fails as the model of the amazing, self-assured, modern man. In fact, a modern psychologist might have a diagnostic heyday with a person who said the things Jesus said. By our standards, He appears to have no self-esteem.
But doesn’t someone without self-esteem struggle? Isn’t the alternative to self-esteem a life of misery and depression or at least an inability to be productive? Only in the world’s misguided system. The person who told me, “I am continually keeping my thoughts centered upon the great worth of my soul,” is no better off than the egoist admiring his own image in his trophies. It is Satan who is obsessed with appearances and perceptions.
Rather than self-love and self-hate being polar opposites on a psychological continuum, they are really the same thing. Both are self-absorption. At the opposite end of the spectrum from self-absorption is self-forgetfulness. Even such respectable forms of self-absorption as self-esteem are nothing more than munching Saltines to quench a thirst. The more we focus on celebrating ourselves, the further we find ourselves from the goal.
Countless times I have heard people say of struggling teens: “They’re having trouble because of poor self-esteem. We need to build them up.” But when we build them up in the world’s way, we are only distracting them from the Power that can change them, refine them and perfect them. It is self-forgetfulness that they need and that God recommends. Jesus said:
Let thy bowels also be full of charity [Ah! Charity! That pure love that comes only from Christ.] towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God [This is a very special kind of confidence; not self-confidence but divine confidence!]; and the doctrine of the priesthood [What in the world is the doctrine of the priesthood? Could it be the power to bless as He blesses?] shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.
The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion [Now that is a gift that provides unparalleled serenity!], and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever. (D&C 121:45-46, emphasis added).
Unknown to most people in the general population, the scientific community has had serious concerns about the self-esteem movement for more than fifteen years. Research now verifies that improving children’s self-esteem does not motivate toward better school performance (Harter, 1983). Teens with high self-esteem may be so resentful of an attack on their self-regard that they are more likely to be violent in response to an insult (Bushman & Baumeister, 1998). In the massive California study of self-esteem and its effects, self-esteem was found to be as predictive of bad behavior as good behavior ( Mecca, Smelser, & Vasconcellos, 1989). Very often it did not predict anything.
Self-esteem has simply failed us in its promise to deliver us from self-hate and unproductivity and may create serious problems (Cudaback, 1992). In a thoughtful and insightful book, Meanings of Life (1991), psychologist Roy Baumeister observes that the modern American inclination to base the meaning of lives on the self has left us with a badly shrunken meaning in life.
In other words, self-esteem is a failed messiah.
It should be no surprise. The world’s fads are not well-suited to our eternal growth. Because we live in a world with a logic so different, so disconnected from the logic of heaven, irony seems to always be woven into our discoveries of Truth. To find ourselves we must lose ourselves. To live, we must die. To conquer we must surrender.
The Book of Mormon is especially powerful and clear in its invitation to become healthy through the Lord’s unique process.
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields [We do not take charge, we surrender.] to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord [We become fine and refined by Him!], and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:19, emphasis added)
Those who have had even a modicum of success in this process of submitting can testify that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,” (Galatians 5:22).
And that is infinitely better than self-esteem.
Part 2: The world will flounder for decades trying to patch up the failed notions of self-esteem. But Latter-day Saints do not need to wander in the wilderness. In April we will review a program of gifts revealed by the Lord that is succinct, wise—and even supported by modern research.
Baumeister, R. (1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford Press.
Byrne, R. (1998). 1911 best things anybody ever said. New York: Fawcett Columbine.
Bushman, B. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Threatened egotism, narcissism, self‑esteem, and direct and displaced aggression: does self‑love or self‑hate lead to violence? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, (1), 219‑29.
Cudaback, D. (1992). Self-esteem: Rhetoric and research, Part III. Human Relations, XVII, (1), 1-6.
Harter, S. (1983). Developmental perspectives on the self-system. In E. M. Hetherington (Ed.), P. H. Mussen (Series Ed.), Handbook of child psychology, Vol. 4, Socialization, personality and social development (pp. 275-385). New York: Wiley.
Mecca, A. M., Smelser, N. J., & Vasconcellos, J. (1989). The social importance of self-esteem. Berkeley: University of California Press.