J. Marshall Jenkins

Author, Therapist, Spiritual Director

Self-Esteem: Handle With Care

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Self-esteem: Too little? Too much?

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).

Too little self-esteem makes us depressed and less resilient.  Good self-esteem brings happiness and flourishing. Right? Not so fast. Psychologists and other students of human nature give self-esteem mixed reviews at best.

For decades, self-esteem seemed all the rage with the logic that if children liked themselves and felt special, they would be more creative and motivated in school, less prone to depression, more confident as they approach social challenges. Ditto for adults.

Moreover, damage done by low self-esteem naturally implied that raising it would remedy much misery.  With eroded self-regard, the bullying victim, sexually harassed office worker, and abused spouse lack a foothold to set boundaries.  Regarding anxiety, massive research showed that increasing one’s self-efficacy (“I can do it!”) greatly helps in overcoming phobias.

Yet, school programs to promote, “I am special,” thinking among children seemed to accomplish little more than raising entitlement, and self-esteem related mental health problems among youth seem only more prevalent.  Self-esteem appears unsustainable because to maintain it, we tend to compare ourselves to others.  We can always find someone more beautiful, talented, successful, or intelligent, so we inevitably crash.

Self-esteem can look downright toxic. Psychopaths think the world of themselves. Strident grandiosity verges on a moral imperative in our culture of self-promotion, which explains the absurd popularity of the Kardashians, Donald Trump, and radio shock jocks. We envy the egomaniac.

Is self-esteem the nourishing fruit of a well-watered soul? Or is it the venom of Eden’s serpent tempting Adam and Eve to pride? It is neither. Like water, it can sustain your life or drown you. It depends on how you handle it, whether you handle it humbly.

Humility is not the absence of self-esteem.  Excessive self-abnegation is tragic indeed. When we fail to acknowledge our goodness, we waste our gifts by underselling ourselves and more tragically, succumbing to the domination of an egotist. Many well-intentioned people do that in part because they misunderstand humility as self-abnegation.

Humility is realistic and compassionate self-regard.  It begins with knowing our strengths and tending them as good stewards, with an eye toward gratefully enjoying them and modestly offering them to the world. Contrast this with Adam and Eve who had more than enough but got distracted with a scheme to become more like God.

Humility also entails knowing our limitations and accepting them with gentle humor and self-compassion.  After years of yoga, I can barely touch my toes as I bend forward with straight legs.  Self-criticism only tightens my legs and ruins the stretch.  Compassionately allowing that with my body, this is what I can do, I breathe into the stretch and find a little more peace.

What are your gifts, your particular wisdom, beauty, and skill?  What are your limitations? Think of them and smile. Plan your life like a party to throw for the world. How will you give your gifts away? Consult with God about your plan. You will find that with the giving, the supply and joy only grow.

J. Marshall Jenkins

About J. Marshall Jenkins

J. Marshall Jenkins is an author, psychotherapist, teacher, and spiritual director. For several years he has been writing on the Beatitudes for people in emotional pain, publishing biweekly here on his Beatitudes Blog at http://www.jmarshalljenkins.com. His newest book, Blessed at the Broken Places: Reclaiming Faith and Hope with the Beatitudes, is now available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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4 Replies

  1. Michael Parnell

    Self-esteem comes when one lives into who they are. Sam Keen talks about learning to appreciate the “grain of one’s own wood.”

    I found my peace within when I came to see who was, both the good and the bad, and learning to live with them.

    1. J. Marshall Jenkins

      Sounds like you made friends with yourself. Isn’t that what we do with friends, coming to see who they are, “both the good and the bad, and learning to live with them?”

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