Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven...Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (Matthew 5: 3, 5)
During the question/answer session of a talk I was giving at a church in Atlanta, a woman asked, "Are you saying that low self-esteem is better than high-self esteem?"
She was responding to my assertion that there is neither Scriptural nor scientific support for the notion that it's good for a person-for our purposes, a child-to have high regard for himself. As for Scriptural support, or the lack thereof, Our Lord did not say that those who hold high opinions of themselves, or feel they are "special," will inherit the earth. As for science, the latest research has discovered that people with high self-esteem tend to have correspondingly low self-control. Violent criminals, gang members, and spouse and/or child abusers have all been found, as a rule, to have not low (the PC myth), but high self-esteem. But this does not mean that low self-esteem is good, either.
"Not at all," I answered. "Low self-esteem is associated with drug and alcohol abuse, depression, suicide, chronic unemployment, homelessness, and other personal and social ills."
"So, if both high and low self esteem are bad," she asked, "what's good?"
Before I answer that question for the reader, as I did for that Atlanta audience, allow me to point out that since parents and schools began devoting themselves to the promotion of high self-esteem, American children have increased in aggressive behavior and decreased in self-control-significantly, in both cases. In other words, what researchers have found to be true of people with high self-esteem is increasingly true of America's kids. High self-esteem also blinds a person to fault in him/herself. Once again, researchers have found, and teachers confirm, that today's children have great difficulty admitting fault and blame, far more so than did children of forty years ago. People with high self-esteem tend to believe they deserve to be the center of attention and act accordingly - again true of many, too many, of today's kids.
Some well-meaning folks suggest that there are two types of high self-esteem: a "false" self-esteem that is a function of people patting you on the back and telling you how wonderful you are, and a "genuine" self-esteem that is the result of significant accomplishment. In the words of a colleague and good friend, "Genuine self-esteem comes from achievement, such as studying hard and making good grades, or practicing hard and excelling in a sport."
So where, I ask, does that leave the child who studies hard and still makes no better than C's? Or the child who is a klutz? Or the disabled child who has neither the mental nor physical ability to succeed at doing much more than everyday self-help tasks? No, accomplishment-based self-esteem is no better than affirmation-based self-esteem. The former is highly prejudicial, the latter is sinful-a form of self-idolatry. And make no mistake about, if you have high regard for yourself because of your accomplishments, then you are likely to have less than high regard for those who's accomplishments are not as "worthy" as your own. In which case we are again talking about self-idolatry.
Along those very lines, Paul wrote that we should think of ourselves with "sober judgment," remembering that every talent is a gift from God, bestowed upon us by grace (see Romans 12:3-7). I sometimes wonder how many parents, upon the occasion of a child's accomplishment in some area, point out to the child that his aptitude is a gift from God, and that in the final analysis, it will serve him well only if he uses it to serve God? Not many, I suspect, not in these postmodern times.
"So, John," the impatient reader asks. "Answer the question: What's good?"
What's good is self-respect. Because it is not a function of significant accomplishment, anyone can acquire self-respect, even the C-student, the klutz, and the disabled child. Self-respect, furthermore, is not idolatrous. It is acquired not because parents praise you (although they should-conservatively), but because they love you unconditionally (as does the Lord), hold you completely responsible for your behavior (but forgive you your sinfulness), and insist that you obey (respect their authority) and mind your manners at all times (show respect for others). It is, in fact, axiomatic that self-respect cannot exist without respect for others. Ergo, "love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:39).
The self-respecting person knows the worth of each and every human being and places no one, including himself, above anyone else. Is the President of the United States better than a school janitor? Of course not! We are all, no matter how "high" we rise in the world, equally in need of forgiveness, redemption, and salvation. The self-respecting person has no problem admitting fault in himself. Capable of admitting sin, he can ask forgiveness and receive salvation. The self-respecting person, unlike a person intoxicated on high self-esteem, does not seek or desire to be the center of attention (but accepts it graciously when he/she is put there by others).
Does a self-respecting person have a positive self-concept? Absolutely! Isn't this the same as high self-esteem? Not at all. High self-esteem is not equivalent, by a long shot, to the knowledge that one's life has value, that his body is a temple, that he/she is precious in the eyes of the Lord. The former is temporal and material, the latter connects one with the Eternal.
Are self-confidence and self-respect interchangeable terms? Again, no. Self-confidence is specific to certain situations. For example, I feel very confident speaking to large groups of people, but I feel a distinct loss of confidence when I'm in deep water with sharks (I know, because I've been there, done that!). In fact, having confidence in a situation where you should not, where you should be on guard and charged with adrenaline, is foolhardy. But where self-confidence has, and should have, its ups and downs, self-respect is a constant.
The self-respecting person, rather than being "high" on him/herself, is modest, humble, even self-effacing at times-to again cite the apostle, a person of "sober judgment."
In the final analysis, I'll take Paul's word on this.