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What Makes You So Special?

Christian Self-worth: the right and wrong kinds of self-esteem.
by Amelie Torre | Source:
Self-esteem is a term that is bandied about at a dizzying rate these days. It is an important issue and definitely merits our attention in the fields of education and psychology. But there are many misleading conceptions of the idea out there, and in order to make sense of them, there are two interesting sources to draw from; an in-depth study from Monsignor Cormac Burke, and a children’s book called “You Are Special” by Max Lucado.

To begin, some sharp distinctions need to be made between the right and wrong kinds of self-esteem. To draw one’s sense of worth merely from what you think of yourself or what others think of you is to build on sand. Yet this is exactly the kind of self-esteem that has wreaked so much havoc over the years, having been promoted since the 60s.

The claim is that a person can build their sense of self-worth by deciding for themselves what is right or wrong, what feels good for them and becoming a ‘success’ purely in their own terms. But what kind of fruit does this unqualified esteem for oneself bear?

Fr. Burke has a very clear and objective answer drawn from some scientific research done by four psychologists in May of 2003. “Having looked at all the existing studies on self-esteem, they found no significant connection (emphasis mine) between feelings of high self-worth and academic achievement, interpersonal relationships or healthy lifestyles. On the contrary, they concluded, high self-regard is very often found in people who are narcissistic and have an inflated sense of popularity and likeableness” (from “Self-Esteem: Why? Why Not?” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, February 2008).

It would seem obvious, then, that this kind of self-esteem would be on its way out, but the dictatorship of relativism still possesses a stranglehold on many educational institutions. Even worse, it has crept into Catholic education. Fr. Burke cites a textbook for primary religious education in which the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector is twisted to such a degree that the Pharisee is the example of ‘being at peace with oneself’ instead of the humble tax-collector. Fr. Burke goes on: “The twelve-year-olds are told ‘Self-esteem is our identity (who we are)…What we think of who we are is our self-esteem.’ This is, to say the least, a very confused and confusing statement. What we think of who we are often does not correspond to what we really are.” This is the core of the problem at hand with an erroneous concept of self-esteem.

Society would have each of us define ourselves totally according to our own standards, and at the same time blithely and uncritically accept everyone else’s. But this can never work because those who define their own standards still compare themselves to others and seek to defeat their rivals. It leads to an endless downward spiral of solipsism because there is nothing outside the self to measure oneself against. Simultaneously, the risk of being defined by others grows, because externals necessarily and unavoidably have an influence on how one perceives oneself. In order to invent one’s own standards of success, one has to draw from other standards that exist in order to accept or reject them.

The Christian concept of self-esteem, on the other hand, is expressed quite well in Max Lucado’s “You Are Special”. This is a children’s story that many adults could also profit from. It recounts the journey of a wooden toy named Punchinello who lives among other wooden toys called Wemmicks. These Wemmicks spend all their time awarding each other with stars according to beauty or talent, or giving out gray dots as demerits. This outlines the first, most superficial level; basing self-esteem on what others think.

Punchinello has no special talents, and so receives only dots. He decides to go outside the village to do some soul-searching. Then he is tempted to think: do I need to define my own self-worth? He is tempted to think that he is just not ‘a good wooden person’. Punchinello is tired of being defined by others, but to define oneself is also unsatisfactory. Intuitively he knows he has to look outside himself. Here the definition of self-esteem provided by the religious textbook cited above does not provide a good answer. At this point in the story, defining oneself merely through ‘what we think of who we are’ would be deadly in either extreme. Punchinello could either fall into despair or defy the judgment of the whole village by affirming that he is something he is not. This is the turning point in the story because Punchinello has to look outside himself in order to define his self-worth, but he is not quite sure about how to do this.

Then he comes across another wooden toy named Lucia, who has no stars or dots. She has escaped either extreme and resists all labeling from the outside world. How has she done it? She goes to see the woodcarver Eli every day. Eli represents God the Creator and Father, since he has created all Wemmicks. So Punchinello goes to see Eli and discovers that he is known by name, accepted and loved unconditionally for who he is. He learns that he is worth God’s love for him; only God’s opinion matters. Thus begins the process of allowing all other labels to melt away, and dots start to fall off Punchinello. This is in agreement with Fr. Burke’s definition of the proper kind of self-esteem: “The root of healthy self-esteem is not to think well of yourself, or to have others (apparently) praise you. It is to be convinced that you are of worth because you know someone loves you, and loves you even if others don’t and even if you are tempted (the ultimate temptation) to believe that you are not worth loving at all…Secular psychologists and educationalists offer a plethora of programs to raise self-esteem; but practically all involve turning a blind eye to one’s objective limitations and weaknesses. Only the Christian view of self takes account both of my defects---my petty self-centeredness---and of God’s unconditional love for me.” Lucado’s story is truly Christian because Punchinello resists that temptation to define himself solely on his own terms. He simply and humbly presents himself to Eli, his creator, and learns that he is loved for who he is and not his achievements (or lack of them.)

To love or hate oneself on one’s own terms leads to ultimate ruin and the worst self-deception possible. When each person is loved for who they are, that is precisely the point at which they begin to achieve much more than they thought possible, because they believe they are much more than they thought, and that the consequences of their actions are important. To salvage hearts and souls from the wreckage caused by erroneous concepts of self-esteem will be a long and painful process, but it must begin. Self-esteem must be based on something outside oneself if it is to avoid the pitfalls of total arrogance on one hand and despair on the other. Those working in the fields of education and psychology would do well to examine what kind of self-esteem they are promoting, and whether they want to create a society rife with uncontrolled passions or with a humble search for the ideal outside the self, which is the only path toward true self-fulfillment.

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Post a Comment
Published by: ANgela
Date: 2010-05-05 13:48:08
For someone who teaches teenage girls i have found your article complete and edifying. Today I had a roaring argument with my students who claimed that self-esteem is a virtue!! I am most edified by what I have found here and tomorrow i will go back to class better armed to argue my case. The fact of finding the source of esteem outside of ourselves is absolutely noble. I wish many would believe this.

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