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
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.