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The Lure and Lore of Self-Esteem


As I studied education at BYU, King Benjamin seemed more and more outlandish to me. He dwelt on our carnal state, being less than the dust of the earth, our nothingness, and our worthless and fallen state. I felt that King Benjamin showed a curious misunderstanding of human nature and self-esteem.

As a newlywed glowing with the doctrine of fundamental worth, I resolved to help my sweet partner, Nancy, remedy her glaring deficiency in self-esteem. As life rolled on I should have been alert to obvious inconsistencies in my beliefs. The core article of faith in the doctrine of self-esteem is that you cannot love anyone until you love yourself. Yet Nancy reached out to struggling immigrants and the illiterate poor with compassion and resolve. She served two stints as Relief Society president with ministries that were remarkable in their sweet inclusiveness. Nancy is simply the best mortal Christian I have ever known.

Almost three decades have passed since that time at BYU when I judged King Benjamin by a foolish human fad. I have repented. In fact, as I recently finished a term as a BYU bishop, I realized that I had quoted King Benjamin’s once-spurned observations dozens of times in sacred interviews. (So, you now believe that we are worthless?) And there has been a total reversal in our marriage; the young groom who was once trying to improve his wife’s self-regard is now trying to learn from her self-forgetfulness.

As a sidelight, self-esteem has suffered miserably at the hands of research. As early as 1983 Susan Harter observed that the idea of raising self-esteem in order to improve performance is mistaken. It is wiser to get children doing good things and let the self-esteem follow.

The most deadly blow to the self-esteem movement was probably landed by its most ardent supporters. In the 1980s a group of true believers declared a state of esteem in California. Millions of dollars were directed to improving the self-appraisal of Californians. Fortunately the leaders of the movement gathered research data. The conclusion of the study was that “the associations between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant, or absent” (Mecca, Smelser, & Vasconcellos, 1989). The experiment in social improvement was a bust. High self-esteem is as likely to be related to problem behavior as model behavior.

We shouldn’t have been surprised. God has never recommended self-esteem. Some have tortured the ancient commandment to love neighbors as self to mean that we must love ourselves. The context for the commandment might be more consistent with a recommendation that if the ancient children of Israel, who were so absorbed in their own needs, would turn their attention at least as much to their neighbors, they would be better off.

But Jesus has given a transcendent commandment: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34). It is worth noting that the commandment to love as He has loved is wedged between His washing of the apostles’ feet and His infinite and eternal sacrifice in our behalf.
God recommends self-forgetfulness and discipleship rather than self-celebration and self-improvement.

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any [man] will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it (Matthew 16:24–25).

If we cultivate a Christ-like mind, we ultimately gain the “confidence [that waxes] strong in the presence of God” (D&C 121:45). That is very different from self-confidence. It is a serene peace that God is in charge and that He knows how to accomplish His perfect purposes.

Father’s plan for growth is different from the human plan for growth. Rather than enlarge our management, rally our genius, and exercise our strength (as recommended by Korihor), we focus our faith, submit our wills, and beseech heaven for divine power. That is the relentless message of the Book of Mormon.

Somehow in my youthful (and presumptuous) study of King Benjamin, I had missed the context for our nothingness. “For behold, if the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time has awakened you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state—” (Mosiah 4:5). It is not our absolute nothingness but our total dependence that King Benjamin stressed. The realization of our dependence opens the way for the vital plea: “And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified;” (Mosiah 4:2).
Ammon marveled in a Redeemer who redeemed such undeserving souls as we: “Who could have supposed that our God would have been so merciful as to have snatched us from our awful, sinful, and polluted state?” (Alma 26:17).

King Benjamin promised that if we follow his counsel we “shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of [our] sins” (Mosiah 4:12). We cannot save ourselves; we must be rescued by the Lord’s divine goodness. King Benjamin was right all along.

References

Mecca, A. M., Smelser, N. J., & Vasconcellos, J. (1989). The social importance of self-esteem. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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16 Comments

  • Reply Charmaine May 9, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    I have known those who have a “big ego with a low self esteem” I never quite understood how that worked. Perhaps the big ego is the equivilent of misguided self esteem…there is too much self absorption and not enough concern for others. Your concepts are soo wonderful. Real God centered self esteem evidentally needs to look outward and then the inward feels better about itself. It is a journey not a destination.

    • Reply admin May 13, 2008 at 6:05 pm

      Great insight! Sometimes we pretend to be strong when we are most unsure of ourselves. Of course the solution is not to become sure of ourselves but to place our faith in God. We can be strong knowing that we are in His hands!

      Thank you for your observations!

  • Reply Kris May 9, 2008 at 9:10 pm

    I’m curious to know your feelings about what the apostles have said about self-esteem. Particularly James E. Faust. He definitely recommends it.

    I agree that there is perhaps an undue or unhealthy amount of emphasis given to “feeling good about yourself” or being confident in yourself. Focusing on yourself obviously makes you blind to the needs of others and stunts spiritual growth, because self-lessness is one pathway to spiritual growth and becoming more God-like.

    But I feel like God does truly want me to feel happy about the person I am, I feel he wants me to feel valued as a daughter of God, and that I respect myself and don’t demean or degrade myself internally. I don’t believe that the entire philosophy is as damaging as you have presented it to be. I feel there must be some aspects of Truth in the self-esteem “movement” as you call it; otherwise it would not be spoken about by the Apostles.

    • Reply Barbara May 13, 2008 at 8:30 am

      Kris,

      Appreciate your question and the opportunity to dialogue about the concept of self-esteem. I agree with you–there is no question that God wants us to view ourselves as beloved and valued sons and daughters of God and that we should respect ourselves.

      However, we always need to be careful with concepts that are created by humans before we accept them as Truth with a capital “T”. A couple of years ago I sat in a Gospel Essentials class in which the teacher discussed self-esteem and taught the class that “We cannot love others until we love ourselves”. I am not the scriptorian that Wally is, so maybe I am wrong, but I don’t remember that being taught in the scriptures. Would Jesus say that the way to find ourselves is to focus on loving and celebrating ourselves first? I think what He said was that in order to truly find ourselves, we need to lose ourselves—as Wally says, to forget ourselves and turn to God (who usually then gives us personalized messages about our true purpose and worth!) along with caring about and serving others outside of ourselves.
      Ask yourself, when we are depressed or struggling, which course of action tends to help us feel better—sitting at home and trying to reflect upon how valuable we are as compared to others or using the gifts that the Lord has bestowed upon us to assist someone else or create something or build a good relationship with someone else or ponder a Gospel Truth, etc?

      Self-esteem is a worldly concept that is different than understanding we are beloved and worthy children of God. Taken to the extreme it results in man-made “truths” that we are incapable of loving others until we love ourselves first. If, instead, we attempt to follow the Savior’s counsel and forget ourselves a little, as Wally puts it, that does not result in us feeling we are of less value or in respecting ourselves less. It results in us finding our true purpose and joy in life.

      • Reply admin May 14, 2008 at 9:07 am

        Wow, Barbara! I like how you explained that!

        -Wally

    • Reply admin May 13, 2008 at 6:06 pm

      I appreciate your sensible comment.

      There is a little semantic problem with Pres. Faust’s excellent talk. What he describes is less like self-esteem than self-respect. I know that he uses the word self-esteem, but what he recommends is not very close to what the self- esteem movement recommends. He used the word differently from the way people in the field do.

      I think there are a few main points:

      1. Most of us would do well to think less about ourselves and more about God. We are to “look to God and live.”

      2. Self-forgetfulness is not the same as self-hate. I do not recommend self- hate – or self love. I recommend self- forgetfulness. “Look to me in every thought,” was Jesus’ invitation. I take it very literally.

      3. As our “confidence waxes strong in the presence of God,” we have love, joy, and peace–very positive mental states. We have the spirit of rejoicing exemplified by Ammon (Alma 26). This is the positive state we seek.

      The bottom line is that we get to heavenly peace by focusing our thinking on God–not by the standard self-esteem activities. Maybe I would compare this to a medical treatment. How many band-aids are required to fix a brain tumor? Band-aids may give us the feeling of productive activity, but they would not address the real problem. Our real problem is estrangement from God. Self- esteem activities may distract from the pain but cannot fix the problem. In fact, some self-esteem activities are positively counterproductive; they encourage pride and self-centeredness.

      I wonder if you would be willing to read James Faulconer’s excellent article on this subject?

      Blessings to you.

      -Wally

  • Reply Jim May 12, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    Kris,
    Dr. Wally is much more capable of responding than I am, but I’ll take a stab and will look forward to his comments too.

    Heavenly Father absolutely wants you to be happy, to feel good about yourself, to recognize your divine worth and potential, etc. The irony is that these things are best accomplished not be focusing on ourselves but by focusing on others and by submitting our will to His will.

    The apostles may use the term “self esteem,” and we do need to have a healthy view of ourselves. But the apostles don’t tell us to achieve self esteem by focusing on ourselves or by telling ourselves how great we are. Instead, we focus on the greatness of God and our desire to become like Him.

    • Reply admin May 14, 2008 at 9:09 am

      Jim, you remind me of King Benjamin’s words: For behold, if the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time has awakended you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state . . .(Mosiah 4:5). I used to think of this as glum. Now I feel differently. When I recognize that my progress is less about my talent and more about His goodness, then I gladly turn my life over to Him. And He gladly encircles me in the arms of His love. Submission to Him is job 1!

      Thank you for your ideas.

      -Wally

      • Reply Jim May 14, 2008 at 2:19 pm

        Wally and others,
        Are you familiar with the book by Esther Rasband- Confronting the Myth of Self Esteem: 12 Keys to Finding Peace. It is one of my favority books and really sheds gospel light on this topic.

        You aptly associate self esteem as a lure, because it is very tempting to build our self worth on this shakey foundation of praise, approval, and admiration of others. And, the other side of the coin is not just how we feel about ourselves (and the source of those feelings) but how we help others feel. For example, it is natural for us to praise our children, and perhaps some praise is ok, but if our children rely exclusively on our praise, we put much pressure on them to perform. What happens if they make a mistake or don’t measure up? Of course we still love them, but we need to be careful that we don’t always express our love in terms of what they do or do not accomplish. We need to develop Christlike love, and we need to express this love in ways that is not contingent on another’s actions.

        Of course, it easy for me to understand and to try to explain these things, but living by what I know is an entirely different matter….

        • Reply admin May 16, 2008 at 9:34 am

          Astute observations, Jim. I have not studied Rasband’s book but have read Baumeister and other scholars who agree with what you said about the limitations of self-esteem. In addition (and in further agreement with your points), Carol Dweck’s research shows the dangers of using praise rather than encouragement. The latter acknowledges efforts and describes reactions: “Wow! You have really worked on cleaning your room! And you have made a lot of progress. I love how you have organized your games.” In contrast, praise evaluates the person: “You are so amazing!” “You are the most organized/smart/ kind/spiritual person I know.” Praise makes people uncomfortable and has been shown to be counterproductive. For more on this, you might read Getting Past Self-Esteem in the BYU Marriage and Families magazine.

  • Reply Candleman May 13, 2008 at 9:30 am

    When people used to compliment President Heber J. Grant for some great speech or accomplishment, often dismiss it with this statement: “Devil talk…makes me proud.” He knew very well the danger of pride. He knew that accepting personal credit for gifts from God was harmful to the spirit.

    Too often efforts to “improve” self-esteme in ourselves and others is indeed devil talk, does make us proud, and because of the subsequent damage to our humility nourished spirit pulls us away from the source of our strength and joy.

    • Reply admin May 14, 2008 at 9:07 am

      Good point, Candleman! I think of Moses whose focal failing was taking credit for something that only God can do. I contrast him and us with Jesus who would not allow Himself to be called good master. He immediately turned the praise to God! If Jesus would not accept the label, should we??

      Thanks for your insight.

      -Wally

  • Reply Kris May 13, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    Thank you, everyone, for your thoughts about my questions. I certainly can see how the term self-esteem is used in many ways by many people. The age-old phrase, “the means doesn’t justify the end” seems to apply here, as the point we are all agreeing on is that our end result, and God’s end result/desire for us, is our happiness and joy. The means to get there, though, are not found in concentrating on ourselves, but rather concentrating on God.

    Thanks, Wally, for the link to Faulconer’s article; I’m excited to read it.

    • Reply admin May 14, 2008 at 9:06 am

      Kris,

      I appreciate your openness. Some people bristle in response to these ideas. Your openness is exemplary. I hope you find the peace that comes uniquely from relying on God.

      Blessings,
      Wally

  • Reply Kristen May 18, 2008 at 12:39 am

    To Candleman and Dr. Wally:
    I’ve heard an institute teachers say how much he dislikes long introductions for guest speakers. When he has a speaking engagement, he asks that a less than seven-word intro be given for him, because when the Father introduced His Son (to Joseph Smith), He used seven words: “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him.” My teacher said that no one should require more words said about him than the Savior.

    • Reply admin May 19, 2008 at 9:02 pm

      Kristen, What an insight! You’re right. None of us deserves more introduction than the Lord!

      -Wally

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