Picture a person with high self-esteem. Probably that person is talented and confident. Ironically, one of the ways that we may be sure that that person has high self-esteem is that we always feel inferior around him or her. We wish we were as impressive.
Traditionally self-esteem has been defined as our evaluation of our self-perceptions. The psychological imperative has been: You must love yourself. You must celebrate yourself. One man who seemed to have such self-assurance expressed it this way: “I happened to catch my reflection the other day when I was polishing my trophies, and, gee, it’s easy to see why women are nuts about me” (Robert Byrne, 1911 best things anybody ever said).
But how does such self-regard fit into a gospel perspective? Self-esteem is simply Satan’s attempt to clean up pride and make it respectable, even desirable. But the spiritually mature recognize that the world’s version of self-esteem is dangerously close to arrogance, boastfulness, cocksureness, conceit, condescension, egotism, haughtiness, narcissism, piousness, pomposity, presumption, self-centeredness, self-righteousness, smugness, snobbery, superiority, and vanity.
Let’s take Jesus as a test case. Did He have high self-esteem? When called “Good Master,” He protested: “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). What does it mean for us that the most righteous person who lived on this Earth deflected all praise to His Father?
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise” (John 5:19).
Consider the following antonyms of pride and their application to Jesus and his disciples in all ages: common, humble, lowly, meek, mild, modest, plain, simple, submissive, unassertive, unassuming, unpretentious.
The scriptural descriptions of Jesus could be amassed to support the point. But His own words were: “I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me” (John 5:30). Jesus simply fails as the model of the amazing, self-assured, modern man. A modern psychologist might have a diagnostic heyday with a person who said the things Jesus said. He appeared to have no self-esteem.
Isn’t torturous and counter-productive self-hate the only alternative to self-esteem? Only in the world’s misguided system. It is Satan who is obsessed with appearances and perceptions. There is a better way. Jesus describes it:
Let thy bowels also be full of charity [Ah! charity—that pure love that comes only from Christ] towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God [this is a special kind of confidence; not self-confidence but divine confidence]; and the doctrine of the priesthood [what is the doctrine of the priesthood—could it be the power to bless as He blesses?] shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.
The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion [gift that provides unparalleled serenity], and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever” (D&C 121:45–46).
Countless times I have heard people say of struggling teens: “They’re having trouble because of poor self-esteem. We need to build them up.” But when we build them up we are only distracting them from the Power that can change them, refine them, and perfect them. The person who told me that she was “continually keeping [her] thoughts centered upon the great worth of my soul” is no better off than the egoist admiring his own image in his trophies.
Rather than self-love and self-hate being polar opposites on a psychological continuum, they are really the same thing. Both are self-absorption. At the opposite end of the spectrum from self-absorption is self-forgetfulness. That is what God recommends.
Unknown to most people in the general population, the scientific community has had serious concerns about the self-esteem movement for almost twenty years. Research now verifies that improving children’s self-esteem does not motivate toward better school performance (Harter, 1983). Teens with high self-esteem may be so resentful of an attack on their self-regard that they are more likely to be violent in response to an insult (Bushman & Baumeister, 1998). In the massive California study of self-esteem and its effects, self-esteem was found to be as predictive of bad behavior as good behavior (Mecca, Smelser, & Vasconcellos, 1989). Very often it did not predict anything.
Self-esteem has simply failed us in its promise to deliver us from self-hate and unproductivity and may create serious problems (Cudaback, 1992). In a thoughtful book by psychologist Roy Baumeister (1991), he observes that the modern American inclination to base the meaning of lives on the self has left us with a badly shrunken meaning in life. Self-esteem is a failed messiah.
It should be no surprise. The world’s fads are not well-suited to our eternal growth. Because we live in a world with a logic so different, so disconnected from the logic of heaven, irony seems to always be woven into our discoveries of truth. To find ourselves we must lose ourselves. To live, we must die. To conquer we must surrender.
The Book of Mormon is especially powerful and clear in its invitation to become healthy through the Lord’s unique process.
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields [we do not take charge, we surrender] to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord [we become fine and refined by Him], and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:19)
Those who have had even a modicum of success in this process of submitting can testify that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith” (Galatians 5:22).
And that is infinitely better than self-esteem.
The world will flounder for decades trying to patch up the failed notions of self-esteem. But Latter-day Saints do not need to wander in the wilderness. In 1831 the Lord revealed a program of gifts that is succinct, wise, and—supported by modern research. In the next installment, we will review the five points in the Lord’s program of gifts.
Baumeister, R. (1991). Meanings of life. New York: Guilford Press.
Bushman, B. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Threatened egotism, narcissism, self-esteem, and direct and displaced aggression: does self-love or self-hate lead to violence? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, (1), 219–29.
Cudaback, D. (1992). Self-esteem: Rhetoric and research, Part III. Human Relations, XVII, (1), 1–6.
Harter, S. (1983). Developmental perspectives on the self-system. In E. M. Hetherington (Ed.), P. H. Mussen (Series Ed.), Handbook of child psychology, Vol. 4, Socialization, personality and social development (pp. 275–385). New York: Wiley.
Mecca, A. M., Smelser, N. J., & Vasconcellos, J. (1989). The social importance of self-esteem. Berkeley: University of California Press.