Self-esteem: A Christian psychological perspective

By John Steley

Self-esteem can come in for a lot of criticism in church circles. It can be equated with pride (which we are told is the greatest of all human sins) or with narcissism. The end product of these is certainly unattractive. We may end up strutting across the city like some little tin god or demanding our own way like some self-centred celebrity. Some have suggested tyrants like Hitler had far too much self-esteem. But this is not how I, as a practicing psychologist, would understand it. Self-esteem is important. It is necessary for psychological wellbeing and healthy long-term committed relationships. The way I understand self-esteem is something more like this:
Life in this world is marred by sin. But if God blesses us with loving parents it will make a huge difference to our lives. As a child we may not often think about this, but slowly we learn that our parents give up their time, energy and resources for us without expecting anything in return. In short, they love us.
This does not mean that everything will always go well. We may disobey our parents and they may become angry. We may get punished for wrongdoing. But, if our parents genuinely love and accept us we will probably know this.
As a result we will begin to develop a balanced view of who we are and what we are. We will be aware of our sins and weaknesses. But, we will also know that others can love us. If our parents or other people tell us about God what they say may well make sense. He, like our earthly parents, is aware of our sinfulness but he also loves us. In fact he loves us, not because we are good or have achieved great things, but because he chooses to do so.
This affects how we will view ourselves. We will know that while not everyone loves us there are those who do. We will recognize that we are sinners who need to repent, but we will not hate ourselves. Instead we will value ourselves. We will take good care of the bodies God has given us, develop our intellects and enter into supportive relationships with others.
Over the years I have met many people whose self-esteem is low. The results are varied according to the individual but are universally sad. The person who comes across as ‘knowing it all’, always ready to tell others how they should run their lives is very likely to be suffering from low self-esteem. What we see is not genuine self-esteem or confidence. What we are seeing here is a cover-up, a compensation that probably masks a deep insecurity. (I suspect that most tyrants actually have very low self-esteem.) The same is true of the person who is constantly trying to impress others with their beauty, abilities or personality.
Equally sad is the person, man or woman, who moves from one relationship to another desperately trying to prove to him or herself that they are worthy of affection. This is particularly true in the case of sexual relationships. Another example is those who deliberately harm themselves through cutting or other means. All are cases of people who do not care for themselves, quite possibly because others have never really loved them. For me, as a Christian, this makes sense. The sin of parents not adequately loving their child will, in the normal course of events, result in further sin.
By contrast people who value themselves, who have genuine self-esteem, can recognize their abilities. They are often quite quiet by comparison. When I was a boy a number of my relatives worked for Qantas, the Australian airline. One day a visitor to our house commented, ‘The best aircrew never tell you how well they can fly. They don’t have to.’ Looking back I think these people probably had a genuine confidence in their abilities that did not need the adulation of others.
Many years later, having moved to London, I was privileged to spend some time in the company of John Stott. The thing that impressed me most about ‘Uncle John’, as he liked to be known, was his great and very genuine humility. In my experience he neither boasted nor put himself down. He knew who he was and what he believed. He would listen to those with whom he agreed and those with whom he disagreed with equal respect. People with genuine self-esteem can exhibit such humility.
People with higher self-esteem can take a joke at their own expense. They know who they are and are confident in their own worth as people. As a result they can laugh at themselves. By contrast people whose self-esteem is low can be angry, or even dangerous, if their fragile ego is threatened. (Would you nudge Hitler in the ribs and make a joke about his moustache? I certainly wouldn’t!)
For me, as a Christian and a psychologist, self-esteem is not the same as pride or narcissism. They are opposites. If I do not value myself I will not care for myself. I will not be able to value or care for others. Ultimately my service to God will be compromised.
If I do value myself I will appreciate and develop what God has given me. I will ask forgiveness for my sins and seek to change where necessary. But will also recognize what I have to offer that is good. I will be able to share what I have with others and recognize what they have to offer. I will be able to laugh at myself. Most important of all I will be better equipped to be the person that God wants me to be.

John Steley is a psychologist in private practice in London. (He does not have a moustache but you are free to make jokes about baldness if you wish.)