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Self-Esteem: Beyond Pop Psychology

By Thomas Van (bio - articles - email) | Jul 23, 2014

There are words and concepts in certain disciplines – philosophy, theology and psychology come to mind – which, as they enter the popular lexicon and become operative in daily life, lose their power to illuminate and require immediate clarification in order to retain their usefulness.

Even a concept that is fairly easy to define can become ambiguous, because it is not so much the definition that is in question as the framework within which the concept is situated. An organism has a fixed identity but still develops differently depending on its environment. In the same way, teaching a certain concept, or even encouraging a certain virtue, without also providing the proper conceptual and psychic framework, might be useless or even counterproductive.

One concept, ubiquitous in pop psychology, which is both self-explanatory and highly ambiguous is that of self-esteem. Self-esteem is surely a good and necessary thing, but are we supposed to pursue it at all costs, even at the expense of truth? Is it really an end in itself? On what criteria should it be based? What’s the difference between self-esteem and pride? On the other hand, is a person with low self-esteem really humble? Clearly self-esteem can be understood in a variety of ways depending on one’s conceptual framework – and how it is actually internalized will depend on one’s disposition, character and mental health.

A Spanish priest, Fr. Michel Esparza, has written what seems to be the definitive Catholic book on self-esteem, recently translated into English: Self-Esteem Without Selfishness. As the title indicates, one cannot cultivate healthy self-esteem without locating it in relation to both humility and pride. The book’s subtitle, Increasing Our Capacity for Love, tells us that Fr. Esparza will not present self-esteem as an end in itself, but rather as a prerequisite to loving God and others more perfectly.

The book is divided into two major parts – the first is a discussion of self-esteem, pride, humility and love on a natural level, while the second part brings Christian spirituality into the picture. Throughout, Esparza draws insights from Catholic novelists, twentieth-century writers like Romano Guardini and Dietrich von Hildebrand, and saints such as St. Josemaria Escriva, St. Faustina and St. Therese of Lisieux.

Humble Self-Esteem

Rather than trying to find the appropriate “level” of self-esteem – “high” or “low” – Fr. Esparza focuses on its quality, the goal being what he calls “humble self-esteem.” Humility is not about having a low opinion of oneself, but about being rooted in acceptance of the truth about oneself, both good and bad. The author details how inferiority and superiority complexes are both caused by frustrated pride, while humility is not about superiority or inferiority; rather, “The humble person… is ruled by the truth.” Living in the truth, we see ourselves in right relation to God and others, so that we are not preoccupied with ourselves, either with our strengths or with our flaws. Ultimately, then, humility is and begets self-forgetfulness.

Since, for Fr. Esparza, self-esteem is not for its own sake, he thoroughly examines the various ways in which one’s ability to receive and give love is compromised when humble self-esteem is lacking. Two of the greatest dangers for certain personalities, for example, are voluntarism and perfectionism.

Voluntarism reduces love to sheer willpower, failing to value the affective side of love as well as the necessity of grace. The voluntarist neglects both the heart and the intellect as powerful aids to love. Fr. Esparza uses the examples of “married couples where fidelity is maintained without love, or people who have surrendered their lives to God but have not yet fallen in love with him.” The analysis in this section is carried out primarily in the context of married love, but always looking towards the relationship with God.

Fr. Esparza also provides a very useful perspective on the question of self-love. Christian writers through the centuries have warned against self-love, but many (often the same writers) have also stressed the importance of loving oneself. What are we to make of this seeming contradiction? The truth is that human beings cannot avoid loving themselves, just as it is impossible to do away completely with self-interest. Once again it is a matter of quality. To love oneself is human nature; the only question is what kind of love it will be. Lack of rightly ordered self-love necessarily gives rise to disordered self-love (pride).

Identification with Christ

As mentioned earlier, humble self-esteem must be rooted in truth, which includes the truth of our relationship with and need for God. Examining the former, we find that since God’s judgment is perfect and all the good we possess comes from Him, it is better that our self-esteem come from “divine respect” rather than human respect. Examining the latter in the light of Revelation, we find the possibility of healing through God’s grace, as well as a new potential for human love to transcend even its own natural perfection.

As the author has it, living in God’s love “purifies, harmonizes and ennobles all other loves.” Or as Jacques Maritain put it, "Only with God can a man give himself totally twice at the same time, first to his God and second to something which is a reflection of his God."

Ultimately, humility and rightly ordered self-love are about more than just self-acceptance – we should love ourselves not only despite our flaws, but because of them. The joy God takes in our repentance is made clear in the parable of the prodigal son. If we can learn to see ourselves as God sees us, to adopt Christ’s love for the poor and little and to have the same compassion for ourselves that He takes upon us in our struggles, our self-esteem will no longer depend on our own failures and successes, or on a perfectionism rooted in pride:

Pride creates an obstacle to understanding the nature of sanctity. It is not a general perfection, but a perfection of love, an effective concern for pleasing the Lord. It leads as much to humbly allowing oneself to be loved with all one’s shortcomings as to heroically striving for growth in virtue. Holiness is not achieved; it’s received.

This, rather than in a complacency based on results, is where Christians will find their peace: “If our ultimate life’s goal is really to please the Lord, our main objective is already assured. The more we struggle, the better: the more chances we will have to give him joy.”

But Fr. Esparza goes further, insisting that an understanding of Christ’s desire for us to console Him – as difficult as that is to fathom – is essential to live the fullness of the Christian life. Our relationship with God is not one-sided since He became man, which opens up a certain reciprocity in which we relate “on a level” with Christ. If Christ suffers as a result of His unrequited love for each human being, it is the staggering truth that we can console His heart by uniting ourselves to Him, and even becoming co-redeemers with Him. Identification with Christ is the deepest and truest “self”-worth a human being can possess.

In this area, I might criticize Self-Esteem Without Selfishness for a few confusing passages. In addition to the perfectly orthodox idea that our sins cause Christ’s suffering and that we can console Him by returning to Him, Fr. Esparza refers to our sins inflicting pain on the Father, and Christ “consoling” the Father by suffering. Since Fr. Esparza himself notes that God does not have feelings, it is unclear what he means by our sins causing the Father pain, and even were that the case, it is unclear how Christ’s suffering would console the Father, as opposed to appeasing His justice. In another paragraph, Fr. Esparza fails to clarify in what sense we are “literally” divinized by God – a statement orthodox in itself but which could use some further explanation. These might merely be translation issues; in any case, in the overall context of the book, they are relatively minor.

All in all, Fr. Esparza’s book fills an important niche in Catholic psychology and spiritual writing, and should be useful to anyone struggling with a sense of inadequacy, looking for an alternative to pop psychology, or simply interested in a better understanding of how self-esteem fits in with humility and the Christian life.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: marianjohn7861 - Aug. 11, 2014 2:36 PM ET USA

    Reminds me of a saved item: "Anger--can be a sign of lack of self-love...always surfaces, either directly or covertly. A critical spirit indicates feelings of inferiority." anon

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Jul. 25, 2014 5:46 PM ET USA

    I have read the book and heartily recommend.

  • Posted by: normnuke - Jul. 25, 2014 5:40 PM ET USA

    Thank you for this essay. While reading it I found myself reflecting on my youth and the source of my self-esteem. It came from only one thing, I think. I knew that I could make a living, and I knew how. I grew up in a mining camp in Mexico and it was obvious that all (anglophone) men were engineers. I tremble to wonder what young men growing up today have to give themselves confidence.

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