In the last year and a half or so, I’ve thought a good deal about the concept of ‘self-esteem’. As a handwriting analyst, this is one of the easiest things to spot in someone’s personality on paper, and whether it’s low or high defines the writer in hugely significant ways. High self-esteem means high goals, a certain fearlessness, confidence in one’s abilities, and it strengthens other personality traits. Low self-esteem means a fear of failure, hesitation in taking risks, an irrational sense of one’s own limitations and imperfections, and it spreads insecurity throughout the whole personality.
Does the term ‘self-esteem’ strike you as one of those phrases thrown around by soft psychologists who try to fix everyone’s problems by telling them to “believe in themselves” or other such fluff? It struck me this way to a certain degree before I began to study the differences between ‘ego’ and ‘self-esteem’. Basically, what I want to demonstrate is that ‘ego’ is oneself as oneself, whereas ‘self-esteem’ is oneself as a human being.
I just recently finished reading through C.S. Lewis’ collection of essays, God in the Dock, and a few days ago, one of the shorter pieces really made an impact on me. The title of the essay is Two Ways With the Self, and in it Lewis explains the contrast between two types of self-love. He does this much better than I can, so I’m going to quote him a bit:
Now, the self can be regarded in two ways. On the one hand, it is God’s creature, an occasion of love and rejoicing; now, indeed, hateful in condition, but to be pitied and healed. On the other hand, it is that one self of all others which is called I and me, and which on that ground puts forward an irrational claim to preference. This claim is to be not only hated, but simply killed…(p. 194)
We all know that we’re instructed to “love your neighbor as yourself”, and wouldn’t you agree that this would not mean much for our neighbor if we had an overall low and critical view of ourselves? Yes, we are imperfect now and there are always many things to improve upon in our lives, personalities, etc.; but we also know that we’re supposed to love one another without judging, without nit-picking, but instead with compassion and encouragement. If our neighbors are to receive kind and loving treatment from us, we must first deal with ourselves in the same way.
What Lewis calls “an irrational claim to preference” is the self-love completely opposite of this. When we love ourselves primarily because we are ourselves and for no other reason, our main motivators become selfishness, greed, pride. When we realize that this type of ‘high view’ of ourselves isn’t shared by others or we are let down by life in general, we fall apart and, failing to nurture and show compassion to ourselves, we become unable to be helpful to others as well. In fact, being down on ourselves makes us more likely to wish misfortune on others. Lewis describes this spreading of a low view or ourselves onto others:
The other kind of self-hatred, on the contrary hates selves as such. It begins by accepting the special value of the particular self called me; then, wounded in its pride to find that such a darling object should be so disappointing, it seeks revenge, first upon that self, then on all. Deeply egoistic, but now with an inverted egoism, it uses the revealing argument, ‘I don’t spare myself’…(p. 194-195)
In sum, when we love ourselves as God loves us, daily putting to death our many failings yet constantly forgiving and encouraging, we will have a sense of self-esteem which goes hand in hand with humility. Then we will be equipped to love others as ourselves, with exhortation and consolation. One last quote:
The wrong asceticism torments the self: the right kind kills the selfness. We must die daily: but it is better to love the self than to love nothing, and to pity the self than to pity no one (p. 195).
All the best,