Self esteem and People Pleasing

“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!…”

1 John 3:1 (NIV)

Back in the 1980’s, there was a movement in schools that attempted to raise academic performance among poorly achieving children by heaping lots of praise and reinforcement on them. The theory was that if children felt better about themselves through these measures, they would perform better academically.

Later research largely debunked this theory. These efforts to artificially increase self esteem instead caused children to become less motivated to achieve academically and more dependent upon external sources for their emotional welfare, making them more prone to depression (see for example NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson). What was shown to enhance academic performance: realistic feedback, clear expectations, and encouraging persistent efforts despite failures to reach the goal.

Why would this be? Since time immemorial, sinful human beings have been tempted to seek “lesser things” – fame, money, power, pleasure – to “worship the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1). We all have this idolatrous tendency; it is a constant temptation, for it is part of our “fleshly nature” as St Paul calls it. Our prideful insecurity particularly longs for the acclaim, recognition, praise, and admiration of other people. Not getting what we think we need in this department can leave us feeling bereft and diminished, endlessly striving.

The word “esteem” means ” respect, honor, value”; it derives from the Latin root meaning “to estimate”. To have “self esteem then must come from ourselves, our ability to estimate realistically our true value.

One good definition of humility, that prerequisite for any real spiritual growth and indeed for true emotional peace, is “acknowledging the truth of who I am before God”: my strengths and talents, yes, but also my sins, failures and weaknesses. It’s living in the light and telling myself the truth about myself. It’s drawing upon the abundance of mercy that flows from the wounds of Jesus on Calvary, as He for love of me took my place. It’s relying on the fact that God’s love is pure gift; it is not an earned reward. And that amazing love calls me to try humbly to live a life worthy of that gift by God’s everpresent grace.

We all long to be significant and to have our worth affirmed, and we all struggle at times to have someone outside of ourselves acknowledge us. The problem is that this longing can cause us to be enslaved to others. As we yearn and wait for affirmation outside ourselves – making appeals, efforts, and even sacrifices for that affirmation – we yield our dignity to the “other” and become idol worshipers. We end up feeling like helpless victims, for we do not have the power to demand or compel what we’re truly wanting: the gifts of respect, dignity and love. We simply can’t make someone else fill that gaping hole in us.

God’s Word tells us that we already have what we want and need. As Christians, we have been made children of God through our baptism into Christ. We have been made sharers in God’s own life (see 2Peter 1: 3-4). As we learn that truth, assimilate that truth, live that truth with courage, we rise up. Our longing for the acclaim of others can begin to fall away, little by little, as we continue to learn to abide in the security of God’s love. We can become free and live as free persons, dignified by our union with the Beloved. We can be pleasing to God as we live honorable and holy lives by His grace. It is then that we experience our true value.

“Acknowledge your dignity, O Christian. You partake of divine nature. Do not return to your old sin by adopting a way of life unworthy… Remember that you were snatched away from the powers of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of light… you have become the temple of the Holy Spirit… for the price of your ransom is the blood of Christ…”

St Leo the Great (d. 440 AD)