The Vanity of Self-Esteem

narcissus caravaggio

by Tina Olesen

I’m not really sure who popularised the notion of self-esteem as being an essential need of every human being, but I know who was behind it: the father of lies. It seems to have picked up steam in popular psychology in the 1960s and ballooned from there.

Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, included self-esteem in his “hierarchy of needs” theory which many of us may recall from Psychology 101. What I don’t recall hearing about in that class was that Maslow probably developed this theory out of his work with monkeys. Maslow thought that some needs took precedence over others, such as thirst over hunger. From this idea he developed a theory that when one’s physiological needs are met then other psychological “needs” will arise, and he put these so-called “needs” in a hierarchy of importance. Self-esteem was a “need” placed near the top of what Maslow thought it would take to fulfill one’s potential. His faulty premise for thinking was that self-actualization was the purpose of life.

Not surprisingly, near the end of his career Maslow tipped over into transpersonal psychology. He began to explore the idea of “self-transcendence”. In Toward a Psychology of Being, he said, “We need something ‘bigger than we are’ to be awed by and to commit ourselves to in a new, naturalistic, empirical, non-churchly sense…” Sadly, Maslow completely missed the point that we were made “to be awed by and to commit ourselves” to Jesus Christ.

One only has to look at the example of Christians like Corrie and Betsie ten Boom to debunk Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When sisters Corrie and Betsie were imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, they were often hungry, sick, cold and exhausted. In the midst of their suffering in that horrific place, they displayed remarkable courage, faith, patience, and love for their fellow prisoners. Their lives glorified God and drew people to Jesus Christ, thus fulfilling their true purpose.

The premise for living for the Christian is to exalt and magnify Jesus Christ, not to promote and actualize ourselves. As John the Baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Paul put it this way to the Galatian church: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” Concerning ourselves with seeking self-actualization or self-esteem is completely anti-Christian, besides being totally counterproductive. Jesus tells us why: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it… Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”

It’s quite astounding to see how much acceptance the notion of self-esteem has gained in parenting and educational circles, and how far reaching its influence has been. In the last few decades, “low self-esteem” quickly became the explanation or excuse offered for nearly any kind of bad behavior in a child. She’s pouting? She’s just feeling bad about herself. He’s bullying? He doesn’t like himself so he hurts others.

Parents felt guilty if they didn’t heap enough flattery on their child: “You’ll hurt his self-esteem!” It was as if the child’s whole future hung in the balance if he didn’t gain a favourable view of himself. Some educators began to worry about children getting a poor self-concept if they got a low mark on something or didn’t win an award, which resulted in the equal distribution of undeserved praise. Everybody’s special and everybody’s a champion… really?

Excessive self-consciousness is the bad fruit of the self-esteem movement. This phenomenon is well-documented in social media today. Not only are many kids overly concerned with how they look, but they may spend hours carefully crafting an image fit for their web presence, taking “selfies” that will boost their online appearance. Idolatry of the self is where self-esteem psychology logically ends up.

As a culture, we’ve lost our healthy fear of pride. It seems we’re no longer repulsed by Narcissus. The danger of “getting a swelled head” used to be something people guarded against. Of pride, C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:

“..It was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind… it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began… pride always means enmity – it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.”

Thomas Watson said rightly that “All Christian growth is finally growth in humility.”

Humility isn’t beating yourself up or always talking about your faults – that would just be another form of excessive self-concern. Oswald Chambers accurately observed, “There is nothing more awful than conscious humility, it is the most Satanic type of pride… Jesus Christ presented humility as a description of what we shall be unconsciously when we have become rightly related to God and are rightly centred in Jesus Christ.”

Rather than concerning ourselves with building self-esteem, we ought to be humbling ourselves under the mighty hand of God. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,” (1 Peter 5:5, James 4:6). Jesus Christ is the definition of humility.

To comment or to read comments, click on comment(s).

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One thought on “The Vanity of Self-Esteem

  1. Thank you for making clear that this self-esteem bandwagon is really all about pride. After reading this post a good quote by Andrew Murray came to mind. He bears witness to the others you have quoted on pride.
    “Humility, the place of entire dependence on God, is, from the very nature of things, the first duty and the highest virtue of man. It is the root of every virtue.
    And so pride, or the loss of humility, is the root of every sin and evil. It was when the now fallen angels began to look upon themselves with self-satisfaction that they were led to disobedience and were cast down from the light of heaven into outer darkness. When the serpent breathed the poison of his pride -the desire to be like God – into the hearts of our first parents, they, too, fell from their high estate into all the wretchedness in which man is now sunk. In all heaven and earth, pride and self-exaltation are the gate and the curse of hell.” Andrew Murray from his book “Humility”

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