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.

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The Self-Regulation Trojan Horse

trojan horse

by Tina Olesen

The latest all-purpose solution being celebrated by the experts in educational circles these days is self-regulation. Self-regulation doesn’t mean that a child learns to control his impulses; it means he learns to control his stress. The Canadian Self-Regulation Initiative [i] proposes the theory that children misbehave because they are stressed out, and recommends teaching children how to self-regulate their stress levels so they will be calm and alert. Self-regulation is presented to teachers as something that will help students, but hidden within the belly of this Trojan horse are occult spiritual techniques. Friends, don’t trust this horse… beware of experts, even those bearing gifts

The self-regulation Trojan horse rolls up to the gate of the school, looking impressive. It speaks its first instructions: “Reduce the clutter in classrooms!” (This sounds alright, but you question it. We all know that a messy classroom is uncomfortable, but would that give a student an excuse to smack his classmate?)

The self-regulation horse then opens its mouth with its next demand: “Allow the children to use self-soothers in class, like stretchy bands or squishy toys.” (Hmmm, you wonder as you inspect one of the attractive toys, wouldn’t those be a distraction?)

Finally the horse booms its last directive: “Use mindfulness meditation and yoga to help kids reduce their stress.” Jumping suddenly out of the belly of this self-regulation Trojan horse are the occult invaders of mindfulness and yoga!

That word occult might conjure up images of wizards or Ouija boards, but it also has a broader meaning. Occult knowledge refers to that which is secret or hidden, revealed only to the specially initiated. Those involved in occult practices manipulate and bypass their minds to enter an altered state of consciousness, in order to perceive the one-ness of everything, or universal divinity. The joining of the opposites is the essence of occult philosophy. Eventually all distinctions are erased – the lines between good and evil, right and wrong, male and female, creature and Creator. Practices such as meditation and yoga fit into this description of occult, but they are now being re-packaged as secular self-regulation techniques.

Famous psychologist Carl Jung pioneered the re-branding of occult spirituality as “scientific” psychology. Jung himself was heavily involved with occult practices such as alchemy, astrology, Tarot card reading, Ouija boards and séances, and even acquired a spirit guide.[ii] Jung saw Hindu yoga as a means by which people could release themselves from the bondage of opposites. In the same vein as Jung, some psychologists have started experimenting with occult religious practices. Although they market them to children as a way to reduce stress, these occult practices pose a threat to the child’s innate moral conscience and carry the risk of spiritual dangers.[iii]

“But,” the self-regulation Trojan horse objects, “What will you do about the child’s stress?” Children do have a lot to be stressed about these days. When a society turns its back on God and His law, you’d better believe there is going to be moral decay and family breakdown, and that has a harmful impact on children. For example, if a child’s father has a drug habit, you bet that’s going to be stressful for her. Her stress makes a lot of sense in response to her dad’s sin (rebellion against God). But it’s not the child’s stress that’s the problem; it’s the sin that is causing the stress. The child ought to be heard in the truth of her sad and scary situation, and affirmed in the validity of her morally sane response to it. The last thing she should be taught is to go take care of her stress by meditating it away.

What should we do about children’s misbehaviour, then? We ought to teach them self-control, not self-regulation. Self-control means the child learns to restrain her impulses in obedience to God and out of consideration for others. You can acknowledge the wrong that has been done to a child while still holding her morally accountable for controlling herself. You can teach her the truth that someone else’s sin, however wrong and however hurtful, is not an excuse for her to sin.

Self-regulation is seductive because it does not involve the hard work of teaching the child self-control. What’s faster and easier, giving a child a squeeze toy, or training him to be able to sit still without it? A child who is permitted to squeeze away to his heart’s content is being trained in the art of self-gratification. He is being taught that he always has to feel good in order to be able to behave himself. While he might look as if he’s behaving himself, he’s not learning to delay gratification; he’s learning that he must be gratified at all times. This will have a devastating impact on his moral character development.

Children need a safe place to express their fears about their heartbreaking situations, and a trustworthy adult ought to affirm the right moral response of their conscience to sin. They need to be safeguarded from being seduced into the lie of occult practices like mindfulness and yoga. They need to be told the truth: that sin causes suffering, and that Jesus Christ saves sinners. Friends, leave that self-regulation Trojan horse outside the gate.

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[ii] For information about Carl Jung and the occult, click here

[iii] For more on mindfulness, read my guest blog post at Scientific American Mind – click here

To read about the spirituality behind yoga, read this post here or this article here

Diagnoses for Dollars

cc Flickr user rick

by Tina Olesen

Much effort may be expended by parents or educators in an attempt to get a diagnosis for a child who is struggling in school. A diagnosis may be used to determine how to treat the child, and it is often required by the government as proof before tax dollars will be released to provide supports, such as an aide or assistant. A diagnosis may lead to a child being identified or designated in a special needs funding category.  The categories have labels: Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Learning Disabilities, Mental Illness, etc. These labels can get transferred to the child; e.g. “He’s autistic.” What’s the purpose of these labels, beyond getting funding from the government? What can happen to a child’s identity when he is identified in this way?

There are many reasons for the increased push for diagnoses, and one reason is the mounting pressure on public school teachers, who may be asked to cope with large classes without sufficient support. Separate classrooms or schools for students with special needs are becoming uncommon. Often a child who has special needs will participate in a regular classroom in their neighborhood school, and financial support is supposed to be provided through government funding. Specialized equipment can be very costly. Caseloads for special education teachers in public schools may be heavy. There may be long waiting lists for services like speech therapy or physiotherapy.  Educational assistants might only be employed part time, and there may be a shortage of support staff in a school. Teachers attempting to advocate for more help for their students are required to make a strong case that support is needed, because budgets are tight. If parents refuse to have their child labelled, they may be refused access to government funded support.

How is a diagnosis made? Conditions like Down’s syndrome are generally diagnosed at birth. But what about something like Attention Deficit Disorder? An article in Maclean’s magazine (click here to read) blew the whistle on the manual that many clinicians use to diagnose mental disorders. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is a manual produced by the American Psychiatric Association. A task force comes together to categorise symptoms into disorders.  It has come under fire for making the categories so broad that virtually anyone could potentially be labelled with a mental disorder; and the definitions of these disorders may change in successive versions of the manual. The first version of such a manual published in 1917 described 22 diagnoses; the latest version has approximately 297 disorders. A diagnosis can also lead to a patient being placed on drugs. The Mclean’s article states that 70 per cent of the authors of the DSM-5 have declared ties to drug companies. So, while a diagnosis may release dollars from the state, it also may generate dollars for pharmacies.

Diagnosing a child with a disorder can be like re-naming that child. “He’s attention deficit.” Children will often identify themselves with the label that has been assigned to them. I overheard one of my former students introduce himself to a visitor by saying, “I’m A.D.D.!”  That is a statement of identity. He then went on to say, “So if I have a meltdown, that’s why.” If the child accepts this as his identity, it can color his thinking about his capability, responsibility, and accountability.

Labels can lead to prejudgments. In The Miracle Worker, Anne Sullivan’s character emphatically guards against the danger of this, in reference to her student, Helen Keller: “I treat her like a seeing child because I ask her to see, I expect her to see…” We must not allow labels to dictate to us how we will treat a child.

As a Christian teacher, my responsibility is to get the mind of Christ about the child. Regardless of what label has been placed upon her by man, she is created in God’s image and precious to Jesus. My response to her must come out of my own relationship with Christ and His interest in the child, not out of any reaction I may have to her man-made label.

Jesus Christ is no respecter of labels. He came and identified Himself with us, taking upon Himself human flesh, and experienced our human condition first hand. He got down in the trenches with us! He invites us to be identified with Him, and He promises to write upon us His new name (see Rev. 2:17 and 3:12).

We need not be identified with this or that label or take our identity from it. In Christ, we have a new identity. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth 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,” (Gal. 2:20). Identification with Jesus Christ is glorious! “My beloved is mine, and I am his,” (Songs 2:16) becomes our place of acceptance and belonging, and our song of victory.

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What happened to school prayer?

public domain national archives2

by Tina Olesen

“Now everyone close your eyes, relax, and concentrate on your breathing,” are the instructions that many children in state schools in BC will hear today. What happened to “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name”? Mindfulness meditation has been welcomed in, whereas prayer was deemed to be discriminatory against those without faith, and shown to the door about 25 years ago.

Our first schools on Vancouver Island were established at Fort Victoria, and many of these were run by the clergy while funded by both private and public sources. The state or “public” system was formed in 1872 in an attempt to solidify government rule, in response to fear of American domination. The schools were now to be non-sectarian, and clergymen were no longer allowed to act as teachers or administrators. Up until 1944, BC was the only province in Canada where Bible reading was not permitted in the public schools. Only one “nod to God” remained: the Lord’s Prayer was permitted in opening or closing school.

The World Wars stirred up the moral conscience of parents, and they protested against the exclusion of Bible reading in the schools. In 1944, the BC government responded to parental concerns and amended the Public Schools Act to include compulsory Bible reading and reciting of the Lord’s Prayer at the opening of the school day.

In 1969, the BC Civil Liberties Association argued that these religious exercises had no instructional or moral value, and were an invasion of civil liberties. It was not until after the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted in 1982 that the BC School Act was effectively challenged. Joan Russow and Kathryn Lambert, backed by the BC Civil Liberties Association, successfully petitioned the BC Supreme Court to remove both Bible Reading and the Lord’s Prayer from BC public schools in 1989.

Section 76 of the BC School Act now reads: “All schools… must be conducted on strictly secular and non-sectarian principles. The highest morality must be inculcated, but no religious dogma or creed is to be taught…” What exactly does this mean? How is “the highest morality” defined? Who gets to decide what “the highest morality” is?

When God, the Giver of the moral law, is no longer our reference point for morality, then we have no ultimate reference point. As Francis Schaeffer stated, “If there is no absolute by which to judge society, society is absolute.” We have lost the biblical moral consensus; and now “the majority”, or the loudest most persuasive voices, assert control over the value system being imposed upon our children.

When we discipline children based on the biblical moral law, we have an authority which we can appeal to which is over and above ourselves. God, our law-giver, is the authority on what is right and what is wrong. Our God-given innate moral conscience bears witness to His law. How do we know that stealing is wrong? Both our conscience and God’s biblical moral law agree that this is so. Working with the child’s conscience and upholding God’s law as the standard, we have a solid basis for discipline and moral training.

Disciplining children is troublesome when the God-given moral law is not our basis for discipline. If we are not teaching that we are accountable to God and His moral law, then we are effectively teaching that everyone has the right to decide for themselves what is “right” for them. What happens, then, when Johnny does something objectionable? If you cannot appeal to God’s moral law, then you really cannot say to him, “What you did was wrong,” because, who are you to say what is right or wrong for him? All you can honestly say then is “I don’t want you to do that.” It then becomes a matter of convincing him to do things your way – often through bribery or threat of punishment. Eventually if Johnny keeps on doing things his way, perhaps he will be sent to the pediatrician to get some pills.

What happens, then, if half of your class keeps doing things you do not want them to do? If they are running wild and out of control and the bribes are not working any more? Punishment can only go so far; of course, you cannot spank them. They can’t all take pills… but the psychologists claim to have the cure. In eduspeak, the answer is self-regulation. Self-regulation is a fancy way of saying that we ought to teach kids to get control over themselves and calm themselves down. How do they recommend that you calm your class down? Get out the yoga mats and teach them some poses (never mind that these asanas are actually poses of worship to Hindu gods); or sit them on the floor cross-legged, palms up, eyes closed, and have them listen to the sound of your Buddhist chime while they concentrate on their breathing. Sounds religious, you say? Of course not, they say, it is neuroscience.

So, we are back to school prayer in BC public schools – only this time, it is “prayer” to pagan gods.

Canon in 2Dsm

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