Blog – Christian Counseling
By Guy Ascherman, MA, LMFT, LPCC, Life Coach
Why Christian Therapy? Part 3 of 10 – Self Esteem
Trying to promote or improve our “self-esteem” has become a major objective in finding a feeling of psychological well-being, and warding off shame, depression and anxiety. Concepts of self-esteem were first introduced in the very late 1890’s. The search for self-esteem became popularized in the 1960’s and reflected, in my opinion, a rejection of outside objective evaluations of self by the Judeo-Christian ethic that historically defined our worth and culture. With the introductions of divergent lifestyles that began in the 60’s, that met with much criticism from the dominant culture of that time, people began seeking for acceptance and worth from peers and within themselves to counter parental and society pressures to conform to traditional values. Prior to this psychological obsession with helping people feel healthy by their own subjective reasoning, healthy well-being was largely a product of one living in harmony with external values, with parents, and with God. Now that Judeo-Christian values no longer define the dominant culture, people are lacking a reference point, a foundation, and an authority by which to measure their worth.
So where does a Christian today find worth, especially since it is now their value system that represents a rejection of the current dominant post-modern culture? I want to briefly address this topic, understanding it takes a great deal of hard work and time for individuals to resolve possible internal conflict and rejection of their worth, when society assigns values and worth that are contrary to the Christian faith, and the Christian faith is held in low regard.
First, some definitions from secular academia:
“According to the Mayo Clinic, self-esteem is your overall opinion of yourself — how you feel about your abilities and limitations. When you have healthy self-esteem, you feel good about yourself and see yourself as deserving the respect of others. When you have low self-esteem, you put little value on your opinions and ideas. You might constantly worry that you aren’t good enough.”
(Low “self-esteem” is very painful and impairs lives. The question is finding how to resolve it, especially when the one suffering has exhausted their internal resources.)
Psychology Today states –“Possessing little self-regard can lead people to become depressed, to fall short of their potential, or to tolerate abusive situations and relationships. Too much self-love, on the other hand, results in an off-putting sense of entitlement and an inability to learn from failures. (It can also be a sign of clinical narcissism.) Perhaps no other self-help topic has spawned so much advice and so many (often conflicting) theories.” (Emphasis is mine)
This article from Psychology Today (referenced above and below) offers its readers several additional resource articles from differing, and even opposing, views including:
- How to Boost It (self-esteem).
- Forget Self-Esteem.
- You Need Self-Compassion to Succeed.
- Get In Touch With Your Hidden Narcissist.
- How to make your implicit self-esteem work for you.
- Should We Re-Think Positive Thinking?
- Achieving small goals floods your brain with refreshing dopamine spritzes.
- Never Good Enough.
- How to be happy with yourself.
- Should We Rethink Positive Thinking?
- Giving ourselves pep talks may backfire.
- The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance.
- How do you fully accept yourself when you don’t know how?
- At Last—a Rejection Detector!
One can readily see, simply from the titles of these article, that one can spend hours searching for answers for their esteem issues, and walk away with Boost It, Forget It, Become a Narcissist, Dopamine Spritzers, Rethink Thinking, and develop your own Rejection Detector!
What I want to do here, is certainly NOT to introduce a new theory of building self-esteem, but simply to return to how our more traditional values assign worth, when our worth comes from an outside objective Source, from the Lord Jesus.
Self-Esteem or Identity in Christ
Elevating one’s view of self, to compensate for feelings of shame and inadequacy, is inconsistent with a Christian’s understanding of a Scriptural view of self. Encouraging a Christian to elevate their view of self may actually increase internal conflict rather than alleviate it, as Christians believe it is the Lord who exalts, not we ourselves. A secular approach
Positive self-esteem is undermined by feelings of guilt, shame, inadequacy, and failure that may be a proper self-evaluation of the client. But it may also be a healthy sense of shame. People sometimes do shameful things! In these cases, the therapist must avoid being an enabler, and should attempt to lead the client to a place of confession, repentance, and forgiveness. We are all truly guilty and shameful to some degree, which the Christian understands as a roadblock to a healthy relationship with God, family, and community. The Christian understands that all people are naturally selfish, or sinful. The objective of the counselor is not to talk a client out of their unhealthy feelings, but to use their understanding of where health is generated.
But unhealthy or false guilt and shame can sometimes be the product of false self-accusations, projections from others, or failing to accept forgiveness when it is genuinely offered. A secular approach to building self-esteem may include moral relativism, unhealthy comparison to others, lowering standards of behavior, or falsely elevating our view of ourselves through self-deception. Secular approaches to self-esteem lack a base-line. Who says we are good? Are we good because we declare ourselves to be good? Are we an authority unto ourselves? If this is our approach to achieving self-health, it leaves us woefully inadequate to be humble and have a selfless capacity required for healthy relationships with others, who are also attempting to build themselves up. Additionally, people often understand a positive self-esteem mind game is no foundation for long-term health. People want a baseline or standard. A therapist may in fact believe a Christian client is being too hard on themselves, or have perfectionist tendencies, but denying their values would be a mistake. A Christian may struggle with denying their standing before God through mind games. A therapist should not attempt to talk a Christian client into feeling better about themselves, except through the Grace and Love of God. The therapist must work in cooperation with the Holy Spirit to determine what the Lord is teaching the client. Shame can be a great tool of the Lord to help people find better choices and ultimate forgiveness. Healthy shame should be embraced.
It is my experience, people lack the ability to completely convince themselves of their own goodness, and often relapse into an unhealthy view of their worth. People who fail to regulate a healthy sense of self, look for resolution by unwisely comparing themselves with others who are “worse,” or developing a dependency upon the opinions of others. A Christian client may want to be seeking health from the Lord, and the therapist’s job is to help them find it through a theological understanding of justification and imputation, allowing that theology penetrate and heal the emotions, and making healthy behavioral choices. A foundational declaration of goodness and worth comes from an authoritative outside source – God. The client’s failures have been imputed (or placed) on Jesus, and the perfection of Jesus has been imputed or placed upon the client, the most wonderful free gift that people can experience.
The Christian can do more than play a game of ceaseless self-talk to exalt self in their own eyes. The Christian humbly acknowledges his sin, shame, guilt, and inadequacy. There is no need to run from feelings of condemnation. We are all sinners in need of Grace. Because of our worth and His infinite love for us, the Lord Jesus invites us to confess our sins, acknowledge that He died in our place to pay the penalty for our sin, and He rose from the dead to prove there is victory over sin. The believer’s worth issues have been atoned for. In exchange to our confession of sin, Jesus gives us the gift of forgiveness and perfection. The believer’s identity is not found in self-exaltation, but in humble confession and acceptance of God’s grace. The infinite love of God gives people worth! We are valued because Jesus Christ laid down His life as a perfect act of love, to reclaim us as His own.
If we lead our Christian client away from a true confession of their conscience, if we seek to help them avoid the “dark night of the soul,” we do them an injustice. Many are looking to get off the treadmill of self-sufficiency, acknowledge their personal failures, and find the Grace of God embracing them in their confession. In exchange for their confession, and accepting the Great Substitute, a believer is declared to possess the righteousness and worth of Jesus Himself. A person plagued with guilt and shame (“poor self-esteem”) may not be able to fight their way out of self-condemnation, and need an Authority to fight for them. No other orientation in psychotherapy can offer forgiveness through the completed work of Christ, and His gift of self-worth.