Is self-esteem good? Should you love yourself? What about self-love? There currently exists much confusion on these questions. Moreover, each of these terms require careful unraveling. Let’s begin with self-esteem.
Self-Esteem = BAD
Self-esteem is generally understood as involving a subjective decision to evaluate oneself (including one’s abilities, accomplishments and circumstances) in a positive way. The goal of self-esteem is not to help a person become better, but merely to feel better. Accordingly, self-esteem is disconnected from questions of virtue (i.e., “is the decision to think of myself in this way moving me closer towards ethical goals?”) as well as disconnected from questions of truth (“is the decision to think of myself in this way in line with the objective reality about myself?”). Through its dislocation from virtue, self-esteem can easily collapse into narcissism, while its dislocation from truth can cause self-esteem to collapse into delusion.
In the mid 80’s, the State of California poured thousands of dollars into an initiative designed to raise children’s self-esteem. Based on the secular humanist wisdom at the time, lawmakers fully expected that an increase in self-esteem would cause a boost grades and a reduction in bullying, crime, teen pregnancy and substance abuse. In reality, the initiative was a complete disaster.
Further empirical research has continued to confirm that self-esteem has many negative effects, including narcissism, self-absorption, contingent self-worth, self-righteousness, aggression in response to threatened egotism, and self-validating assessments of one’s abilities that undermine the process of further improvement. Self-esteem can also lead to a fragile sense of self-worth, since one’s self-worth becomes dependent on self-concepts that may be threatened through failure, lack of external validation or genuine self-knowledge.
Self-Compassion = GOOD
Recently, psychologists have begun making a helpful distinction between “self-esteem” and “self-compassion.” Self-compassion is about being forgiving, patient and kind to yourself, as well as treating negative feelings with mindfulness instead of harsh self-criticism. Unlike self-esteem, the goal of self-compassion is not to simply feel better, but to actually become more virtuous, since it provide an incentive for personal growth, repentance and compassion towards others.
Empirical research increasingly shows that self-compassion does not come with the same side-effects as self-esteem and is completely unassociated with narcissism. Much of the research on self-compassion has been pioneered by Dr. Kristin Neff. In her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Dr. Neff outlines what her studies have shown on the difference between self-compassion and self-esteem:
“…self-compassion was clearly associated with steadier and more constant feelings of self-worth than self-esteem. We also found that self-compassion was less likely than self-esteem to be contingent on particular outcomes like social approval, competing successfully, or feeling attractive. When our sense of self-worth stems from being a human being intrinsically worthy of respect — rather than being contingent on obtaining certain ideals — our sense of self-worth is much less easily shaken.”
Self-Love = It’s Complicated
“Okay,” many people may reply, “I get that self-esteem is bad and self-compassion is good. But what about self-love? Doesn’t the Bible tell us not to love ourselves?”
At one time, I would emphatically have answered that Christian should never love themselves. But now I’m inclined to say, “it depends.” To explain why I changed my mind, it is necessary to go on a brief diversion.
As some of my readers know, I’ve recently been doing some fieldwork in Spokane Washington as part of a report for Salvo Magazine on human trafficking in the Spokane region. As I delved deeper into the underground sex industry, I found something that surprised me. The men who trafficked in young girls often did not need to actually kidnap their victims before they could start selling their bodies to other men. Often all a bad guy needed to do was to find a girl who already lacked self-acceptance, and then to amplify her sense of inner worthlessness and shame. Many girls passively submit to their own victimization once they’re convinced that they lack value, and that they were unworthy even of basic self-love.
As part of my research, I spoke with Pastor Aaron Tilbury, who has a ministry rescuing trafficking victims. Pastor Tilbury explained to me that sometimes you have to rescue the same girl three or four times before she begins believing that she has any value, and before she is willing to submit to the healing process. One of the first steps in the healing process is for the victim to begin having love and compassion on herself—enough self-compassion to say no the next time someone tries to hurt her.
What I saw happening on the street—that shame and low self-acceptance are correlated with susceptibility to abuse and victimization while self-respect, self-love and self-care are correlated with freedom and healing—contradicted a message I had been hearing from Christian teachers. Not long before I began this fieldwork, a Christian teacher and social media phenomenon had been proclaiming that self-care and self-love are antithetical to the gospel.
On the surface, there seems to be Biblical support for the idea that we shouldn’t love ourselves. After all, 2 Timothy 3:2 condemns those who are “lovers of themselves.” Yet the matter isn’t straightforward since we also find Scripture discussing the love and care we have for ourselves as a springboard to explain our need to love others (Ephesians 5:29; Mark 12:31). So which is it: should we love ourselves or not? The answer surely depends on the quality of the love in question. Just as our love for another person can be either virtuous or selfish, so our love for ourselves can either draw us closer to Christ or further away from Him.
So what might a proper Christ-centered self-love look like? Well, we know that the agape love that comes from God is always oriented towards what is best for the other (1 Cor. 13:4-7). If this type of spiritual love is applied to myself, then it simply means pursuing what is truly in my spiritual best interests. If I do not pursue what is best for me—for example, if I pursue a narcissistic lifestyle that moves me away from the Source of life, destroys my soul and ushers in my spiritual destruction—then I am actually hating myself, just as a father who spoils his son is hating him (Prov. 13:24). To pursue what is in my best interest is to develop the true self that God created and values while rejecting the false ego-self that warps and twists me out of shape.
How to Love Yourself in the Right Way
Here are some further suggestions about what this proper self-love might look like in practice (and keep in mind that these are ideals to be working towards rather than goals that are fully attainable in this life):
- Loving myself means that I will respect myself as a valuable creation of God;
- Loving myself means I will be patient with the Holy Spirit’s work in my life;
- Loving myself means that I am willing to exercise “tough love” towards myself, pursuing what is God’s will for my life instead of simply what I want;
- Loving myself means that I will accept God’s forgiveness of me;
- Loving myself means that I will turn away from selfish behaviors that feel good in the moment but which harm me in the long term;
- Loving myself means that I will put boundaries in place to protect my dignity, including saying no to people who are demeaning or abusing me;
- Loving myself means that I will strive for authentic self-knowledge, even when that knowledge is painful;
- Loving myself means that I will reject self-harming behaviors (i.e., shame, perfectionism, self-criticism) and self-harming beliefs (i.e., the lie that I am unworthy of belonging, connection and acceptance);
- Loving myself means that I will pursue appropriate self-care.
- Loving myself means that I will endeavor to receive the grace God has extended towards me, and then extend that grace towards others.