I grew up in Long Island, New York close to the New York City metro area. I was raised to believe in making something of myself professionally. My father always wanted me to be able to support myself and not rely on anyone else.
Fast-forward to the second decade of this millennium and I am wholly reliant upon my husband to provide for me and my son. I am deathly afraid that if something were to happen to him that I would not be able to support myself. This makes me feel inadequate and incompetent. This makes me feel like a failure.
I’m kind of like a guy—I derive a sense of self-esteem and self-worth from working. Not having a full-time job kills me because I feel financially and emotionally deficient.
I wish I could say I grew up putting family first but I didn’t. I didn’t have a brother or sister to turn to and my parents buster their butts working to provide a decent life for me. My mother missed out on a lot of my school events and she had no idea that I was bullied in school. She also didn’t understand the depression I dealt with.
Family never came first. That’s the model that was set for me. In practicality, work came first. I was a latchkey kid for most of my childhood. I missed out on after-school activities, Girl Scouts, and other programs that other kids were able to take advantage of.
Academics were always important. My father felt as though the better I did in school, the more successful I’d be in life.
I hate to think it hasn’t translated that way but it hasn’t. I’m not as successful professionally as I’d like to be. I wish I could earn enough to help support my family—to afford a second car and help pay a mortgage. Even contribute as a partner to the rent. But no, I am wholly deficient. It’s hard for a creative type like me with a limited set of skills to make a lot of money. I wish I could.
My son needs to be my priority; he’s 3 months old. My husband needs to be priority; he’s family and loves me. But I can’t shake the need—the feeling that I am a colossal failure if I don’t help my family financially. I can’t help but feel like a colossal failure if I’m not putting my time and energy into a profession that either provides for my family or makes a difference.
And right now, I am doing none of those things.
“For a long time, I didn’t have any self-esteem,” William began.
That’s the first line to one of my favorite books that I go back to time and time again: When People Are Big and God Is Small. A few paragraphs down, author Ed Welch writes:
The problem was William’s reputation. It was what other people though about… him. Call it what you like—reputation, peer pressure, people-pleasing, codependency—William’s life was controlled by other people.
How true this is of me! How often can someone who doesn’t like me make or break my day by saying hi or snubbing me.
I’ve written about self-esteem and self-confidence before and how I think it is biblical to love yourself. Ed Welch argues somewhat differently in his book, saying that we need to find out worth in God through Jesus Christ, something I don’t necessarily disagree with. I believe in loving God first, yourself next, then loving others. It’s a natural progression. I believe loving others can only come from loving the primary people first (God and yourself).
I struggle with self-esteem and what others think of me. I’ve referred to my inferiority complex before. I’m not sure where my self-esteem issues stemmed from. I’m an only child so I could be one of two personalities: insecure with low self-esteem or arrogant with inflated self-esteem. I have a theory that people with siblings are likely to be a bit more balanced.
So I can definitely identify with William above. Self-esteem is probably an issue I’ll always struggle with.
Before I became a born-again Christian at 16 years old, my problem at that time was that I didn’t have enough “self-esteem” and “self-confidence.” I didn’t believe in myself enough, and I didn’t try hard enough to believe in myself (which to be honest, I didn’t because I was an angsty, grungy teenager who thought it was cool to revel in my depression and suicidal bent).
Enter in born-again fundamentalist Christianity.
Fundamentalist Christianity says that one must not believe in self and only in Jesus Christ. Fundamentalist Christianity has no room for self-esteem, requiring a believer to place his or her trust solely in Jesus Christ.
Then I entered Protestantism and encountered a softer version of the same thing: Solo Christo! (This really refers to a theological belief of salvation, but this is the prescription of many orthodox Christians when it comes to problems with self-esteem.)
For a long time then, I believed self-esteem and self-confidence were wrong. I eschewed these things because my sole worth should be found in God and not in myself. I engaged in “worm” theology: Oh, I’m such an awful, terrible sinner. There is no righteousness in me. All righteousness is found in God, and I’m poor, pathetic, pitiful soul. I suck at life and I’m so lucky God saved me because I’m totally worthless otherwise.
Beginning last week, I started reading Jillian Michaels’s book, Unlimited: How to Live an Exceptional Life, and started seriously thinking, Maybe it’s time for me to walk away from Christianity because I like what Jillian’s saying about reclaiming and recapturing my life. I want to have self-esteem. I want to have self-confidence. I want to stop obsessing and feeling like a poor, pathetic little shit all the time.
But as I got further and further into Jillian’s book, I realized that a lot (not all) of what she says actually lines up with scripture. (Her chapter on Forgiveness and Accepting Responsibility was so solid, it blew me away.) And I realized that self-esteem and self-confidence do NOT need to contradict Christianity and God’s word. How?
In Mark 12, a scribe comes up to Jesus to test him. The scribe asks, “What is the greatest commandment?”
Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” —Mark 12:29-31
So Jesus lays it down: we are to love God with everything we have first. Then we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The assumption is we already love and esteem ourselves. If we do not, how are we able to love and esteem others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3)? So one must tackle the challenge of learning to love and esteem oneself first before being able to truly love and esteem others better. Consistently treating others better than you treat yourself leads to an erosion of self-love and a path to possible codependency and people-pleasing (needing the approval of others).
An example: think of the mom who sacrifices herself on the altar of her children. This mother is constantly shuttling her kids to soccer practice, gymnastics, ballet class, and Boy Scouts but never takes any time for herself, investing her life in her children at great detriment to her health. She will likely be one stressed out and unhappy mommy. She may have high blood pressure, feel dizzy, and tired all the time. Yet think of the other mom who shuttles her three kids to the exact same activities (still investing immensely in her kids) but once a month, goes to a spa to relax and get pampered. Three times a week, she jogs outdoors for 20 minutes simply to clear her head. Maybe she’ll even join a bi-monthly knitting group so she can engage in her own hobbies so she is invested in herself enough so that she can take care of her children. The latter mom is likely to be in an overall healthier position (mentally and physically) than the former.
A person who invests in herself first is better able to love and serve those around her. I do a better job helping people on 7 hours of sleep than I do 4 hours.
All this talk of self-love is probably making some Christians twitchy. It sounds odd and new age-y. But remember, Jesus assumed that we would already love ourselves and from that, commands us to love our neighbor. As Christians, if we don’t love ourselves, we are sinning. Read more…