“I am worthless!” Thinking about Low Self-esteem

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Not everyone finds value in themselves. You can think about low self-esteem on a range from under-appreciating personal strengths to a profound self-loathing. It commonly affects even the most admired of people. I think of Princess Diana, the celebrity princess of a generation. Apparently, she had it all: celebrity, beauty, wealth, aristocratic ‘blue blood’, and loyal friends. She was human, of course, and had difficulties in her marriage to a king-in-waiting. However, if the tabloids are to be believed she was not happy. She may have been admired but she was plagued by chronic low self-esteem.

Low self-esteem takes many forms. One example is the ‘imposter syndrome’. Mike was a very successful pastor with a large growing congregation. He expressed his doubts to a pastoral counsellor, “But I keep thinking everyone will wake up and see me for what I am… a failure. It takes so much effort to pretend to be ‘the perfect pastor’ and I know if I can maintain the pretense.” Or the adolescent Kylie who hated herself. She cut herself with a razor “To express pain. It helps to see the bleeding.” Or Sam who struggled with negative thoughts and chronic depression, “I often think of killing myself. The world would be a better place without me.” 

There are two important contributors to low self-esteem: early learning and repeated negative self-evaluation. The origins of low self-esteem is a felt sense of having no value. The feeling comes first. Usually it is a belief without words. As such it is an example of early learning. Low self-esteem is a belief formed in the first years of life through deficits in nurture. This might include emotional neglect, harsh speech, and rejecting behavior. The ‘toxic cocktail’ might have included chaotic caring such to invite the involvement of child protective services. With such an emotional history it makes emotional sense to feel worthless.

Harry was raised by a single drug dependent mother. He had a succession of father figures some of whom were violent or abusive. He talked to a Christian psychologist about his history of depression and feeling “utterly worthless”. He explained, “I just have a feeling about myself. I always have. How can anyone feel OK about themselves? I know I am a bad person. It makes no sense when you say that God loves me.” 

Harry illustrates how the feeling comes first, words second, “I hate myself.” This low self-esteem is an early form of unconscious learning. In terms of developmental psychology it is called implicit learning. But fundamentally, a sense of value is one of the earliest things learnt. Erik Erikson talked about basic trust but this is only possible when an infant or young child experiences a loving parent. Usually self-hate comes from childhood needs not being met, so there is an emotional reason to reject any sense of value in the self. If low self-esteem was learnt from infancy, we can observe it was learnt, so to the person, it feels true. It is a felt sense and not usually expressed in words, so how does a counter narrative develop? Pastorally, take the time to appreciate the childhood situation that created this legacy. Even to affirm, “It makes emotional sense to feel the way you do. But it is not a truth about yourself.”

But this is not the ‘whole picture’. Another factor that contributes to low self-esteem is automatic self-evaluation after the choices. We tend to be ‘hard on ourselves’ if we avoid doing something we consider important. Curiously it does not help to say nice things to the self. Nor does lots of positive affirmations from others. All this will be heard as flattery. Richard Bednar and colleagues (1989) found that best way to rebuild self-esteem is facing one’s fears with healthy assertiveness. This active expression of self-care will reverse how a person feels about themselves. We move in the direction of healthy self-esteem.

Now for a pastoral perspective. No good theology will empower low self-esteem. It’s defective thinking. It cannot be rational since we do not earn our value. The Biblical perspective is that we are created as the imago dei and highly valued (Genesis 1.26). Our value is given by the Creator who ‘does not make junk’.

It is obvious that low self-esteem has implications for spiritual care. Such feelings may result in shame or guilt. The conclusion of being worthless for Harry was is that God would reject him. It is not hard to see that such early learning might ‘color’ all subsequent ideas about God.

When we understand the dynamics of early learning we can see why logic or even theological truth will not remove a dysfunctional belief. We can encourage a realistic assessment of the early caring environment. We can explain the importance of assertiveness for self-care and restoring self-esteem. Until then we need patience, empathic understanding and to provide support for journey towards a full realization of being loved by God.

To Read Further:

Richard L. Bednar, M. Gawain Wells and Scott R. Peterson Self-esteem: Paradoxes and Innovations in Clinical Theory and Practice (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1989). 

Author: Bruce Stevens

Professor Bruce A. Stevens (PhD Boston University, 1987) is the Wicking Professor of Aging and Practical Theology at Charles Sturt University. He was previously Associate Professor in Clinical and Forensic Psychology in the Clinical Psychology program at the University of Canberra with over 60 graduate students. He is an endorsed clinical and forensic psychologist who has advanced accreditation in Schema Therapy (individual and couple). He was ordained in the Anglican Church and is an honorary minister-in-association at Wesley Uniting Church, Canberra. He is the author of 10 books and many research papers. His most recent book is The Storied Self: A Narrative Approach to the Spiritual Care of the Aged (Fortress Academic., 2018).

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