by Elizabeth Walker
It’s hard work digging into the shadows of self-esteem. I remember as a teenager every school day for six years was an uneasy truce with my sense of inadequacy. Even worse was the grinding in my stomach when I first saw the cracks appearing in the self-confidence of my once carefree eight-year-old. The uncertain smile on her face as I dropped her at school that day still pains me to remember. It sent me running to Dr Google. What is self-esteem? How can I nurture it in my children?
The doc had some good ideas, as usual. A working definition of self-esteem, for starters: feelings of acceptance, value, love, and worthiness. Do I feel these things about myself? Do I think others feel these about me?
A cursory flick through some websites (thanks, kidshealth.org) suggests there are some fairly predictable factors that affect self-esteem:
- Body image and media consumption
- Social experience: a loving home, supportive friends, how close you are to ‘normal’, i.e. the majority in your patch of the world
- Performance: academic, sporting, other
- The internal monologue
It also provided some helpful ideas for how to build self-esteem in my precious girl:
- Focus on health and strength rather than thinness
- Help kids find a good hobby that engages them
- Teach kids to make a contribution to others around them
- Help kids aim for achievements, but not perfection
- Help kids take pride in what they can do, and recognise what they can and can’t change
- Watch my ratio of criticism to compliments. Aim for three genuine compliments a day
- Banish my own negative self-talk from my children’s ears
And friends gave me two other tips:
- Limit children’s exposure to toxic media that portrays women as sex objects to be judged only on their ‘hotness’
- Use beauty language to describe character, e.g., “The way you helped your sister was beautiful.”
These were great ideas, but I felt that there was more to the self-esteem issue. I was challenged to dig into my Christian beliefs to find if they could lend some more insight. Out came the Bible. Out came the word-study. Acceptance. Value. Love. Worth. And out started tumbling these pictures of self-esteem that were completely new to me.
Jesus had no illusions about how others felt about him. He was not accepted in his home town. He was not accepted in Jerusalem. He was not accepted when he came to preach. He was not accepted when he came to heal. Those who praised him he didn’t trust, because he knew the fickleness of their hearts. Yet never in all these pictures of rejection do we see Jesus cowed by an internal voice of despair or self-loathing.
The religious leaders of the time are such a contrast. They praise each other and are praised in turn. They love sitting in the most important seats at the festivals and banquets. They are held in high regard by all around them. Jesus slices through all this: “You justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your heart.” (Luke 16:15)
The God factor: the missing component of Google’s self-esteem advice. Whose acceptance matters? Is it the acceptance of others, or the acceptance of God? It is a radical step to come to the conclusion that what others think of me Doesn’t. Actually. Matter. And even what I think about myself doesn’t matter that much. There is one opinion that matters, and it’s not mine, and it’s not yours. Ouch! Scorching!
Only one opinion matters. It’s at this point that we start the roller-coaster ride of understanding God’s acceptance of us. To begin — such beautiful news! — God cares for his creatures personally with a depth we cannot judge. If God cares for the hundreds of birds on the school oval, knowing when they are born and when they fall, how much more — how much more — are all those indistinguishable summer-hatted kids his dear ones. We are known with a depth of intimacy we can never understand. If my hairs are numbered, how are the thoughts of my heart not known?
What follows though is perhaps the most crushing and devastating doctrine of any religion. Although dearly loved and created by God, we are completely unacceptable to him. The thoughts of our own hearts condemn us, as do our words and actions. The value we place on wealth and power and status is repulsive to God. Our moral autonomy and rejection of his authority over us constitute a direct rebellion of the creature against the creator. Every hour of every day, each person on the planet stockpiles the judgement of God against themselves.
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Here is the freedom for the enslaved and acceptance for the unacceptable. Like a prince swapping coats with a beggar, Jesus gives his acceptable life for my unacceptable one. In this divine exchange, we have swapped places, Jesus and I. For all who ask for it, the unending acceptance of God is given freely. This roller coaster of the acceptance of God turns out to be a bullet train speeding me off in the complete opposite direction from where I came.
From the Bible’s perspective, how I understand myself has its foundation in God’s sweet acceptance of me. I am known. I am loved more than I can understand. Although I am riddled with rebellion, Jesus has given his worthiness for my darkness. I am assured that I will see the face of God. I know he is working to change me, bit by bit.
Interestingly, the Bible’s focus then becomes the oft-repeated phrase “one another”. In a nutshell, “Accept one another as Christ has accepted you.” (Romans 15:7) Rather than looking for acceptance from others, the Bible teaches me to get out there and start accepting them myself. I have received such kindness; I must be kind to others. I have received such acceptance; I must now accept others. This turns the whole issue of self-esteem on its head: now that I have been so freely given the esteem of God, I must esteem others. Radical stuff, huh?
I want to build self-esteem in my daughter. I think all the dot points mentioned above are great ideas. But I want to take it further. I pray that she might somehow grasp the deeply satisfying truth that she is loved by God. I’ve been trying to help her do this through such things as:
- modelling (imperfectly, of course!) — that is, I seek to live in light of God’s acceptance, as I repent of the competitive urge to raise myself above others, as I dwell on and bask in God’s love for me, as I focus on living to the praise of his glory. Because he has given up his rights for my good, I can do the same for others.
- helping her to learn that she is fearfully and wonderfully made, and to practise gratitude for the gift of her amazing body. I need to help her find the gifts God has given her, to be thankful for her strengths, and to persevere in her areas of weakness.
- being gracious, letting her know that when she fails, Jesus is always there, extending his forgiveness if she turns to him.
- guiding how she sees the lie of the land. We live in a culture obsessed by physical beauty. Strength, wealth, and success are honoured. I want her to be able to identify these values when she comes into contact with them in the media and in people. I need to protect her from the relentless barrage of these values in magazines and advertising.
I pray that my daughter will know that she is not defined by others’ opinions of her, but rather by her heavenly Father’s. I want to encourage her to move beyond the pain of exclusion, and to step out to care for others, grounded in the truth of her profound acceptance by God. It’s a big ask. But that’s what I’m asking for!
Elizabeth Walker is a mum and an ESL teacher in the western suburbs of Sydney.