The Surprising Truth About Low Self-Esteem
As one who’s lived with low self-esteem, I know how uncomfortable, even torturous, it can be. But change is possible.
I remember that my 5-year-old self was shy to the core — I was very insecure. Eye contact was hard and conversation was even harder. By age 15, I could sing for an audience and pirouette on stage like the rest of the ballerinas, but if you asked me to speak in public, sheer terror would overwhelm me. If only my shyness reflected a simple personality trait rather than exposing a deep-rooted attitude about my self-worth. But it didn’t, so I put my hope in thinking that adulthood would magically wipe away all my insecurities. I would soon be disappointed.
Now I understand that there can be a difference between being shy and being insecure, but as one who’s lived with low self-esteem, I know how uncomfortable, even torturous, it can be. But change is possible.
Many insecure people still wonder if it’s really worth exerting the effort to change because, by all appearances, low self-esteem seems innocuous. But here’s the rub — Jesus didn’t die to make innocuous people. He died to make us more. He died to “present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Colossians 1:22).
Those of us who struggle with insecurities feel immense pressure to conform to the expectations of others, and we avoid public criticism at all costs. By contrast, Christ tells us not to “fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28).
First John 4:18 and Romans 12:2 seem to confirm that the apostles John and Paul taught against people-pleasing and the fear of punishment. But psychology today teaches that the cure to insecurity is to love and trust ourselves more. I’m afraid this prescription may not be the miracle cure it has been puffed up to be.
The real culprit
When I looked to God’s Word, I found a view of humanity that is nuanced and complex. Surprisingly, there is no biblical category for a person who does not love himself or herself. Instead, humanity is portrayed as naturally selfish. We are never told to love ourselves more because this is not a problem known to humanity. When Jesus was asked to define the greatest commandment, he told the Pharisees that the greatest command had two parts, including a directive to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). Apparently He assumed that you already love yourself.
I don’t think this means that we all love ourselves correctly, as God does. But I do think that Jesus was alluding to our natural tendency to put our own needs and desires ahead of those of others. When we don’t keep this innate selfishness in check, it manifests itself in one of two ugly ways: arrogance or insecurity.
It may surprise you to think of insecurity as a distortion of self-love, but like arrogance, it is self-focused and self-obsessing in nature.
Humility and insecurity don’t mix
Many well-meaning Christians mislabel insecurity as humility, but there is a significant difference between the two. A humble person does not spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about his or her own flaws.
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis gives a surprising description of a humble person when he states: “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
A humble person does not need to undervalue or disparage himself. He is far too busy engaging in the world beyond his own self-drama.
The cure for navel-gazing
The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes navel-gazing as “useless or excessive self-contemplation”. And let’s be honest, no one is immune to this mutation of self-love — at least not since Adam and Eve ate that forbidden fruit in the garden.
A periodic self-checkup may be helpful, but we need to take a break from self-analyzing. There is only so far we can go before our thoughts become repetitive and banal, so the cure for low self-esteem comes with a shift in our focus. We need to shift our eyes God-ward.
According to Jesus, the most important thing we can do is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Although many of us struggle to take our eyes off ourselves long enough to actually do this, as we study Scripture, listen to preaching and spend time in prayer, our feelings of insecurity can diminish. This happens when our thoughts are elevated to something better than that of our fallen experience.
The second part of the greatest commandment is similar to the first. We are to love our neighbor like we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39). If our insecurities get in the way of our ability to love the people God has placed in our lives, then we have a problem.
God’s Word challenges us to rearrange our hearts’ desires. Instead of spending the majority of our time contemplating our flaws and worrying about other people’s opinions of us, we need to love God and our neighbor.
The 19th century Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne once wrote, “For every look at yourself, take 10 looks at Christ.” This would be a good benchmark for us because, if we’re honest, for every 10 looks we take at ourselves, we might take one look at Christ. Maybe.
The first step to recovery from low self-esteem does not include loving ourselves more. The first step is to love God more and then to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The only real judge
We need to understand how God intersects with our life. More specifically, how the gospel of Jesus Christ transforms our identity and our self-worth.
God has taken action on our behalf and those who put their trust in Him are literally transformed by His love. Look at these words in Romans 8:31-34: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”
In other words, if you are a Christian, God is for you (v. 31). If you doubt it, look at the evidence. He gave His son for you (v. 32) and He justifies you (v. 33). Jesus died for you and rose again, and even now He intercedes for you (v. 34).
As Christians, we do not have to drum up overinflated views of ourselves to be acceptable. God makes us worthy of love and saved us through Christ Jesus. If the God of the universe is for us, then who can be against us?
Human criticism does not hold weight when compared to God’s opinion of us. In a certain sense, we are not even qualified to be our own judge (1 Corinthians 4:3). God is our judge, so let His opinion matter the most (1 Corinthians 4:4-5).
Our response to self-criticism must be more profound than “love yourself more.” We must learn to look past ourselves. God should fill our horizon, and the people in our lives should consume a decent amount of our time and attention.
I still have a long way to go when it comes to self-esteem, but I’ve learned this: Children of God have nothing to prove and nothing to lose. God defines our worth and holds us secure in His love. I am no more or less worthy than Christ makes me. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
Copyright 2016 Christel Humfrey. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Christel Humfrey is a pastor’s wife and mother. She has a B.A. in music with a minor in ballet. Against all odds, she fell in love with a cowboy. Together they have three sons and minister in Calgary, Canada.