Many of us find cherishing ourselves difficult to do. Low self-esteem is pervasive and subtle, showing up in varied forms: lack of confidence, self-criticism, feelings of unworthiness, perfectionism, grandiosity, withdrawal, self-sabotage, the inability to take risks, etc. We hear praise as a whisper, and criticism as thunder. If someone likes us, we tell ourselves that this is because they don't really know us, or they are "crazy," or they must not be too hot themselves. Underlying all this is a deep down shame, a fear that we will be exposed as inadequate, a piercing sense of ourselves as fundamentally deficient as a human being.
Often this happens because in growing up we picked up the erroneous impression that our performance meant more than we did. School or sport situations put extreme pressure upon children, and reward only select kinds of achievements. There are peer and cultural pressures to measure up to certain physical standards, to dress and act in a specific way. Our deepest difficulties, however, come from homes long on criticism and short on praise.
We would like to think that our parents and siblings would respond to us as the unique individuals we are, with our own personality traits and characteristics. Unfortunately this is not always the case. All too often some unresolved issue in the parent's or sibling's own past influences how they treat the unsuspecting child. Yet it is usually safer and less painful for children to blame themselves, rather than to conclude :"Something is wrong with my family." The children hope that by improving themselves they can improve their family. Such a hope is doomed to failure and the child is left feeling inadequate.
We are products, but we are not prisoners, of our past. As Albert Schweitzer pointed out: "The greatest discovery of any generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind." Since low self-esteem is learned, it can also be "unlearned." Adults take responsibility for their lives. After childhood, we can choose to love ourselves, to see ourselves, no longer as victims, but as loveable and capable people. Love, including self-love, is a choice.
We can learn to love ourselves as God does, because of who we are, not because of what we do. Those of us coming from troubled families can learn to stop blaming ourselves. Our parent's negative behavior is that of the hurt or angry little child within the parent and not our fault. We don't cause our parent's behavior so we can't change it. All we can do is try not to contribute to it, and learn to cope with it as best we can.
We can give ourselves permission to fail, even when we tried hard to succeed. We can give ourselves permission to feel whatever we feel--anger, hatred, rejection, revulsion, fear--however painful that may be. Feelings are neither good nor bad, but they do need to be owned, to be faced, sometimes with the help of a chaplain or counselor. It is the suppression of feelings that gives them a destructive power.
Positive self-esteem should begin to be formed from our earliest days. When young children are consistently given attention, fed and changed, they start to intuit that their parent must think that they are of value, worth caring for. And so, deep down, they begin to see themselves as worthwhile and loveable.
Little children spend most of their time making mistakes: they talk unintelligibly, fall down, break things, spit out their food, soil their clothing. Healthy parents don't tell their child, "I'll begin to love you once you are toilet trained." They love their child not because of what the child does or doesn't do. They love their child because of who the child is. It's their child, that's why they love him, that's why they love her. As children grow they strive to be like their parents, to stand and walk and talk. In learning to do these things the children make their parents proud, but they are not trying to win their parents' love. They already have their love.
And so it is in our relationship with God, only infinitely more so. God's love for us does not depend on what we do or fail to do. God loves us because of who we are. In Jesus Christ, we are God's adopted children, and so of course God loves us. As we grow spiritually we strive to be like our God. Since God is love, we try to become more loving. There is nothing that we poor creatures could do to win God's love, but we don't have to, we already have God's love. Rather we simply strive to make our God proud, to be united with God by love.
Everyone of us is imperfect. Yet our God says to us: "I have called you by your name; you are mine.... You are precious in my eyes...and honored and I love you" (Is. 43:1ff). Each of us is known and loved by our God in a most personal, understanding way. Regardless of our weaknesses and needs, regardless of how others treat us, we are totally known and intimately loved, cherished, by the only One Who really matters, who gives the whole universe existence. God already knows things about us that we won't know for another six months or six years, things that may shock us about ourselves, and yet God loves us, unconditionally. As we strive to grow in love and learn to love ourselves, we need to be patient with ourselves, and with our failings; God isn't finished with us yet.
Some of us are afraid that if we think well of ourselves, we're not being humble, we're being conceited or self-centered. In commanding us to "love our neighbor as we love ourselves" Jesus is calling us to true self-love that is far removed from such narcissism. Humility is not humiliation, but rather honesty. Humility moves us to take honest stock of ourselves: to recognize our strengths and gifts, and give thanks to God by developing and sharing them; to own up to our weaknesses and sins, and ask God's forgiveness and help in overcoming them. In loving ourselves, we are acknowledging that God's creation is good, that we are made in God's image and likeness, that we are full of God-ness--of goodness. God chose to make us, and God has good taste. Remember Whose idea you are. "I thank you for the wonder of myself..."(Ps. 139:13f).
We grow up in a world given too much to comparisons and competition. Instead of remembering that "everything is beautiful in its own way," we can end up putting ourselves down because we don't seem to have the gifts we admire in others. Rather than give in to envy or self-pity, the accomplishments of others can challenge us to look more deeply to see whether these or others gifts lie dormant within ourselves. The example of others should encourage us to risk discovering how God's gifts can take shape in our lives.
Each of the five billion people alive today is unique. No one else has our particular talents and temperament, experiences and environment, blessings and brokenness. Each of us is entrusted with a unique mission, and herein lies our greatness: to love the people God puts into our lives, people whom we can touch in a way that no one else does. Each one of us can make a decided difference.
As we come to recognize our own deep beauty--the wonders of our bodies, minds, and spirits--and to value easily-taken-for-granted, life-enriching gifts such as generosity, compassion, listening, honesty, and responsibility, we gradually learn to befriend, and be good to, ourselves. When, with God's help, we start to truly enjoy being who we are, we always have good company, we don't have to be afraid of being alone, we don't need continual social "strokes," popularity, or the constant approval of others. When we like ourselves, we have much to give.
Growing in self-esteem is a life-long journey. Your chaplains are available to guide you along the way. I invite you to make your own the words of the singer/poet Joan Baez, and repeat them to yourself in those moments when it seems almost impossible to cherish yourself:
Ronald Stanley, O.P.