Monday, January 31, 2011

Pride, self-esteem, and self-love

Pride and self-esteem are two sides of the same coin, a coin I call "self-love." Self-love can be a synonym for pride, a deadly sin. Or it can be considered a positive thing, as opposed to self-hatred. Some people lump the two together. Either they say, "This stuff about self-esteem is all nonsense. They used to call it pride, and it's a sin!" Or, they say, "Ah, in those terrible old days people considered pride a sin, but really, it's no more than healthy self-esteem!"

I consider pride and self-esteem to be very different. They are both love of self, sure. But pride is an unhealthy, obsessive love, the kind of love that makes you defend someone when you know they're wrong, that closes off your ability to love others. Not a true love, but "love" in quotation marks, perhaps. Self-esteem is a healthy sort of self-love, the love that you have for a good friend that you admire, but can be realistic about their faults as well. You enjoy spending time with them, alone or along with others, but you don't obsess about them.

Pride is definitely bad. Pride leads you to ignore others' needs in favor of your own; to defend your own ideas even after you've been shown the flaws in them; to refuse to improve yourself; to be rude and dismissive. People don't like a proud person. There's no room for love of others (God included) in the heart of someone in love with themselves.

But I argue that self-esteem is good. Knowing that you are good at a subject or a sport isn't "evil pride," it's simply accepting the truth about yourself. And I think it's okay to feel good about the things you're good at. In the same way, we should acknowledge our faults. But we shouldn't be cast down by them, to imagine that those faults make us no good and not worth loving. Instead we should try to see ourselves as we see others -- a person with some bad in them, but lots of good.

Lack of self-esteem leads to problems. Depression is the obvious example, with its relatives anorexia, bulimia, and cutting. Less drastic are problems like defensiveness (a last hold-out of the instinct of self-preservation, when we are convinced we are not worth preserving), an inability to form good relationships (because we are unable to believe that we are lovable, and fail to accept and trust others' love), and a lack of confidence that keeps us from pursuing ideas and opportunities we should.

It's possible to have low self-esteem and pride at the same time. When we fail at a healthy relationship with ourselves, we turn to an unhealthy one. The person in this situation hates himself, obsesses over his faults, and yet turns an even harsher eye to others. He puts down their faults to make himself feel better. Or he has a false humility and claims to be worthless, but holds his own ideas and opinions as gospel because, well, he might be worthless but his ideas are something entirely different, and anyone who doesn't agree with them is wrong.

It's often said that bullies have low self-esteem, and I believe it. What could be more natural for a person fighting the idea that he is worthless than pushing someone else around? It's a nice boost for their miserable ego.

Because, the fact is, self-love of some kind is unavoidable. It's instinct. There's a saying that self-love doesn't die till an hour after you do. You can pray for humility and you can focus on others, but some time in every day, you're going to end up facing yourself in the mirror. Do you zoom in on the zits, the flab, the wrinkles, agonize over how you look as if it mattered to anyone but yourself? Do you spend your time rearranging your hair, fixing your makeup, trying to impress? Or do you give yourself a quick smile, say "Hello, old friend," and keep going? That's the difference between a healthy self-esteem and its many distortions.

I'm not sure what all this means for me, as a parent. How do I raise a child with healthy self-esteem without teaching him an unhealthy pride? How do I show him that his achievements are of value without making him depend on my praise for everything he does? How, in short, do I teach him to be friends with himself?

I do know what doesn't work. When I was in boarding school, I was labeled as proud. The fact is, I talked a good game because I was so unsure of myself. But the treatment was to put me down at every opportunity, to correct me constantly and tell me what was wrong with me. When I accepted this without crying, getting angry, or defending myself, then I would be cured. (It never happened.) But I think I've shown how a person with low self-esteem does become defensive, and I became more and more defensive the longer it went on. A person who humbly accepts criticism is a person with healthy self-esteem, someone who doesn't need to be perfect in the eyes of others to feel he is of value. He knows he has value, he knows what his talents and strengths are, so he doesn't need so much affirmation -- and when a fault is pointed out to him, he can accept that and try to fix it without feeling like he's no good.

I just don't know what I would have done in the same situation. Reassure the high school girl with the issues, help her fit in so she didn't feel so unsure? Or, perhaps, stay the heck out of it and let her find her own way? That doesn't help me know what to do in my real situation, as the mother of a boy who could grow up to be anything.

My parents are a better example. Though they aren't afraid to criticize, I've always known they believed in me. Perhaps I'd better find out their secret before this baby gets any older.


Heather said...

Love this post. So thoughtful and prescient and real. I'm glad your parents are an example you'd like to emulate.

Many parents present a negative role model image onto their kids, obsessing over their own imperfections, oblivious to the fact that their child is watching and emulating them... infusing them with half-hearted nuggets of pride as if it were an antidote to insults and bullying (this method doesn't always work; I can attest to that. it ended up making me really confused since I also have parents who always put others before themselves).

So I guess with baby, aside from chatting more with your parents, just live your life in the way you feel the highest self-esteem and most comfortable. Stay true to your being and Mark will learn how to stay true to himself, whatever he may become. =)

Sheila said...

You're right, example is probably the most important factor. I do strive to have a healthy relationship with myself. I don't obsess over how I look (much) and I don't worry what others think of me (nearly as much as I used to). I know that I'm a good person, more or less, with a lot of faults that I accept and try to fix. I try not to be "down" on myself (half the time, when we do this, isn't it in the hope that someone will chime in, "Oh, but you're not fat! You look great"?) or to boast. It's certainly a start.

Nothing like having a child to make you try to be a better person. Knowing those little eyes are watching and will end up imitating a lot of what you do is intimidating -- and it's making me reduce my screen time, get out more, pray more, and eat better. Who knows what it'll do next?

Dr. Thursday said...

Chesterton examined this in his essay called "If I Only Had One Sermon to Preach" - which was on Pride - and I think it is worth quoting an excerpt as an aid to this very important topic:

Pride consists in a man making his personality the only test, instead of making the truth the test. It is not pride to wish to do well, or even to look well, according to a real test. It is pride to think that a thing looks ill, because it does not look like something characteristic of oneself. Now in the general clouding of clear and abstract standards, there is a real tendency today for a young man (and even possibly a young woman) to fall back on that personal test, simply for lack of any trustworthy impersonal test. No standard being sufficiently secure for the self to be moulded to suit it, all standards may be moulded to suit the self. But the self as a self is a very small thing and something very like an accident. Hence arises a new kind of narrowness; which exists especially in those who boast of breadth. The sceptic feels himself too large to measure life by the largest things; and ends by measuring it by the smallest thing of all. There is produced also a sort of subconscious ossification; which hardens the mind not only against the traditions of the past, but even against the surprises of the future. Nil admirari becomes the motto of all nihilists; and it ends, in the most complete and exact sense, in nothing.
[GKC The Common Man]

Sheila said...

Wow, that says it much better than I could (as GKC always does)!

Annah said...

I'm trying every day to consider confidence and pride things to strive for. Sometimes people put a negative connotation onto those things, but they're not. Self-love is a *beautiful* thing.

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