Modern culture suffers from a crisis of self-esteem. Lack of true self-esteem is the root of much of the distress people feel and their failure to excel. Society’s influencers recognize this problem and try to solve it by eliminating competition and giving meaningless trophies for attendance. It does not work. Indeed, it exacerbates the problem. Individuals intuitively realize that hollow accolades are not helping them. This cheap substitute sells the lies that one’s value comes from being exceptional and that esteem comes from the recognition of others. Like a drug, it requires greater and greater doses to maintain the high. However, praise will always fade and disappear leaving those dependent on it worse off. Even for the few who truly are exceptional at something, they will be disappointed if their self-worth is based on recognition.

Self-esteem needs to be exactly that, self-recognition of one’s intrinsic worth. Doing difficult things helps one gain confidence, so “protecting” others from difficulties and the possibility of failure inhibits their ability to build their self-esteem. I was a scoutmaster and watched scared boys grow into confident young men as they faced and overcame their fears through a variety of challenging activities such as repelling down steep cliffs, rafting down rapids, mountain biking down treacherous trails, sailing to Catalina Island, hiking to the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome and to the summit of Mount Whitney. One new twelve-year-old scout was afraid to put his toe into any water regardless of whether it was a lake, river or the ocean. I found it very difficult convincing his mother to let him participate in various activities, but it paid off. He graduated as an aerospace engineer, became a professional volleyball player and is a happily married man.

Participating in sports helps one to face challenges, learn and hone skills, interact well with others and deal with disappointment. The pseudo-esteem based on empty accolades evaporates on the field when one faces his or her opponent who eagerly seeks to exploit any flaw. This competition sharpens ones senses, motivates training and inspires excellence. However, like anything carried too far, competition can produce diminishing returns if the focus is on building one’s self-esteem based on comparison with others. Basing one’s value on any comparison will always disappoint.

Humans are social creatures. We want to belong. Unfortunately, the disintegration of the family and of communities has left individuals adrift, disconnected from the moorings of the past that securely held society together. Individuals often seek to increase their standing with their peers by denigrating others outside their group. Consequently, we witness people gravitating to polar opposites, where groupthink replaces independent thought and pits one faction against another, creating animosity and conflict.

The only solution to this catastrophic dynamic is to increase the ability of individuals to feel secure in their own independent identity and self-worth. It is not based on what we do or did. We are not intrinsically a lawyer, an A student, an athlete, or a mom. It is not based on what we like or believe. We are not intrinsically a Yankees fan, a progressive, a Christian, or a patriot. It is not even based on our personal characteristics. Our intrinsic value does not change because we are smart, strong, kind, or tall. Self-worth and identity built on any of these approaches is unstable.

A solid self-worth and identity are founded on understanding one’s relationship with God and on one’s connection with the Divine. Identity that transcends eternity is not vulnerable to the winds of time. It enables us to stand independent from the whims of social pressures, yet connected to everyone and the universe. We can align ourself and connect with the Divine by seeking the eternal principles of love, light, truth, and goodness (i.e., the light of Christ in each of us). We then identify as children of God of infinite worth and potential even though we are flawed individuals who are in the process of learning how to develop our divine nature. Internalizing this truth is our only hope.

I suggest that we each reevaluate our personal worldview to determine if it is egocentric or Christ-centered. Let’s explore a balanced approach relying more on our Savior and less on our own feeble efforts while still recognizing that God has given us free will and expects us to use it. Once we replace a misguided, myopic worldview based on performance, comparisons, or entitlement, with a perspective in which free will and grace are in balance and properly focused, many of our problems will dissipate, and we will become more secure in our own skin and free to more fully enjoy life and relationships.

Emotional Black Holes Book
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