Most all of us have experienced the gnawing pain of feeling like a failure. It creates a lack of motivation and lots of hopelessness. It makes sense that such self-hate is not a good place to spend significant amounts of time.
As individualism and psychology took a prominent place in society, it seemed clear that people should feel good about themselves. It seemed to make sense that the more people felt good about themselves, the more they would be energized and productive. They would feel better and do better.
So, educators, parents, and counselors turned to praising, encouraging, giving trophies, and withholding negative feedback. According to this thinking, “people can’t love anyone—or accomplish anything—until they love themselves.”
The theory was advanced that when we feel bad about ourselves, we should emphasize our qualities and offer ourselves words of encouragement. We should focus on practicing a greater degree of self-love.
The self-esteem movement took a firm hold on the American mind and heart.
Comparing with the Gospel Formula
The gospel of Jesus Christ has some things in common with the self-esteem movement. Both attest that each person is of great worth. We celebrate and affirm that “I am of infinite worth, with my own divine mission, which I will strive to fulfill” (Young Women Values). Our faith assures us that each of us is a precious child of Heavenly Father.
The biggest difference between self-esteem dogma and gospel truth is recognizing that all power is in God. What should we do when we fall short or feel inadequate? While the self-esteem movement has often recommended self-affirmation, God recommends that we turn to Him. The power for growth and renewal is in Him rather than in us.
Recently I have undertaken a careful study of the Gospels looking for any teaching or practice that might relate to self-esteem. I ended up with over 5,000 words from or inspired by Jesus’ teachings and actions. The reality is that the teaching of self-esteem to ancient disciples would have sounded like egocentrism and apostasy. So, either modern people have discovered a greater truth than Jesus taught, or we have turned away from God’s remedy for fallenness.
Perfect Jesus refused hollow self-affirmation. He would not allow Himself to be called good master. He objected: “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God” (Mark 10:18). If the only perfect person who has lived on this earth would not allow Himself to be called “good,” maybe we should not turn to self-affirmation to assuage our mortal pains. The heavenly pattern described in the Book of Mormon is to throw ourselves on “the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:8). This is consistent with all of scripture.
In the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, the message perfectly contradicts the fundamental premise of self-esteem: “Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14, see also Matthew 23:12 and Luke 14:11). It is only humility—the recognition of our dependence on God—that can get us exalted.
Jesus taught that “he that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:39). The Lord does not recommend advancing a sense of pride in ourselves: “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
Jesus consistently modeled what He taught. He washed the disciples’ feet and taught them even as He felt the crushing weight of what lay ahead. His concern was not His aggrandizement or His reputation; His focus was doing the will of Father and serving His brothers and sisters.
There is no self-hate in this process—God does not recommend self-hate. There is only the recognition that we can only be saved from our fallen state by drawing on heavenly grace. That is heaven-recommended humility. Self-affirmation must not replace heavenly attestations.
Consider more examples from Jesus’ life and ministry. He could be bold and direct. Yet He allowed Himself to be beaten and crucified. His standard was simple: “I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me” (John 5:30).
Jesus taught: “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me” (John 15:4). No amount of self-assurance can sustain life. Our strength comes in our connection with Him.
Consider some examples from the Book of Mormon. When Nephi was miserable over his wretchedness, iniquities, and sins (2 Nephi 4:17-19), he found not only comfort but also joy in turning to God: “nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted” (2 Nephi 4:19). Upon turning completely to God, Nephi’s soul was filled with rejoicing. The same pattern applies to Alma, the brother of Jared, and Ammon among others.
Rather than striving to love ourselves a little better, we are called to love and obey God more fully. Rather than spending our days building up ourselves, the gospel recommends that we build up and serve others and, in the process, become more whole and holy.
Mark Leary, a respected professor of psychology, observed that, “According to the teachers of almost all religions, spiritual truths are difficult to discern as long as the individual is caught up in an inner self-driven monologue of worrying, planning, and remembering. The ‘still small voice’ that religious practitioners seek cannot shout over the hubbub of one’s self-chatter” (p. 147, 2004).
The scriptures recommend faith in Christ, not in ourselves. They recommend love for God, not for ourselves. The idea of self-love is foreign to the scriptures. Rather than believing in the fruits of self-love, we believe that God loves us, cherishes us, has a purpose for us, will act through us and for us. But the key to accessing this power is not celebrating our own capabilities but turning towards God.
The key difference is focus. Jesus did not model or preach a focus on self or self-love. He understood and used his gifts and strengths. He was filled with purpose. But instead of self-love, He modeled self-forgetfulness. His focus was upon His Father and His Father’s purposes for His life. He defined Himself by His relationship with His Father and who He was in His Father’s eyes. And His focus was also upon using His gifts and strengths to serve others under the direction of His Father. While the self-esteem movement is the pinnacle of the self-celebration era, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the timeless expression of God’s truth that all good things come from engaging with God.
The Message of Research
Given the pervasiveness of self-esteem thinking, many people are surprised that research has not supported common views of self-esteem. As early as 1983, Susan Harter summarized the research that demonstrated that improving self-regard does not improve performance. The opposite is true: When people do good things, they feel better about themselves. The adage that we must love ourselves before we can be of good to others turns out to be false. Doing the good things must come first.
Even the ambitious study that set out to prove the social importance of self-esteem, found that high self-esteem was more likely to predict bad behavior than good behavior—or nothing at all! (Mecca, Smelser, & Vasconcellos, 1989).
Lillian Katz (1993) suggested that we might be encouraging narcissism with our efforts to build self-esteem.
More recent research has shown that people with high self-esteem are more likely to be violent when their high self-assessment is threatened (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003; Bushman & Baumeister, 1998).
Many researchers have written convincingly about the problems of our cultural assumption that high self-esteem is critical to emotional well-being (Leary, 2004; Smith, & Elliott, 2001, Twenge, 2006).
Measures of self-regard continue to be used in some studies because they do indicate a person’s sense of accomplishment. But raising self-esteem is not the way to improve well-being or performance. They are also not God’s recommended way of dealing with fallenness.
Dealing with Fallenness
So, how do we deal with the burden of fallenness? How do we respond when we or others feel like failures?
The Lord’s timeless solution is to recognize our fallenness, repent of our mistakes, and call on Him. There is no shame in humility. There is only love, joy, and hope. I love Ammon’s example:
Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever.
Therefore, let us glory, yea, we will glory in the Lord; yea, we will rejoice, for our joy is full; yea, we will praise our God forever. Behold, who can glory too much in the Lord? Yea, who can say too much of his great power, and of his mercy, and of his long-suffering towards the children of men? Behold, I say unto you, I cannot say the smallest part which I feel.
Who could have supposed that our God would have been so merciful as to have snatched us from our awful, sinful, and polluted state? (Alma 26:12, 16-17).
Rather than trying to build pride in ourselves and our own abilities, we turn to God to discover our true worth. We lean into His love for us. We access the repentance process to wash away our weaknesses and faults and provide us the opportunity for growth and renewal. We rest in knowing we are a treasured daughter or son of God and of inestimable value. We find our purpose in serving Him and His children. And instead of patting ourselves on the back for our talents, we are grateful for the gifts and strengths He gives to each of us individually. And we are grateful to Him for every opportunity He gives us to partner with Him in serving His children. That is God’s path towards spiritual and emotional well-being.
We can be patient and compassionate with each other and with ourselves. We can throw ourselves on the merits, mercy, and grace of the One who is mighty to save. We can take shelter in His love and goodness. We can be at peace knowing that He is determined to save us.
Jesus taught and modeled God-esteem. God-esteem is always better than self-esteem.
Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4(1), 1-44.
Bushman, B. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Threatened egotism, narcissism, self‑esteem, and direct and displaced aggression: does self‑love or self‑hate lead to violence? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, (1), 219‑29.
Harter, S. (1983). Developmental perspectives on the self-system. In E. M. Hetherington (Ed.), P. H. Mussen (Series Ed.), Handbook of child psychology, Vol. 4, Socialization, personality and social development (pp. 275-385). New York: Wiley.
Katz, L. G. (1993, November). Are we confusing self-esteem and narcissism? Young children, 49(1), 2-3.
Leary, Mark R. (2004). The curse of the self. Oxford, England: Oxford Press.
Mecca, A. M., Smelser, N. J., & Vasconcellos, J. (1989). The social importance of self-esteem. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Smith, L. L., & Elliott, C. H. (2001). Hollow kids. Roseville, CA: Prima.
Twenge, J. M. (2006). Generation me. New York: Free Press.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful refinements of this article.