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Diving Deeper into Life & Love

  • Writer's pictureSteven Spotts, PsyD

Realistic & Reliable Self Esteem, One of Sixteen Essential Characteristics of Healthy Relationships

This is the eighth of 16 characteristics of mental health identified by Nancy McWilliams, a psychologist, at a conference I attended several years ago. So we're at the halfway point of this series.

I find them helpful in considering how our individual mental health plays itself out into our relational health. In particular, I am interested the kinds of things that help us experience deeper levels of intimacy in our interpersonal world and thought her list might make a good self appraisal instrument for couples. If you are not experiencing the kinds of intimacy you wish you were in your closest relationships, read through this series and think about how well you exhibit each of these characteristics and how that benefits or potentially harms those close to you.

Today, we will look at what it means to have a "realistic and reliable self esteem." What I hope to do first is to define "self esteem."

To esteem something is to value it. So self esteem is really about how well we value ourself. This value is both objective and subjective and can vary greatly over time, place, and situation.

Objectively (that is, as determined by things outside of ourself) our value is defined and shaped by multiple factors. These can include things like the way our parents, siblings, teachers and friends valued (or, perhaps didn't value) us. We also gain a sense of value from more general cultural influences like our socio economic status including how much money we have, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, or which side of the railroad tracks we live on. Then there are things like our race, our education, our physical characteristics, our unique abilities, skills, or other capacities that others value or many times don't.

In the United States, our founding fathers believed that "all men are created equal" or, at least, they believed it was important enough to put it into our Declaration of Independence. Shortly thereafter the colonies began to pass laws in regard to slavery that suggested some actually did believe this tenet as they worked to codify this belief. In 1777 Vermont became the first of those 13 colonies to abolish slavery and enfranchise all adult males.

Of course, this political and cultural shaping of our culture continues to this day. Its statement in the Declaration simultaneously highlighted another problem in regard to how the culture valued (or actually undervalued) women. Even now, those in the minority, including those who are most vulnerable like imigrants, orphaned children, homeless, and others lacking power or position to objectively define their value, find it much more difficult to find cultural support for their value.

The more I have read and understood the Bible the more I have seen what, in retrospect, appears to be a fairly obvious point:

God, the creator of all humanity, is impartial. He didn't create some of us with value and some without. He created us differently and uniquely but each human creation has inherent value as one who bears His image and reflects that image to others.

Some of us may do a poor job of reflecting that value, but maybe that is like having a scratched or distorted lens on a very expensive camera. It can't help but affect the final photo in how it is perceived but not necessarily in how it is valued.

Subjectively, our own sense of value is impacted by each of the objective determinants mentioned above (plus many others). Each is filtered by our own constellation of life experiences that shape our internal sense of who we are and the meaning we attach to that definition. None of us can really see ourselves clearly, can we? Some of that subjective value was formed in our early life, others formed in the back and forth, here and now interactions of our current relationships.

Think about how your self esteem (i.e. value) can positively impact your closest relationships while a lack of such esteem can destroy any possibility of achieving or maintaining the kind of relationship that is truly satisfying.

Even as I write this I can remember and feel the shame of a comment I heard in fourth grade from another student that I was weird for wearing the same pants everyday. He seemed to imply that our family was too poor to buy me a sufficient wardrobe and that somehow made me ridiculous in his eyes.

In truth, I actually owned three pair of the same pants. I was tall and slim and it was virtually impossible in that era to find clothes that fit me (It's still rather difficult since I am 6'9" and tall-men's clothes are notoriously ill fitting and usually 10 years out of date. Even Nike, a world famous athletic company 10 minutes from my home cannot seem to make clothes that fit ex-athletes. I really don't get it—and I digress—but if you are paying attention right now you can probably still hear the pain the original comment engendered in me over 50 years ago. At that time there was only one brand and style of pants that fit me. So, even though it was not objectively true (we weren't rich but neither were we particularly poor) I carry his old shameful message with me and often still cringe at the thought of wearing clothes that are not appropriately stylish. But seriously, Nike.

Many other memories exist alongside that one which inform how I feel about myself in relation to others. Experiences with females (my mother, my sisters, classmates, etc) have shaped how I came to value myself in relation to them. My sense of masculinity was filtered through my father's filters (and his through his father's and so forth). It was also shaped by my biology, genetics, athletic pursuits, esthetic and creative interests, a rich imagination, etc. So it is not surprising these values I place on myself also impacts me in my marriage and how I relate to my wife as a woman, as well as how I understand her to relate to me as a man.

My maleness, my physicality, my athleticism, my intellect, my writing ability, my clumsiness, my easy going nature, my passion, my distractibility and complexity, etc., all play in part in how I have come to value who I am.

Each of my past internal valuations of both my "self and other" impact my relationships in the here and now but each of these here and now relational interactions impact all of my future relationships as well.

When we think about our value we also realize that it is not a constant. Have you ever had a car accident (or done something similar) and called yourself "dumb." I bought a car recently and before I had even made the first payment I ran into the back of someone. Fortunately, no one was hurt (except my pride and my bank account) and after a brief dive into self deprecation I rebounded and was able to think about the accident more meaningfully.

But this is why the qualifying words, "realistic and reliable" are significant when thinking about a characteristic such as our self esteem that can easily fluctuate.

"Realistic" means that we see ourselves as we truly are. We are neither the hero nor the goat of all humanity.

We are certainly capable of marvelous and magnificent deeds. Watch some "People are Awesome" videos on YouTube just to remind yourself. While you are at it you may want to watch some "Fail" videos as well to remind yourself just how foolish we can also be. And I do me "we."

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is found in Paul's letter to church at Rome when he reminds the reader "...not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think, but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith." Sound judgment regarding our value, that is what we are after,

"Reliable" has to do with the stability of our value over time.

Esteem can be pretty fragile, especially if our past is full of doubters and naysayers. It doesn't take much sometimes to trigger a chorus of boos or catcalls from the sidelines in our mind's eye as we interact in the here and now. I once read a Joyce Landorf book called "Balcony People" that I greatly appreciated for the image she planted in me of people in my balcony cheering me on, giving me a standing ovation for my efforts in navigating the complexities of life.

A realistic and reliable self esteem helps those of us in close intimate relationships to hang in there with each other when the inevitable flaws, false steps, or peccadillos of ourself or our partner come to the fore.

When we truly value ourself, we have no reason to hide from one another and every reason to tell the truth about ourself. Vulnerability is always the prerequisite of intimacy, and if we are able to hold on to the truth about ourself in the most difficult of our interpersonal encounters, then we are able to express our vulnerability that has been awakened by such an encounter.

This is the doorway into intimacy and the relational meaning we all long for. We can be truly known and can truly know our partner, rather than be undone by the anxieties aroused by our personal shame or fear and distrust of the other.

Finally, I hope to offer a few ideas about how one can build a stronger self esteem. Many ideas you might have read in this regard may feel a little bit like trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps (a physical impossibility). However, there are a few things we can do that we know will actually help to increase self esteem.

For one, confidence (a close cousin to self esteem) comes from competence. If we can do something, take action (remember "agency" from a couple of weeks ago) that has a successful or meaningful outcome we gain confidence. Even "failures" can help equip us with the belief that failure is not usually deadly; and learning from our failures can lead us into a greater and greater willingness to try again. We begin to see that we have it in us, even if it is not always perfect or as amazing as we hoped or imagined.

Ironically, perhaps, another known esteem builder is an intimate relationship. I don't mean sex, I mean a close encounter with another human being.

Remember, humans are image bearers of God Himself. When we get close to one who bears His image well, we experience His holiness and the healing power of that interaction. The Genesis story tells us we were created for that very kind of intimate relationship with Him.

It's ironic in the sense that the reason I am writing about these characteristics is so that we can assess how well we express them toward others. If I need to qualitatively express them to build more health into my relationships, how do I further develop those qualities I lack if my primary close relationships don't reflect that health back to me?

I have several ideas about this but one suggestion is personal therapy. While therapists are far from perfect (I speak from experience) therapy is able to offer some things that may be missing in our closest relationships.

It's safe in that is completely confidential. Talking is the coin of the realm so you can (and need to) talk about everything (and I mean every thought that occurs to you) as honestly as you can.

It's singular in its focus in that since you are paying for the time the therapist is free to completely focus on you and your needs.

It's secure in that If something goes sideways in your relationship with your therapist, he/she is committed to working through whatever relational rupture or hiccup occurs.

It's similar enough to your other relationships to serve as a model for how to relate while different enough to provide a learning environment where mistakes are not fatal to the relationship itself.

I'll offer one more idea for now. A friend of mine used to say,

"If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly."

Think about that for a moment. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing. Not because it is successful but because it is worth it.

I think we can apply this to self esteem as well. You have value because you have value. It's not because you are amazing in some measurable way, but simply because you have incredible worth and value as a image bearer of God Himself. We do not yet see the full expression of that. We only get hints of it and catch the briefest of glimpses. It points to the idea that our created potential is only dimly seen at the moment. If that is true of you, it is also true of those with whom you are in relationship. Humans aren't yet what we are created to be. See if you can remember that the next time you become frustrated with your significant other..

Each of these subjects could be explored in much greater detail and deserve to be. My hope is that in these brief looks you will finds something helpful in thinking about what kind of relationships you have and what you bring to them in terms of health.

Next time we will be looking at "Abiding Values." I hope you will join me.

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