Self-Esteem, Self-Compassion, Self-Love and Self-Care: Towards a Biblical Appraisal

Self-esteem, self-compassion, self-love, self-care. These are all hot topics in modern culture. As Christians it is sometimes easy to dismiss all these concepts as stemming from our systemic “focus on self” instead of thinking carefully about what these concepts actually mean and how they relate to Biblical teaching.

Before jumping into this topic, it should be noted that the fact that a concept has to do with the self does not automatically make it suspect. As we grow from spiritual sickness to spiritual wholeness, sometimes we need to focus on the self, just as a person who has a weight problem sometimes needs to focus on his weight, or a person with a broken leg needs to focus on his leg.

Self-Esteem vs. Self-Compassion

We are spiritually sick creatures, and our sickness sometimes runs deep into our very self-concepts. Worldly wisdom offers us various solutions to help address disordered self-concepts with the aim of helping us feel good about ourselves. One such concept is that of self-esteem.

Self-esteem is very different than self-compassion. Although the two may seem the same to a naive observer, they are worlds apart. Self-compassion has its origins in the teachings of Christianity, whereas self-esteem has its origins in secular humanism. Self-esteem is actually the narcissistic parody of self-compassion.

Self-esteem involves a subjective decision to evaluate oneself (including one’s abilities, accomplishments and circumstances) in a positive way. The goal of self-esteem is not to help a person become better, but merely to feel better. Accordingly, self-esteem is disconnected from questions of virtue (is the decision to think of myself in this way moving me closer towards ethical goals?) as well as disconnected from questions of truth (is the decision to think of myself in this way in line with the objective reality about myself?). Through its dislocation from virtue, self-esteem can easily collapse into narcissism, while its dislocation from truth can cause self-esteem to collapse into delusion, like the cat in this picture who can only feel good about herself through being deluded into thinking she is a lion.

Self-esteem can lead to delusion about one’s abilities, circumstances and accomplishments.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, is about being forgiving, patient, kind and loving to yourself, as well as treating negative feelings with mindfulness instead of harsh self-criticism. The goal of self-compassion is not simply to make us feel better, but to help us become more virtuous, as we begin adopting postures towards the self that provide a fruitful incentive for personal growth and compassion towards others.

Empirical research shows the benefits of self-compassion over self-esteem. The State of California poured $250,000 a year into an initiative designed to raise children’s self-esteem. Based on conventional wisdom, they expected the increase in self-esteem to boost grades, reduce bullying, crime, teen pregnancy and substance abuse. In reality, the initiative was a complete failure.[1] Empirical research now shows that increasing a person’s self-esteem often leads to self-validating assessments of abilities and qualities that undermine the process of further learning and improvement.[2] Inflated beliefs about the self may also lead to aggression in response to threatened egotism.[3] Self-esteem also leads to a fragile sense of self-worth, since one’s self-worth becomes dependent on self-concepts that may be threatened through lack of external validation, failure, alteration in circumstances or moments of genuine self-knowledge. “In fact, a striking finding of the study was that people with high self-esteem were much more narcissistic than those with low self-esteem.”[4]

By contrast, the research shows that self-compassion is completely unassociated with narcissism. From Dr. Kristin Neff’s book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself:

“…self-compassion was clearly associated with steadier and more constant feelings of self-worth than self-esteem. We also found that self-compassion was less likely than self-esteem to be contingent on particular outcomes like social approval, competing successfully, or feeling attractive. When our sense of self-worth stems from being a human being intrinsically worthy of respect — rather than being contingent on obtaining certain ideals — our sense of self-worth is much less easily shaken.”[5]

I like what Wikipedia has to say about self-compassion vs. self-esteem:

Self-compassion has different effects than self-esteem, a subjective emotional evaluation of the self. Although psychologists extolled the benefits of self-esteem for many years, recent research has exposed costs associated with the pursuit of high self-esteem, including narcissism, distorted self-perceptions, contingent and/or unstable self-worth, as well as anger and violence toward those who threaten the ego. It appears that self-compassion offers the same mental health benefits as self-esteem, but with fewer of its drawbacks such as narcissism, ego-defensive anger, inaccurate self-perceptions, self-worth contingency, or social comparison


What About Self-Love – is it Biblical?

But what about self-love? Right now a lot of people are discussing self-love because of a video from “Allie on CRTV” that hit social media a few weeks ago on the topic of why self-love is unbiblical. Here’s the video.

In her video discussion, Allie makes a lot of helpful observations about our culture of narcissism and how worldly assumptions have turned egotism into virtue. Part of this culture of selfishness, she contends, is the notion of self-love, including the lie that if you do not properly love yourself then you can’t properly love others. She also takes a bash at the importance of self-care, exclaiming “the Bible never mentions self-care.”

I agree with much of what Allie says in this video, yet I am wondering if she has thrown the Biblical baby out with the worldly bathwater.

Part of the problem with having our theology mediated through charismatic social media heroes is that nuance and careful definitions can be lost amidst polemics. When it comes to love, we always need to start by carefully defining our terms lest we fall prey to worldly assumptions. According to worldly ways of thinking, a father who adores his son so much that he can’t bring himself to discipline him is manifesting “love.” Yet Proverbs 13:24 tells us that a father “hates” his son if he does not discipline him. Worldly love is not the same as Biblical love! To give another example, according to the worldly definition of love, if a man entices a wife to leave her family to pursue an adulterous relationship with him, this is because he “loves” her so much. According to the Bible, however, a man who is willing to ruin a woman’s life and jeopardize her salvation, hates this woman no matter how much he might tell himself that his actions are being motivated out of “love.”

In this video, when Allie discusses self-love, she seems to assume a selfish, narcissistic definition of love. There is nothing linguistically problematic with using love in this way, and our English Bibles use the term “love” in a variety of ways, ranging from Christ-like sacrificial love (1 Cor. 13) to worldly and selfish love (1 John 2:15). But this wide semantic range makes it all the more important to define what we mean by love before a discussion about the ethics of “self-love” can even get off the ground.

Consider that 2 Timothy 3:2 condemns those who are “lovers of themselves”, while elsewhere Scripture sometimes discusses the love and care we have for ourselves as a framework for understanding our need to love others (Ephesians 5:29; Mark 12:31). So which is it: should we love ourselves or not? Given what I’ve already said, the answer surely depends on the quality of the love in question. Just as our love for another human can be either virtuous or selfish, so our love for ourselves can either draw us closer to Christ or further away from Him.

So what might a proper Christ-centered self-love look like? Well, we know that true agape love that comes from God is always oriented towards what is best for the other (1 Cor. 13:4-7). If this type of true spiritual love is applied to oneself, then it simply means pursuing what is in my spiritual best interests. If I do not pursue my best interests—for example, if I pursue a narcissistic lifestyle that moves me away from the Source of life, destroys my soul and ushers in my spiritual destruction—then I am actually hating myself, just as a father who spoils his son is hating him (Prov. 13:24). To pursue what is in my best interest is to develop the true self that God created and values while rejecting the false ego-self that warps and twists me out of shape (I have discussed this in more detail in my article “Struggle to Find Your True Self.”) Here are some suggestions about what this proper self-love might look like in practice (and keep in mind that few, if any, of these goals are fully attainable in this life, although we can be working towards them):

  • Loving myself means that I will respect myself as a valuable creation of God;
  • Loving myself means I will be patient with the Holy Spirit’s work in my life;
  • Loving myself means that I will accept God’s forgiveness of me;
  • Loving myself means that I will turn away from selfish behaviors that feel good in the moment but which will actually harm me;
  • Loving myself means that I will put boundaries in place to protect my dignity, including saying no to people who are demeaning or abusing me;
  • Loving myself means that I will strive for authentic self-knowledge, even when that knowledge is painful;
  • Loving myself means that I will reject self-harming behaviors (i.e., shame, perfectionism, self-criticism) and self-harming beliefs (i.e., the lie that I am unworthy of belonging, connection and acceptance);
  • Loving myself means that I am willing to exercise “tough love” towards myself, pursuing what is God’s will for my life instead of simply what I want.
  • Loving myself means that I will pursue appropriate self-care.

This last point is controversial, given Allie’s comment that “the Bible never mentions self-care.” Maybe she’s correct about that, but I find it interesting that in St. John Chrysostom’s letters to St. Olympia, he promoted self-care as an application of the principle of avoiding temptation. St. John argued that when we don’t take proper care of ourselves, we become more vulnerable to temptations. Accordingly, he advocated various self-care techniques—ranging from special medicinal remedies to baths to cognitive reframing activities—to advance one’s physical and emotional wellness. (See my earlier article, “Orthodox Spirituality and Self-Care.”)

Back to self-love. Why does this matter? Are we just getting lost in a debate over semantics?

Well, consider some practical implications. The devil often tries to block genuine repentance by provoking us to feel self-loathing, toxic shame and self-rejection. These maladaptive conditions essentially proclaim that God made a mistake when He created you. Many of us have descended into these shame-patterns without even realizing it. This might be because of experiences as a child, or maybe because we’ve internalized other people’s false definitions of us. Or we may experience subliminal shame and self-loathing because we are not availing ourselves of the cleansing that follows regular repentance and confession (Ps. 51; 1 Jn. 1:9). Whatever its origin, toxic shame and self-loathing cause a misfiring of the impulse to repent in much the same way that lust and possessive behaviors are a misfiring of the impulse to love. At its most severe, shame and self-rejection lead to self-harming behaviors and even suicide. As this becomes more and more of a problem, a Biblical emphasis on self-love becomes important. And it is important within the context of humility. Unfortunately, many people mistake shame and self-hatred for humility. They may imagine that humility means thinking poorly of themselves. In reality, humility does not involve thinking poorly of ourselves; rather, it involves thinking very little of ourselves. Above all, humility is about being a servant to those around us, putting the needs of others above our own.

It may seem like a paradox, but healthy self-acceptance goes hand in hand with repentance and humility. The devil knows that if he can get us to hate ourselves—to descend into self-loathing and toxic shame—then it becomes almost impossible for us to have a healthy hatred of our sin. Here’s why: when a person is burdened down by toxic shame, then genuine self-knowledge or constructive criticism merely add to the feeling of worthlessness. When a person struggles with feeling worthless, then shortcomings and mistakes can demolish him, causing him to turn on himself in anger instead of turning to God in repentance. A sense of inner worthlessness also virtually guarantees that our stability will depend on those around us (i.e., what other people think of us, what other people say about us, how other people treat us), with the result that it is hard to become vulnerable without fear or to love without assurance of return.

Moreover, if we feel worthless then we may try to fill our inner void by clinging to inauthentic versions of ourselves, including seeking value through accomplishments, striving or personal gain. Or we may intentionally avoid actions that could cause growth, such as taking risks in relationships, facing conflict constructively or putting ourselves in situations that will stretch us. We often avoid these types of healthy behaviors from a fear that our sense of worthlessness will merely be confirmed (“I knew I was always a failure”, “I knew nobody could ever like me”, etc.).

True humility, on the other hand, values the person God created: the self that is uniquely you, the self that God loves regardless of what you achieve and regardless of how other people think of you. A humble person is not demolished or shocked by his sin, because he knows that sin does not destroy his worth in the eyes of God. That is true Biblical self-love!

Without this type of humble self-acceptance, we cannot truly be there for others. Have you ever noticed that people who devalue themselves find it hard to accept others? Indeed, people who struggle with self-rejection and shame often find it hard to forgive, to empathize or to listen attentively to other people’s needs. On the other hand, when we can see ourselves for who we truly are—including all our sin, failure and imperfection—and STILL accept ourselves as part of the creation that God declared truly good (Gen. 1:31), then that is powerful in giving us the inner resources to forgive and love others unconditionally. Self-compassion can transform into compassion for others.

The Eastern Orthodox priest and psychologist, Dr. David Fontes, has gone so far as to suggest that the root of all spiritual malady is a failure to value ourselves. Here is what Dr. Fontes writes  about the connection between self-valuation and virtue in his book In the Eyes of Your Creator (notice how he also draws a connection with self-care):

“Our spiritual and psychological problem seems to be that we don’t fully comprehend how valuable we are to God, how important we are to Him. If we did, we would behave much differently than we do. Do we treat everyone we know as being extraordinarily valuable in our eyes, even those who have treated us poorly or are not precious to us?…If we value our bodies with godly care, we are not likely to abuse them with drugs or unhealthful behavior. If we see with our spiritual eyes how valuable we are in the eyes of our Creator, we are more likely to want to avoid sin and spiritual corruption. If we treat our spouse as someone precious and extremely valuable to us, we are likely to have a better and stronger marriage. If we show people in the world how much they are valued as God’s creation, we may see less unnecessary suffering in the world around us. …when people don’t know their own sense of personal value in the eyes of God, it makes it harder for them to believe anyone else (including their partner) could value them simply for who they are. The devaluation of others is the result of a spiritual disorder within us. When we don’t have a revelation, a spiritual intuition, an awakening to our personal value in the eyes of God, we are more inclined to sin against others. God has never stopped valuing and loving us, but our disorder of sin has obscured or covered that knowledge within our hearts. It then becomes much harder for us to show others we truly value them. I think this is the most chronic problem of our day and has been so in every generation since the creation of Adam and Eve. Sadly, we eventually begin to believe the devaluation we receive from others to be justified.”

Footnotes

[1] Eric Barker, “How to Improve Self-Esteem: A Secret from Research,” The Week, March 4, 2016, http://theweek.com/articles/607121/how-improve-selfesteem-secret-from-research.

[2] Jennifer Crocker and Lora E. Park, “The Costly Pursuit of Self-Esteem,” Psychological Bulletin 130, no. 3 (May 2004): 392–414, https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.130.3.392.

[3] R. F. Baumeister, L. Smart, and J. M. Boden, “Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem,” Psychological Review 103, no. 1 (January 1996): 5–33.

[4] Dr Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Reprint edition (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2015), 156.

[5] Dr Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Reprint edition (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2015), 156.