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Self-esteem or self-denial this lent?

Under 35s, the ‘millennial generation’, have perhaps the highest self-esteem in history. They’re increasingly called “Generation Me”. Back in the 50s, 12% of teens agreed with the statement “I am an important person.” 30 years later it was 80%. Male students in recent studies have higher self-esteem than 86% of those in 1968.[1] A casual look at our culture reflects this: the rise in reality TV, talent shows, social media ‘updates’ and ‘selfies’. Britons now take 35 million ‘selfie’ photos each month. ‘Millennials’ have been described as ‘narcissistic, overconfident, entitled and lazy.’[2] I suppose I’m glad I’m just over 35 then!

One reason for this change has been a culture of trying to boost self-esteem.  It began with psychologists seeking to help those with clinically low self-worth. But the idea caught on that everyone could benefit from a ‘boost.’ So since the 60s, in business, education, parenting and popular culture, the importance of loving self has been promoted. And we’ve lapped it up.

Of course it has influenced the church too. Few would be explicit, but it’s almost become a 3rd great commandment, to ‘love ourselves’. Many books and celebrity Christians tell us things like ‘to God you’re big stuff’.[3] The gospel is easily presented as a Christian version of self-fulfilment.

But how does this square with Christ’s teaching? "And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." (Mark 8:34 ESV) It sounds so different to today’s voices. Can we really believe Jesus? Is his call even psychologically healthy?

Well first, there is increasing evidence that self-esteem ‘boosting’ hasn’t had the benefits hoped for. This is not to deny that individuals can greatly profit from professional help. But on a population level, the evidence is thin. Hundreds of studies have demonstrated a correlation between low self-esteem and poor educational achievement, anxiety, depressive, drug and eating disorders. But higher quality population studies that track low self-esteem over time show little evidence that it causes these things. It is more probable that low self-esteem actually results from these problems. A recent large analysis of studies concluded: “We have not found evidence that boosting self-esteem (by therapeutic interventions or school programs) causes benefits. Our findings do not support continued widespread efforts to boost self-esteem.”[4] Researchers are concerned that indiscriminate praise has less healthy outcomes, such as the disordered self-love of ‘narcissism’. In 2009, 58% more students scored higher for narcissism traits than in 1982, and Narcissistic personality disorder is three times higher among millennials than those over 65.

This all suggests that indiscriminate self-esteem ‘boosting’ is a blind alley. Christ’s call offers a better solution. Rather than focus on self, Christ is saying, forget ourselves.

And his call is vital: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36 ESV) The holy angels in 8:38 show that he’s thinking of eternal consequences. It’s much worse than merely narcissism. And his call is radical; it’s not about giving up chocolate for lent. It’s giving your whole life to him and taking up the cross (i.e. dying to self-rule). But as we lose our lives, paradoxically we gain eternal life (Mark 8:35).

And this eternal life begins now. As we turn from disordered self-love to Christ we find one who loves us warts and all. We find a new and wonderful relationship. Christ doesn’t tell his disciples how amazing we are, but rather that he loves us to the end in spite of all our faults.

And Christ’s call also gives us a new task as we follow him:  to make disciples of all nations. As Glynn Harrison put it: God doesn’t say to us “You’re special” that’s the solution of self-esteem. He says to us, “you are part of something special, come follow me!” In a world saturated with the self, a group of people who serve a radically self-denying Christ and who live self-denying lives will really stand out.

So this lent why not commit again to radical self-denial and watch out for unhealthy self-love. This way we will be able to impact Generation Me, which urgently needs to hear Christ’s call too.

Nick Weir was a practising Psychiatrist before ordination. He is now a Curate at St Mary’s, Basingstoke and a member of the Latimer Trust Theological work group.

[1] Jean M. Twenge “Generation Me” 2007

[2] Joel Stein “The New Greatest Generation” Time Magazine May 20 2013.

[3] Glynn Harrison “ The Big Ego Trip” 2013. A Christian Psychiatrist explores Self-esteem.

[4] Roy F. Baumeister et al “Does High Self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles?” Psychological Science in the public interest. 2003.


This article was first published in the CEN in April 2014

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