Many in the Evangelical church have debated the question of self-esteem for decades. “We need to think less of ourselves, not more,” the argument goes. Some thought it preposterous that we would be telling people that they should love themselves. Self-love was seen as antithetical to loving God. I heard volumes of speech, some official and some just self-appointed, against the idea of loving oneself.
This caused me great conflict inside. I knew that I did not love myself enough. My self-hate kept me from being able to fully connect to God or anyone else and also disabled me from fulfilling the calling I had long known was on my life. It opened me up to the abuse pattern continuing as an adult and allowed many, many lies of the enemy to be perpetuated throughout every area of relationship with myself, others, and God.
Abuse Begets Abuse
I grew up believing that I deserved to be treated the way all of my abusers treated me. I wouldn’t have said that consciously. But it was certainly how I acted. It was almost like I had a sticker on my forehead that said “Kick me.” And people did. Lots of people, both literally and figuratively.
I became a target for all the school bullies. I was constantly bullied at home and learned to respond to everyone in either obnoxious defensiveness, or cowering fear. It was the only way I knew to relate. And there were plenty of people who were willing to react true to the pattern I had learned. If I was fearful, they would tease me and beat me up. If I would try to defend myself, they would taunt me and beat me up. They knew that I couldn’t stick up for myself- I was emotionally incapable of it because I had always been torn to pieces in any attempt at doing so.
I was put down daily by my alcoholic father and brothers, and sometimes even by my little sisters. If I had owned a tail, I am quite sure it would usually have been between my legs. And like a dog who sends off the signals of submission, others know how to read it and are ready to assert their dominance.
Having no one to accurately reflect my worth to me, I didn’t have a fighting chance. I hated the cruel treatment I received at home and at school, but didn’t know that I could do anything about it. At 14 when my father and brothers both left the house after my parents’ divorce, I got a picture of what living in relative peace was like. That was when I actually hit back one of the playground bullies that had followed me into high school (she never tried to hit me again after that…oh that I had been able to do it a decade earlier!). It took me many decades beyond that to be able to set and keep boundaries with people who emotionally abused me, however. I even still can have struggles with that one.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) says that poor self-esteem is the most universal symptom of abuse survivors. From my experience in my life and my work with other people, I would have to agree. While going through the Life Skills International program I learned that any act of abuse is an act of rejection. I also learned that the very hardest thing to heal from is rejection from one’s family of origin.
Every time I was belittled, hit, laughed at, left out, called names, looked down upon, and touched inappropriately, I was being rejected. One or more of those types of activities occurred in my life several times a day, for as long as I can remember. My life as a child, and even parts of it as an adult, was inundated with rejection.
A Truthful Voice
There was one significant person in my life that mirrored my value to me. Her name was Mimi. She was a camp counselor at a church camp I attended in the California Sierra when I was 14. For one amazing week, she spoke truth into my life about who I really was. After that week was over, she sent me two letters that I kept in my journal. Those letters are well worn from being read over and over throughout the years. I’m sure that Mimi has little idea of the impact that her few words had in that short time that I knew her. But really, those words became a lifeline that kept me tied to the reality of God’s love for me and His purpose in my life. I can honestly say that, without Mimi’s brief influence, I would probably not be doing what I am doing today. It was through her words that I was able to hang onto any positive self image at all.
Seeing Ourselves Clearly
Self esteem, for me, is the ability to see myself clearly. That includes strengths and weaknesses, whole places and broken places. It means that I know that I am lovable and that I have struggles. But the weaknesses don’t disqualify me from being treated with honor and respect, just as others’ weaknesses don’t justify abusive treatment from me. Self esteem says that I can behold myself as made in the image of God and that it is good. Not perfect, but good. And that the God who made me takes delight in being close to me.
Without the ability to ascribe value to myself, I cannot receive love and I certainly cannot give it. If I believe that I am not worth loving, anyone else’s attempts at giving me something good will fail, like trying to put a sticker on Teflon. In fact, when we have low self esteem, we are more self-focused, not less. Individuals who know their own worth are the ones most able to take their eyes off themselves and be sensitive to others’ needs and pain. As we align our thinking about ourselves with how God sees us, we become free to forget about how we are perceived by others and can concern ourselves with being the hands and feet that exhibit God’s love for those around us who are hurting.
Every act of abuse communicates that a child is worthless except as they serve the twisted purpose of their abuser. We as a society are responsible both to stop the abusers and to bring the truth of each person’s value into clear view. As survivors battle the lies of the rejection they have experienced, those who claim to share God’s heart for the world should be the first to speak and act out the truth of each person’s great worth, and encourage those wounded souls to embrace their own beauty. Only then will they be set free to become all they were created to be.