Self-Esteem or Self-Worth?

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Self-Esteem or Self-Worth?

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In the 1980s the self-esteem movement began sweeping through society. It was assumed that people needed a healthy dose of compliments—regardless of their performance or actions—in order to be happy and successful. The gurus of self-esteem told us that all we needed to do was to love ourselves more, accept ourselves unconditionally and respond to any shortcomings with self-nurturing affirmations that we're good enough just as we are.

It sounded so great and felt so good to think of ourselves as successful, regardless of what had been said or done, that millions of parents and teachers accepted the premise. Young people began receiving participation awards instead of ones based on hard work and accomplishment. Anyone who was unsuccessful or discouraged was diagnosed as suffering from low self-esteem.

The movement penetrated churches, and supposed scriptural support was discovered in the biblical instruction to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 19:19). And it felt good to love ourselves. After all, how could we love our neighbor if we didn't first love ourselves? Yet the biblical directive here is based on the premise that we already love ourselves. It doesn't imply that we need to build up more self-love.

In February of this year, five psychologists turned the tables on the popular perception that the self-esteem movement has been good for us. Having administered the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to 16,000 college students between 1982 and 2006, these psychologists found that "narcissism and entitlement among college students are at an all-time high" ("Gen Y Loves Itself Too Much, SDSU Study Reports,"

Professor Jean Twenge, a coauthor of the study, "noted that people high in narcissism lack empathy for others, are aggressive when insulted, seek public glory and favor self-enhancement over helping others look good."

She explained that "current technology fuels the increase in narcissism. By its very name, MySpace encourages attention-seeking, as does YouTube" (ibid.). Sadly, narcissism—an emphasis on loving ourselves to the exclusion of others—was foretold by the Bible to be common at the end of this age (2 Timothy 3:1-2).

Confirming that something was wrong with the self-esteem movement, many gang members and people in prison were found to have very high self-esteem. This led Dr. David Arredondo to conclude that "gang members have too much self-esteem and too little self-worth" (Center for Restorative Practice, Feb. 28, 2007,

The Bible also warns us against overemphasis on self. Philippians 2:3 says, "In lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself." Each of us is special, but not in the way so many self-help gurus have taught. This issue is dedicated to helping each of us have a biblical perspective of our worth, a better relationship with our Creator and a godly worldview. VT