Dear Jean, Week 4: Self-Absorbed Self-Esteem

“Like A Broken Record”, E.Thomas, Copyright 2016

“Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.” -Jean Vanier, Becoming Human

Dear Jean,

You or I could throw a stone into a bookstore and beat the Vegas odds by knocking over a book about self-esteem. If I was a betting woman, this would be a sure lock to paying off student debt. There are very few spaces in our first world sphere where self-esteem isn’t the springboard for personal growth. It’s like a broken record, repeating the same tired message over and over again: there’s far more to the story, but everyone’s stuck on the first fragment of the larger message and we all refuse to budge.

How do we deflate conflated low self-esteem?

I hear what you’re saying: we’re all broken, we’re all wounded, we’re all buying into negative messages that help shape terribly distorted versions of ourselves. We all listen to them. It becomes even scarier when we hear ourselves speak those same messages over others.

When I was younger, emotional management was difficult for me. Emotions were BIG, but I didn’t see them as big. I naturally assumed that how I felt about the world was the way everyone else felt about the world. So why ponder if something’s wrong with the size of my emotions when that possibility is not even a blip on the radar?

What I remember seeing in myself was a consistent overreaction to small things, but often a significant under-reaction to big things. It was during my overreactions that I heard the most criticism:

“You’re just trying to get attention.”

“You’re a drama queen.”

“You’re so self-centered.”

“You just want to be the center of attention.”

Those repeated words — center, attention, drama — were attached to my moral relationship with God. If I was overreacting to a situation (whether it was joyously, despairingly, fearfully, or carefully), I was sinning because I was demanding that attention be paid to me. And by making that demand, I was committing the sin of selfishness.

When I under-reacted to situations, I was ignored. It didn’t register on the radars of other people that a classmate’s father had just committed suicide the night before, and I completed all of my schoolwork for the day while the rest of my class sat together in tears. I don’t remember feeling much of anything other than I had to study for a test. So I studied.

In fact, as a look back, I under-reacted far more than I overreacted. I’m sure there were many days and nights my parents wished I would emerge from my basement room and be present with our family. Often there were dark times when I don’t recall feeling anything at all but gray deadness.

But teenagers, especially highly anxious/possibly AS teenagers, often don’t have the language to go to their parents and say:

“Excuse me, but all this talk about my overreactions just to attract attention is hurtful. It’s even more damaging to hear from the church and school and friends and youth group that I’m sinning by doing so. Could we please discuss how we could repair the gashes to my broken self-esteem? Thank you and kindest regards.” – Your Eldest Daughter.

I have to wonder: would the harmful impact have done just as much damage had the attention-seeking accusation NOT been attached to God’s relationship with me?

That was the clincher.

It seemed I was forever failing God.

Yet the doctrine of Original Sin reinforced that was not created good, or wanted, or loved. I was impossible to love except through the lens of Jesus. It made no sense to me. I only learned that I was unconditionally loved AFTER I said the right words and behaved in ways that showed inward transformation.

Maybe I was asking for attention.

Maybe there were no words for “Excuse me, Church, but you’re telling me that just by being born, I am damned to eternal conscious torment BUT if I confess how evil and awful I am before God, God will be able to love me again?”

Hindsight is 20/20, so there’s no way to say for sure what was really going on. I can say with certainty that I lived with daily guilt about who I was, who I was supposed to be for God, and who I was supposed to be for others. Guilt, shame, guilt, shame — it quickly became a fundamental part of my identity.

Attach a broken view of myself to God, I can learn to see myself as beloved and wanted and in relationship with the Divine and others.

Attach a CONDEMNED view of myself to God, and I learn to see myself as evil, born sinful, born awful, abhorrent, and only potentially lovable to God and others.

So back to that rock-throwing. Shall we try again? I’ll bet you a million dollars I’ll hit another book on self-esteem (tosses rock up and down in hand). I’ve given you some background about a broken view of myself from a religious background, but what about non-religious people or non-spiritual folks?

The reality that both of us could hit self-esteem/self-help books easily in any bookstore shows us that it isn’t just church people crying out in distress. It’s everyone.

And in good first world fashion, others have capitalized on our need and marketed the hell out of it.

I’ll confess to healing from a broken self and a broken view of self, but when does our need for help with healing become an addiction to self-esteem?

In our endless pursuit for fulfillment, awareness, insight and growth, we pander after movement after movement; book tour after book tour; trend after trend, and none of us seem the more fulfilled, aware, insightful or matured because of it all.

In our legitimate need to heal, have we become so stuck on ourselves that we flaunt our brokenness to the world? Are we that distorted in our pursuit of healing, that we try to be the most broken in our communities? The most hurt? The most inept?

Help me understand.

Help me understand when vulnerable sharing is true and needed; and when displaying all colours of our perceived brokenness is little more than…attention-seeking.

Help me understand this vacuous space we seem to be living in that sucks towards us all of these self-help books, lists of how to be happy, tips towards positivity,  and theory after theory about how we must focus on our own self-esteems first and foremost.

Does it all really begin with esteem?

Or have we conflated one aspect of our own identities so egregiously that we can only see this bulging stomach of our self-esteems, while the rest of who we are in God is ignored? We are, indeed, broken people. Every one of us.

But when does genuine healing, fast or slow, become the celebration? When can we put down the foci on ourselves, and be celebratory of the healing and love in others without worry or thought as to how this will (or will not) affect our own esteems?

Your turn.

Throw your rock.

I bet you a million dollars.

Until next time,

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