In my soon to be released book with Dr. Kathy Armistead, I outline the “10 Commandments” of sound character development. These “commandments” represent the important life lessons years of experience has taught me a person needs to master to forge a healthy character. And I’ve been discussing these character imperatives and previewing my upcoming book in the current series of posts. The third “commandment” of sound character development speaks to developing a healthy sense of self-worth. And it advises:
You are neither an insignificant speck nor are you so precious or essential to the universe that it simply cannot do without you. To be of sound character, keep a balanced perspective of your sense of self-worth.
As I mentioned in a prior post, it’s essential we work to overcome our innate tendency toward egocentrism (see the series beginning with Character’s First Commandment: It’s not All About You) We do this by recognizing the impact of both our presence and our behavior on the world around us. It’s equally important that we strive to be grateful, appreciating our obligations and debts, and overcoming any destructive sense of entitlement (see also the series beginning with: Commandment 2: Humble Gratitude). And for the sake of our emotional, psychological, and spiritual health, it’s always a good idea to strive for balance in most areas of life. But when it comes to our character development, nowhere is the need for balance greater than with respect to our sense of self-importance or self-worth.
For a long time one could hardly pick up a self-help psychology book without reading something about self-esteem. But for far too long there have been some serious misconceptions about the nature of this important aspect of a person’s psychological well-being. The word “esteem” has its roots in Old French and Latin and literally means “to estimate.” Over time, self-esteem has come to mean the intuitive “estimate” people make of their worth as human beings. I have long believed this intuitive estimate of self-worth generally derives from the things people know they have going for themselves, for example, their talents, abilities, looks, and intellect. And recently, empirical research has lent considerable support to this notion. So, individuals who have much going for them and know they do are likely to have a fair degree of self-esteem.
For a long time, well-intentioned but misguided professionals advanced the notion that most psychological problems stem from low self-esteem. They also harbored the misconception that a person can never have enough self-esteem. Another serious misconception is that whenever someone displays excessive or inflated self-esteem (i.e. appears too “full” of himself or herself, it’s really a compensation for underlying feelings of insecurity or inferiority. But evidence has been mounting that this notion is deeply flawed. While such a characterization can sometimes be true, more often than not, disturbed characters who engage in grandiose and unrealistic self-appraisal are not “compensating” for anything. They really do think and act like they’re “all that,” whether or not they have anything to show for themselves.
People can indeed think far too much of themselves and that always has disastrous consequences for their character development. An inflated sense of self worth is detrimental to relationships (as Dr. Armistead and I illustrate in How Did We End Up Here?) and many aspects of social functioning. So it’s crucial we develop a healthy and balanced sense of self-worth. But that means having self-esteem that is neither inflated nor deficient. My clinical research for Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing suggested there are certain things that can dramatically affect one’s self-esteem, and not necessarily for the good. One way I’ve learned we can inflate self-esteem is to heap praise and credit on people for things they can’t rightfully attribute to their own doing. So if a person receives a lot of validation for his or her appearance, intellect, talent, or any God-given (or nature-endowed) gift, they run the risk of thinking too much of themselves without much cause. Thanks to the pioneering work of a researcher named Brumelman, this notion has gained empirical support. On the other hand, individuals less endowed with the “gifts” society seems to value, or who have unfortunately been the victims of emotional abuse or neglect while growing up or who experience other types of trauma that cause them to question their worth, can enter adult life with seriously deficient self-esteem. To have a healthy sense of self-worth, our self-esteem has to be in proper balance. But balanced self-esteem is not all we need. We also need a proper degree of self-respect. And that develops differently than our self-esteem. We’ll talk about that more in next week’s post.
More workshop training dates have been posted on the seminars page, so you might want to check that out.
Character Matters will again be a live program Sunday at 7 pm Eastern (4 pm Pacific) Time, so I can take your phone calls at (718) 717-8296.
This being Memorial Day weekend, here’s a link to one of the YouTube videos featuring our patriotic composition commonly known as America, My Home!