Self-esteem is a human condition. Although it's a topic of so much discussion and material, many continue to struggle with this area of their lives.

There’s a revolution going on. “It’s a revolution within,” so says author Gloria Steinem. In fact, that is the title of her bestseller, Revolution From Within: A Search for Self-Esteem.

In her preface she writes:

“The more I talked to men as well as women, the more it seemed that inner feelings of incompleteness, emptiness, self-doubt and self-hatred were the same, no matter who experienced them, and even if they were expressed in culturally opposite ways.”

As I have visited and worked in various parts of the world, I’ve found the same thing to be true. The area of self-esteem is increasingly being explored and many solutions are found wanting. Even though this subject elicits interest and results in an abundance of discussion and material, many of us continue to struggle with this area of our lives. I have heard it said, “There are billions of people in the world. They all struggle with self-esteem.”

It is a human condition. Let’s examine what self-esteem is and look at various ways we attempt to gain it.

What is self-esteem? It is possible to have proper self-esteem as we are rightly related to our creator, God. We were created with these deep needs for personal security and significance and God designed a way to meet those needs when we are rightly related to Him.

How do we obtain proper self-esteem? Taking an honest look at ourselves is often the best way to evaluate where we are and where we want to go.

How do we maintain a well-based sense of self-esteem? We need a way of handling the little day-to-day setbacks in our sense of security and significance. It all starts with our thinking. We have to retrain ourselves to think of what is true about us.

What is self-esteem?

The most basic need all of us have is to have a sense of personal worth. This sense of personal worth has two elements: security and significance. Security means being loved and accepted for who we are, regardless of what we do. This is what Gloria Steinem calls “core” self-esteem, and psychologists refer to as “global” self-esteem — being loved and accepted.

Significance means having meaning or purpose in our lives and being adequate for what we do. Steinem refers to this as situational self-esteem. It’s knowing that we are good at what we do. The problem is that we develop a series of false assumptions of what we think will meet our needs for security and significance. We usually learn these assumptions in childhood. If we don’t experience unconditional love and acceptance as children, we will experience pressure to have those needs met. And if we aren’t given a sense of competency and significance in childhood, we will also experience pressure to meet that need.

The proper formation of security in childhood — this “intrinsic value” — can be negatively affected by many things, including abuse at many levels. Living with constant ridicule, contempt, and negativity can affect a child’s security into adulthood.

Perhaps you’ve overheard a parent criticizing a child. It’s not just the words that are used, but also the tone of voice that can deeply affect the child.

Children hearing this continually internalizes the words and tone, and these can become part of their view of themselves. The tape in their mind plays the messages back as significant information learned from their parents. Some parents put enormous pressure on their children to perform. Children in these situations often grow up to be overachievers with the voice of their parents’ disapproval ringing in their ears. The child within is now inhabiting an adult body.

What assumptions, as adults in today’s world, do we hold on to?

As I mentioned, these basic assumptions are often accepted as a child and are heavily influenced by our peer group. We can all develop wrong and false assumptions about how to have our needs met. The reason they are called false assumptions is because they do not give us unconditional love, acceptance, and firm significance in life. They give us a temporary sense of self-esteem.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself.

  1. Are any of the following false assumptions operating in your belief system? I will be secure if:

    • I am in a loving relationship
    • I am never criticized
    • I am not rejected as a person
  2. How about your need for significance? I will be significant if:

    • I excel at school
    • I excel when my projects are promoted
    • When I have financial success
    • When I am granted recognition by my peer group

Now, we all want to have these needs met and we will expend considerable energy to meet them. When we pour our energy into meeting our needs through pursuing false assumptions of what will meet those needs, we can be devastated when those assumptions don’t lead to lasting security and significance. What will happen is that we will feel pressed to pour energy in other directions based on another false assumption of what will meet our needs for security and significance.

By the time I’d reached my teenage years, I was aware of deep feelings of insecurity and insignificance. I remember clearly believing the false assumption that if I was a likeable person, I’d have meaningful personal relationships and I’d feel secure. I remember working on my personality, altering what I said and did to please certain people. Of course the problem with this approach is you have to keep changing to suit different people.

During these years, as I was pursuing my teaching degree, I was financing part of my university expenses by teaching and performing classical dance in Toronto. I’d won many competitions in my ameteur years. Later, I began to teach out of the province as well as at the University of Toronto. Teaching, and especially performing, was very exciting and gratifying for me. I experienced strong feelings of significance by winning auditions, being involved in shows, and receiving praise and admiration when my work was well done. The paychecks were nice too. I had found something I loved doing. I apparently had talent and drive, and something that gave me significance and financial independence.

The significance, however, was not lasting. I remember thinking about it during my few moments alone, after a successful show, after the reviews and the cast parties. I was left with an emptiness, wondering, “Is this all there is to life? Why am I not more fulfilled?”

There was a definite vacuum in my life that I couldn’t put my finger on. What I have learned is this: seeking permanent security from imperfect people doesn’t work. We’re too concerned for our own needs of security to be truly selfless in helping others. And what we think will give us security is not always what the other person can give us. Seeking permanent significance from our accomplishments doesn’t have any lasting value, and we’re left trying to accomplish more.

How do we obtain proper self-esteem?

It is possible to have proper self-esteem as we’re rightly related to our Creator, God. We were created with these deep needs for personal security and significance, and God designed the way to meet these needs.

God is the only one who knows us and loves us totally. We never have to fear he’ll learn something about us that’s so bad he’ll reject us. God says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3).

We don’t have to worry about what makes us acceptable in a relationship with God, the way we do in human relationships. God has seen us at our worst, and he still loves us. That is a kind of security that no human relationship can offer. We will never risk facing rejection from God. God knows us totally and loves us totally. And we don’t need to fear God’s rejection if we fail at an endeavor. In fact, that is one of the reasons that God sent the person of Christ in the first place — to pay for the imperfection and the self-centeredness that causes distance between us and him. So, the primary solution to this question of how we achieve a proper sense of self-esteem is to establish a relationship with our Creator, God.

How do we maintain a well-based sense of self-esteem?

If you’re like me, you can experience little setbacks in your sense of security and significance. We need a way of handling those setbacks. It all starts with our thinking. The way we think largely determines the way we behave, and that’s why exercises that deal only with behavior bring short-term results. We have to change our thinking, and that will influence our behavior. I’ve based my self-worth on how I think I’m performing. This doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t work up to my highest standard, but it does mean I shouldn’t base my significance on that one thing.

So, how do I correct my train of thought? I have to retrain myself to embrace what is true about me, and that truth is only found in God. I’m going to remember that I am a significant person to God, and even if my job performance was off the mark today, God still loves me unconditionally. He can even help me learn from this.

Although the examples change, the principles remain the same. God never changes. His love for us remains the same. This isn’t just positive thinking or a “band-aid” solution. This is right thinking; it’s a foundational solution.

We need to ensure that our relationship with God is intact, and then we need to pursue right thinking, biblical thinking. One way is with further study. I always like to recommend two excellent studies related to this subject.

One is a set of individual topics called The Transferable Concepts, by CRU. They are extremely down to earth and very user-friendly. The other study is Behold Your God by Myrna Alexander. It is a very practical book directed to help people deal with daily situations in light of God’s character and help in their lives.

I had spent many years trying to fill that vacuum with many created things that didn’t ultimately meet my needs for security and significance. But I recall the night I opened my heart to God — I said a simple prayer asking him to come into my life.

We make a fundamental error if we think that our relationships and accomplishments can ultimately meet our deepest needs for security and significance. Only our Creator can do that. He longs to do that in each of our lives. But, because he loves us, he will never coerce us. The choice to allow him to do this is ours.

You can have the peace that you are looking for. There is a way to balance your life. No one can be perfect, or have a perfect life. But every one of us has the opportunity to experience perfect grace through a personal relationship with God through his Son, Jesus Christ.

You can receive Christ right now by faith through prayer. Praying is simply talking to God. God knows your heart and is not so concerned with your words as he is with the attitude of your heart. Here’s a suggested prayer:

Lord Jesus, I want to know you personally. Thank you for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life to you and ask you to come in as my Savior and Lord. Take control of my life. Thank you for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Make me the kind of person you want me to be.

Does this prayer express the desire of your heart? You can pray it right now, and Jesus Christ will come into your life, just as he promised.

If you invited Christ into your life, thank God often that he is in your life, that he will never leave you and that you have eternal life. As you learn more about your relationship with God, and how much he loves you, you’ll experience life to the fullest.

If you want to talk about your self-esteem issues, how to accept God’s love, or what to do after praying this prayer, our confidential online mentors are here for you. Their help is always free.

Photo Credit: hannah grace