Chasing Freedom

The Self-Esteem Trap

By March 13, 2012December 6th, 20148 Comments


There really isn’t much debate on the idea that low self-esteem in closely related to eating disorders. The Dove Self-Esteem Fund commissioned a study which found that Girls with low self-esteem are significantly more likely to engage in negative behaviors as evidenced such as as disordered eating, cutting, bullying, smoking, or drinking when feeling badly about themselves (Compared to 25% of girls with high self-esteem). And as a therapist working with eating disorders I have seen first hand the self-hatred and feelings of worthlessness that almost always accompany destructive behaviors.

What our culture, as well as many professionals, tell us is that the primary way to fix low self-esteem is with high self-esteem.

In order to overcome your eating and body image issues you need to be your own “best friend”. That’s how a speaker at a recent Eating Disorders Awareness event I attended put it. Her logic went something like this; her eating disorder developed because of rejection she experienced growing up. She overcame her eating disorder by learning to love herself, depending more on her own self-assessment and less on the approval of others.

While I am delighted that this speaker is experiencing freedom in the area of food and body image there are critical flaws in her logic.

First: the idea that becoming “your own best friend” is illogical. Friendship presupposes more than one person in a relationship.

Second: this idea is based on the premise that I can determine my value and worth, regardless of what others think. – that my view of my self is the most powerful agent for change available to me and that no one else has the right to determine my worth. However, if I have the right to determine my self-worth then I can choose to determine myself as worthless. It’s a self-referencing system. You can tell me all day long to like myself but with no authority higher than you or me my evaluation of self is just as valid as yours.

In order to develop a healthy self-concept we must get out of the self-referencing system where my opinion of me or your opinion of me determines my value. What I need is an opinion that overrules human opinions. I need a Super-opinion that comes from God.

Finally, I’ve never met anyone who lives like this. Even the speaker at this event. In the course of her message she spoke several times of mentors in her life who had impacted her life. Despite the words she spoke about being her own best friend she had learned to find meaning through relationships with others and she was now dedicating her life to doing the same.

Treating yourself with grace and stopping the cycle of self-hatred is important but determining the value of self based on self is not only illogical but it leaves us alone a world where each of us has the right to determine what is valuable — and that is a dangerous world.

Note: This is the first of a series I am doing on self-esteem. Look for more soon.

Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Sarah says:

    Eloquent and beautiful. Thank you.
    I came from a family and church commumity that collectively overreacted to the pro self-esteem, “love yourself” mentality of our region (Northern Virginian schools are very big into self-esteem, even at the risk of developing little monsters who believe they are more important than others). Consequently, as I began struggling with self-loathing because I believed my loneliness was due to either a self that was essentially unlovable or a screwed-up heart that I could not feel others’ love, I was terrified to admit this feeling, sure that I would be told that of course I was unlovable and only God’s great grace that let me breathe because sinful humans are such disgusting little slugs. Both getting outside of the self-referencing system of the world and seeing a Biblical understanding of the value of the human soul, therefore, have been very helpful for me.
    I would argue that while “friendship [does] presuppose more than one person in relationship,” humans do possess a sort of “relationship” to themselves. I can possess thoughts and feeling about the person Sarah Ferrante even as I live and breathe as her.
    I realize you would probably agree with this, but the distinction is important to me. I grew up with a mom whose solution to negative thoughts and feelings about oneself was to call all such emotions “self-centeredness” or “self-absorption” and prescribe “serving others” as the cure-all. Understanding one’s self was never a priority to her and, she hinted, may even be ungodly. I still don’t know if that is because she is such a logical, unemotional person or if she is hiding from what she might find if she began such a self-exporation.
    Sorry for the ramble. Excellent article.

    • Travis says:

      Thanks for the comments Sarah. I agree with you that we can have a “relationship” with self and exploring what that means is an important part of maturity. At the same time I wanted to challenge that Self is the answer to low self-esteem and that we are inescapably relational beings whose self-image is shaped, for better and worse, through others. Thanks for your comments!

  • Travis says:

    Ugh, looks like my first comment didn’t post – and I must say it was brilliant. 🙂

    I’ll summarize it here. Misty you raise some good points and I hope to address some of these in future parts of this series on the Self. For now I will just say that I’m not at all opposed to a healthy relationship with self that explores what it means to treat yourself as a friend I just don’t think that is the best language (see my other comment in the thread). What I do mean to say is that the starting point can’t be self for it alone offers us too narrow of an experience and perspective. I believe our starting point must be what God says about us.

    Additionally, I agree that my post here may be over-simplified – some of that is due to the blog structure and some of that is also intentional – my hope is to prod and provoke critical thinking. It is also why I intend to do a series of posts on the self.

    Thanks for the thoughtful interaction with what I wrote – it causes me to make sure I am thinking well and writing clearly.

  • Travis says:

    Ok, so I found some more time to comment here. Misty, I’d like to add that I don’t mean to communicate that we should not have a healthy view of self or that “friendship with self” is a bad thing. In fact I think a correct view of self is one of the most important aspects of my work. But I do want to say that the language of “becoming my own best friend” or “learning to love yourself” is inadequate and broad language. I think we can do better. I would propose language such as “treating myself with dignity, embracing the value that I have as a person, recognizing the worth of myself as an individual” etc. What this language does is makes room for God in the conversation. Learning to love oneself is a self-referencing system, as is becoming my own best friend. We need to use our language well. I like how John Lynch and my friends at TrueFaced say it, “We need to learn to trust that what God says about me is true.”

    Of course this brings up another issue you raised which is, “telling someone you that God thinks you are great doesn’t reshape your private experience.” I totally agree. I could spend hours telling someone that, or that I like them and because of a variety of reasons it would be as effective as telling myself I will one day be an Olympic sprinter – it ain’t gonna happen. Believing that what God says about me is true is much more than an exercise in convincing myself and I hope to address that in a future blog. If you want to think more about this I would recommend the talk “Blessed Self-Forgetfulness” by pastor Tim Keller which you can find here:

  • Travis says:

    Thanks for the comments. This is a fascinating topic and in many ways a blog is an insufficient space in which to explore it. Misty, yes, I think I oversimplified things which is why I intend this to be a series on self-esteem. I won’t address your comments right now as I am short on time but I will definitely take them into account as I write my future installments. However I will say that starting with what God says about me is a critical first step in any exploration of self. In fact John Calvin essentially said the same thing in the beginning of his historic Institutes – that without knowledge of self we cannot know God and without knowledge of God we cannot know self. I think it is vital though to distinguish the difference. The phrase “God within” can be so easily misunderstood and you are right in saying that much of this is in the semantics.

    Good stuff though and this is the very reason for a blog – to promote conversation and critical thinking!

  • Misty says:

    Is it possible that you were over-simplifying or projecting meaning onto the speaker’s intention that she may not have intended?

    I don’t think there’s any getting around wrestling with the self-esteem issue and going within to do so. The idea of “being your own best friend” is, I think, metaphorical. If taken literally, your point is true … but I have experienced my own relationship with myself, and in that sense, to label that relationship metaphorically as a “friendship” doesn’t seem to be too off-base.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with your premise that we need to transcend everyone’s “opinions” (even our own) in order to define our self-worth (“In order to develop a healthy self-concept we must get out of the self-referencing system where my opinion of me or your opinion of me determines my value”). Perhaps this is semantics, but I got the impression from how you worded things that you need an “outside opinion–God’s,” have a legit, “good” self-esteem, and yet it seems in my experience, the idea of self-esteem has at its core the courage to delve into and to explore the concept of “God within.” Someone simply telling you that God thinks your great doesn’t reshape your private experience. There is a difference between “knowing about” and “knowing.” I know about frogs. Frogs know frogs. If I want to know frogs in the truest sense, I have to become a frog. That would definitely involve some sort of internal alchemy. 😉 God is not “out there,” separate from us. The whole premise of conversion and the Christian experience is that our souls are re-united with God and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, our path and purpose is intertwined with God’s; by inviting Christ “into our hearts,” we commit to becoming “Christ-like” … there is a lot to explore and discover in that space. Knowing “what God thinks of us” is certainly important to our journey; I suppose I would submit that really discovering and exploring that idea is a very internal, private process, and using supportive metaphors like friendship to help people relate to certain principles or ideas can be very useful.

    Looking to something outside you, to an external concept of God and a truth that you do not see as “internal” is likely to leave one feeling empty. Going within to find “God within” is an important step toward wholeness and healing (and incidentally, “God within” is a significant doctrinal tenant in all protestant traditions and in my opinion, not given the attention the truth deserves).

    I wholeheartedly agree that you need a sense of divine guidance to define a meaningful life — a sense that you, as you are, are beloved by God and have a purpose on earth. That certainty, that confidence, that “knowing” is the result of an inward journey to the heart and soul of who you are, and a conscious decision at some point to honor and allow the “becoming” of that divine potential, often actualized (I would say “always actualized”) through a process of inward seeking and journeying toward loving oneself–in so “loving,” we allow the fullness of our potential to actualize to be shared and given to the world.

    In my experience, my relationship with myself–my friendship with myself, albeit more complicated that perhaps what you described–has at its core my relationship to “God within,” and I would submit that this relationship is a significant co-factor in my journey to wholeness.

  • Eugene Hung says:

    Thanks, Travis! I’m looking forward to the next installment in your series!

  • So true, so true. This whole topic is one that has fascinated me since you and I started working on the True Campaign four years ago, and is the reason why “Ego Games” is the theme for the 2013 Hungry for Hope. I think more people should be talking about this so thank you for posting!