Comment Comment and Features

Self-esteem can be bad for your health

St Teresa of Avila by Rubens

Catholics, on the whole, have always found the subject of self-esteem a difficult one. Jesus tells us that the two most important principles in life are to love God with all our hearts, and to love our neighbour as our own self. How, then, can we have self-esteem, when our actions are not supposed to be about us?

There is little popular literature on the subject, barring the wonderful book Building Self-esteem: the Christian Dimension by the German Benedictine monk Anselm Grün, and famously the saints held themselves in low worth: St Teresa of Avila, for one, used to refer to herself as a lowly ‘‘worm’’. Her work The Interior Castle is stuffed with repeated instances of self-deprecation. “I am very ignorant and have poor wits,” she writes. “I am very stupid.” Equally, the Christian requirement to be humble can easily be interpreted as the need to question feeling overly pleased with ourselves.

The idea that Jesus enjoyed high self-esteem seems distasteful and quite simply wrong. As St Paul reminds us in his Letter to the Philippians, ‘‘he was humbler yet, even to accepting death on a cross’’ (2:8). Unlike many other world religions or movements, which depict their guru, leader or inspiration at the height of his powers, Christianity uses the image of Jesus humbled on the Cross as its symbol.

Given such history, it is intriguing that the world of positive psychology and self-help is itself edging away from the notion that high levels of self-esteem are the key to mental health. Increasingly, there is a new mantra among therapists and researchers: ‘‘self-compassion’’ is a better model to achieve calm and well-being.

The argument is being expounded by academics such as Kristen Neff, an associate professor in human development at the University of Texas. Hitherto, achieving high self-esteem was the Holy Grail of good mental health. If we felt high levels of self-worth, then in turn we experienced less depression and anxiety, the argument went. Yet as Neff convincingly argues, the problem is that self-esteem tends to be based on needing to feel above average, and better than others. I will not enjoy self-esteem by writing an OK article: for me to feel good, it needs to be deemed excellent.

The problem of invidious comparisons with others has worsened in a world of very public numerical comparisons, be they of Facebook “likes” or Twitter followers, website hits or sales.

Nor does self-esteem help when failure hits, as it does to all. Relying on self-esteem provides no psychological shelter in a storm. We are not good enough, and the only option is to remain on an anxious striving treadmill, to taste once again the joy of supposed success.

Better for our mental health, Neff argues, is to develop self-compassion, which encompasses three main components: to develop a kindly inner voice of encouragement, understanding and forgiveness rather than harsh judgment; to acknowledge our common humanity and to acknowledge how alike we are in our common imperfection; and to use mindfulness to accept our suffering in the present moment with compassion.

As a Catholic, I find that much of the new self-compassion movement resonates with me. The notion of developing a gentler, less judging inner voice is at one with that of a forgiving God who has sent us His son to make our forgiveness possible. Nowhere is this better expressed for me than in George Herbert’s poem Love III, in which the narrator is resisting God’s call to join him at table at one level, or in communion at another. He is the ‘‘unkind, the unworthy’’ who cannot look on Love, or God’s perfection personified.

‘‘And know you not,’’ says Love,‘
‘Who bore the blame?’’
‘‘My dear, then I will serve.’’
‘‘You must sit down,’’ says Love,‘
‘and taste my meat.’’
So I did sit and eat.

The second strand to the ‘‘self-compassion’’ movement – the notion of our common humanity – is also deeply soothing and spiritual to me. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul reminds us of our universal equality in God’s eyes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

Finally, the idea of the need for endurance and acceptance of our suffering in the present moment also dovetails with my own Catholic faith: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Rm 5:3-5).

Cardinal Newman is another writer who speaks powerfully of acceptance; and so too does St Teresa, promising that ‘‘patient endurance’’ will ‘‘attaineth to all things’’ in the prayer that was found in her breviary when she died.

Were St Teresa alive today, perhaps she too would be preaching the virtues of self-compassion. She would also, perhaps, add an extra dimension not currently in the self-help literature. Read on in her work, and you will find a magical twist to her description of herself as a worm: the worm turns into a butterfly:

… certain little worms feed on luberry leaves, till afterwards they become bigger, and then on the boughs they go spinning silk with their little mouths, and making little cells very close, in which they are enclosed. From this cell or bag, which contains a large but ugly worm that dies, there afterwards rises a white and very beautiful butterfly.

For Teresa, the silkworm emerges as beautiful only through its own death. Whether you believe self-esteem or self-compassion is a better model for modern life and good mental health, St Teresa’s image of the central Christian paradox of death – that in order to have life, one must first die – is, for me, one that cannot be improved upon.

Rachel Kelly’s memoir Black Rainbow: How words healed me – my journey through depression is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £8.99, in paperback. All author proceeds go to the mental health charities SANE and United Response. Rachel will be speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival on March 27 at 4pm, alongside Charles Beauclerk, on the subject of creativity and depression

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (20/2/15). Also in this week’s issue: John Charmley on how to respond to those who claim Catholicism is not compatible with British values, Mary Kenny glimpses the future of the family and Freddy Gray says we must beware the wristbands that are ruining our lives

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