Is self-esteem overrated?

I recently completed the yearly wellness self-assessment required by the Presbyterian health plan. It doesn’t just ask whether you exercise, take your meds, or eat right. It asks you to rate yourself on statements like:

  • I have a number of good qualities.
  • I feel useless at times.
  • I take a positive attitude toward myself.
  • I sometimes think I am no good at all.

The assessment asks dozens of these questions in different ways, I suppose to make sure you’re telling the truth. The assumption is that having a positive self-image is key to well-being.

We all think it is. But is it?

Back in 2002, psychotherapist Lauren Slater reported on numerous academic studies. The results were inescapable: self-esteem is overrated.

In a widely published article, “The Trouble with Self-Esteem,” Slater wrote, “People with high self-esteem pose a greater threat to those around them than people with low self-esteem, and feeling bad about yourself is not the cause of our country’s biggest, most expensive social problems.”

A researcher from the London School of Economics wrote, “There is absolutely no evidence that low self-esteem is particularly harmful. It’s not at all a cause of poor academic performance; people with low self-esteem seem to do just as well in life as people with high self-esteem. In fact, they may do better because they try harder.”

So why does the wellness assessment for Presbyterian pastors focus on self-esteem? Shouldn’t it be asking if we really believe that we’re all sinners saved by grace?

The Apostle Paul was writing to the church in Corinth, and to us, when he said, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him.”

Self-esteem really is a feeble notion. You have to feed it every minute of every day. Yet a pin prick can deflate it.

So instead of feeding our self-esteem, we should continually give thanks for God’s limitless, unmerited grace.

Self-esteem is such a feeble notion when compared to God’s esteem for us.