For many Orthodox Christians the term "self-esteem" sounds like a four-letter word. One reason is that various academic disciplines use the term in different ways. In psychiatry and psychology in particular, the term is used in two contexts.
The first defines "self-esteem" as a mental disorder (as in the personality disorder of narcissism). The Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, IV-TR (American Psychiatric Association (2000) describes self-esteem as "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy. . ." The second, used mostly by developmental psychologists, defines self-esteem "as being true to [the] real self" (Cole and Cole 1996, The Development of Children).
Educators acknowledge and distinguish these different definitions (Katz & Chard, 1989). Cognitive-behavioral psychologists for example, recommend that parents, when dealing with their children, should praise or critique behavior, and not the child. Parents should say things like, "Good job," not "You are such a good boy or girl." (Morelli, 2001, 2004) This focuses the child on the action they have performed and not on themselves.
Self-esteem and the Church Fathers
The Church Fathers discussed self-esteem but sometimes the term is translated improperly so that understanding precisely what the Fathers meant is difficult. These mistranlations also contribute to the negative assessments of Orthodox readers about self-esteem. Often the term is translated as if it were a passion, sin, or vice by the Fathers. A quote by St. Mark the Acetic for example, illustrates the problem:
All vice is caused by self-esteem and sensual pleasure, you cannot overcome passion without hating them . . .The intellect is made blind by these three passions: avarice, self-esteem and sensual pleasure (Philokalia I).
Scripture calls these three passions the daughters of the horseleech, dearly loved by their mother of folly (Proverbs 30:15) According to the Philokalia:
These passions dull spiritual knowledge and faith . . .it is because of them that wrath, anger, war, murder and all other evils have such power over mankind. We must hate avarice, self-esteem and sensual pleasure, as mothers of the vices and stepmothers of the virtues" (Philokalia I).
The question we must ask however, is if the Church Fathers use the term self-esteem in the same way we use it today. Complicating the question is that the term has more than one meaning as noted above. In the Philokalia, "self esteem" is given as the English translation of the Greek kenodoxia. Is this translation correct?
According to some scholars kenodoxia would be better translated as "vanity or even conceit" which makes the patristic writings on this issue more accurate and understandable to the modern reader (J. Chirban, 27 December 2005).
The American Heritage Dictionary (1992) defines vanity as "excessive pride in one's appearance or accomplishments." Conceit is defined as "a favorable and unduly high opinion of one's abilities or worth." Synonyms include: egoism, arrogance and narcissism. The Church Fathers are not really talking about self-esteem but narcissism.
A closer examination of the writings of the Fathers backs up this observation. St. Maximus the Confessor wrote:
The malice of the demon of pride takes two forms. Either he persuades the monk to ascribe his achievements to himself and not to God, the giver of all goodness and helper in every achievement [or] belittle those of his brethren who are as yet less perfect than himself (Philokalia II).
St. Hesychios the Priest focused on self-love:
There is no venom more poisonous than that of the asp or cobra, and there is no evil greater than that of self-love.
The self aggrandizement factor is clearly seen in the description of pride by St. John Cassian:
The angel who fell from heaven because of his pride bears witness to this. He had been created by God and adorned with every virtue and all wisdom, but he did not want to ascribe this to the grace of the Lord. He ascribed it his own nature and as a result regarded himself equal to God" (Philokalia I).
The patristic answer to all pride, self aggrandizement, self-glory, self-worship, self-love and vanity (vainglory) are the words of St. Paul, "Yet not I, but the grace of God which was in me (1Corinthians 15:10)" said John Cassion.
What does the Church tell us about our worth? In the first chapter of Genesis we read that man is made in God's image and called to be like Him. The image, the Church Fathers say, is mainly our intelligence and free will. God so loved us, He sent His only begotten Son for our salvation (John 3:16).
If we put on Christ at baptism and continue to wash ourselves through repentance, then we are able to reflect the light of Christ. Our constant prayer is "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." We are creatures. We have no independent existence. We depend on God for all and by his mercy we can have the light of Christ indwell in us. This is a spiritual reality revealed by Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. The value of this is unfathomable.
Bishop Hierotheos Vlachos (1998) refers to the worth human beings can have:
It is said that God has essence and energy and that this distinction does not destroy the divine simplicity. We confess and believe that 'uncreated and natural grace and illumination and energy always proceed inseparably from this divine energy' And since, according to the saints, created energy means created essence as well . . . God's energy is uncreated. Indeed the name of divinity is placed not only upon the divine essence, but 'also on thee divine energy no less'. This means that in the teachings of the holy Fathers, 'this (the essence) is completely incapable of being shared, but by divine grace the energy can be shared.
This is a reality and truth. Based on the illuminative teaching of St. Gregory Palamas, Bishop Hierotheos tells us this is available to us "through God's benevolence towards those who have purified their nous." Bishop Hierotheos (1994, 1998) calls the Church a hospital that can cure our infirmities so our nous can be purified and this life in Christ can take place in us.
Modern psychology only sees a part of the picture. As Orthodox Christians, we are blessed with the vision of the integration or synergia of body, mind, and soul. We must also accept the individual gifts given to each one of us by God. Did not St. Paul tell us some are prophets, teachers, administrators, and so forth (1 Corinthians 12:28)? To deny this would be to deny the reality of a gift given to us from God. In the parable of the talents Jesus told us we are also to use our "gifts". (Mat. 25: 14-30).
However, we have to also keep in mind the Funeral Service:
Thou [God] alone art immortal, who has created and fashioned man. For out of earth were we mortals made, and unto the same earth we shall return .".and later "..I called to mind the Prophet as he cried: I am earth and ashes; and l looked again into the graves and beheld the bones laid bare, and I said: Who then is the kind and the warrior, the rich man or the needy...
. . .establish the soul of His servant (handmaiden) N. who hath been taken from us, and number him among the just.
In other words we have by God's grace the ultimate hope of our resurrection. I like to think of the spiritual value of our worth (all the reflections above and so much more that could be added) to be like a Divine symphonic piece. Listening to any one section or instrument distorts the work. All have to be combined to play this Divine melody, so it's beauty and meaning can be appreciated.
How can we tell we are playing the Divine melody and not deluded by pride and following self-will? The Church Fathers are constantly warning us about the evil of delusion and the necessity of obedience. St. Antony the Great tells us "There is no profit in studying the doctrines unless the life of one's soul is acceptable and conforms to god's will. The cause of all evils is delusion, self deception and ignorance of God' (Philokalia I).
Bishop Hierotheos Vlachos (1994) quoting St. John Chrysostom stated, '"For our married people have everything in common with the monks except marriage. All people should adapt themselves to Christ's commandments." St. Neilos the Ascetic wrote, "disciples should be obedient to their teacher when he is guiding them to holiness." St. Diadochos if Photiki said, "It is well known that obedience is the chief among the initiatory virtues, for first it displaces presumption and then it engenders humility within us. Thus it becomes, for those who willingly embrace it, a door leading to the love of God" (Philokalia I).
Summarizing the mind of the Church obedience has to exist on all levels; from individual Christian to their spiritual father and/or mother, priest, bishop, archbishop, synod, patriarch, church council, church fathers, liturgy, teachings of Christ, in tradition and scripture in tradition: the Mind of the Church. If one does this; one knows this is God's will.
In terms of contents there in no inherent contradiction between the psychological definitions cited above and the spiritual reality. Narcissism (what the Church Fathers are really talking about) is clearly out of spiritual balance, and is thus an illness, a sin. "Healthy self-esteem" is reality based as a simple acknowledgement of our strengths and weaknesses as humans. Understand this and the Orthodox Christian can place self-esteem in a divine perspective. "Yet not I, but the grace of God which was in me." (1 Corinthians 15:10).
American Heritage Dictionary. (3rd ed.). (1994). Boston: Houghton Mifflin
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-IV-TR). Washington, DC: author
Cole, M., & Cole, S.R. (1996). The Development of Children. (3rd ed.). New York" Freeman
Katz, L.G. & Chard, S.C. (1989). Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach. Norwood, NJ: Ablex
Morelli, G. (2001). Response to Faros In J. Chirban (Ed), Sickness or Sin?: Spiritual Discernment and Differential Diagnosis. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.
Morelli, G. (2004). Christian asceticism and cognitive behavioral psychology. In S. Muse (Ed.), Raising Lazarus: Integrating Healing in Orthodox Christianity. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P., & Ware, K. (Eds). (1979). The Philokalia: The Complete Text Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarious of Corinth (Vol. I).Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber.
Vlachos, Bishop Hierotheos, (1994). Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers. Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery.
[i] The roots of faulty self esteem (narcissism) start with in childhood with faulty parenting. Parents often make "statements of "being" in rewarding and/or punishing their children. "You are a good or bad boy [or girl]" . . . is a statement of being. The child attributes what they have done or failed to do to "themselves". They begin to develop concepts that they themselves are inherently "good" or "bad" and thus worthy of adulation (or even glory) or damnation. Parents should focus and evaluate the actions of their children: "That was a correct (or incorrect) answer." Parents should always respond to their children in this latter way.