The Personalist Project

What word is more overused than “love”?  Well, maybe none, but I'll wager “self-esteem” runs a respectable second, especially in America. 

We’ve got the students whose math scores are somewhere deep in the cellar of the international standings—but whose feelings about their math abilities are Number One.  

Or there was that class my daughter once took in which she was asked to describe herself in a poem.  One classmate’s effort began:

"I love me. / I'm cool as can be."

It went on in that vein, and it didn’t get better, either.  It became a sort of anti-legend in our house, an archetype of How You Kids Must Not Turn Out.

And yet, there’s clearly such a thing as healthy self-esteem, or rightly ordered self-love: God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves.   He doesn’t want us so paralyzed by self-loathing that we’re robbed of any peace of mind, any happy sense of accomplishment.    

But what about contempt of self?  Isn't that an old and venerable virtue?  In the end, don't we have to choose between love of God and love of self?  After all, St. Augsutine, in his City of God, says 

“Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly city by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.”

It’s hardly just a theoretical question: pride, after all, leads straight to Hel—and humility is so easily misconstrued. Many well-intentioned people labor under the illusion that God wishes us to be perpetually disgusted with ourselves.  Firmly focussed on their own awfulness, they find it impossible to marshal the mental energy to do whatever they were put on earth to do, never mind the joy or peace they'd like to spread to everyone else.  But the only alternative seems to be a vacuous “I’m OK, you’re OK” indifferentism.  They know that can't be right.

So how in the world are we supposed to manage simultaneous self-love and self-contempt? 

Fr. Michel Esparza, a priest (and now musician, too) with a background in both medicine and philosphy, plus plenty of pastoral experience, addresses these questions in his book Amor y Autoestima (Love and Self-Esteem).  It’s not yet available in English, but if you read Spanish, even slowly and reluctantly, you'll find this book is worth it.  If your Spanish is not up to a whole book, you can find the Spanish transcript of a short interview with the author here.  In the meantime, here are some salient points (in English--although the links will take you to the Spanish transcript.  If I succeed in finding an English translation of the interview, I'll fix that.):

Sooner or later, we all run into the truth about ourselves.  It turns out we aren't as talented, or charming, or holy as we thought we were.  Two unappetizing choices present themselves: discouragement and despair on the one hand; self-deception and escapism on the other.  

“We insist, and rightly so, on cultivating a positive attitude towards the self,” says Fr. Michel, sounding decidedly John-Paul-II-esque, “but one shouldn’t do so at the cost of the truth about oneself.  Self-deception does not liberate.”

Neither discouragement nor escapism brings peace, self-confidence, or receptivity to others.

But self-esteem (self-love, rightly understood) and humility are only apparent opposites.  We tend to equate self-esteem with egotism, but in fact both the haughty, arrogant person and the one continually preoccupied with his own failure to measure up are egocentric.  Neither is at peace, and both are woefully unavailable to others.

The humbe person, by contrast, is self-forgetful--which is not at all the same thing as being preoccupied with self-loathing and self-rejection.  His company is refreshing: he knows how to laugh at himself, and he doesn't take himself too seriously.  He can give and receive love freely.

The despondent person does see a partial truth: his own wretchedness.  The escapist does, too: he senses that he was meant for joy, not misery. He can never be at peace, though.  As the effectiveness of each remedy wears off, he has to keep devising new and intensified forms of distraction and escapism--a well-known recipe for tragedy.

The key to the "humble self-esteem" Fr. Michel talks about is the conviction that Somebody knows you really, really well--infinitely well--and loves you unconditionally anyway.  

“Whoever knows that, despite his own wretchedness, he lives under the constant affectionate gaze of a Father who loves him as he is will enjoy an unshakeable inner peace.  His personal mistakes will not rob him of this peace, because he knows his Father is delighted to forgive him every time he asks.  Knowing himself to be the object of such love, he will love himself and, freed from his personal problems, he can dedicate himself fully to loving others."

Are we cool as can be?  Nah.  Not on our own, anyway.

But knowing that the King of the Universe has such a soft spot for us gives us permission to quit running around trying to mpress anyone else, including ourselves.  It can free up our puny energies to get on with the joy of knowing, loving and serving Him in this life and being happy with him forever in the next.

Comments (11)

Astrid Woelfel

#1, May 25, 2012 2:25pm

Thank you very much for your reflections and presenting this book on that very important subject! From the very beginning of my spiritual way as a Catholic - more than five years ago - I have looked, practically and theoretically, for the meaning of the Christian claim for self-abandonment and the virtue of humility. I found the definition of Josef Pieper (citing St. Thomas Aquinas in his book about the virtue of temperantia) very helpful: "Demut gründet darin, dass der Mensch sich so einschätzt, wie es der Wahrheit entspricht." ("Humility is grounded in the right existimation of oneself.") And I agree that only the forgiving love of and the relation to God can help us in "peace-ful" accepting oneself.

Greetings from Vienna, Astrid

Devra Torres

#2, May 25, 2012 4:14pm

Astrid from beautiful Wien, Wilkommen!  Thanks very much for joining the conversation.  Fr. Michel also cites both St. Thomas and Josef Pieper in his book, and shows that a good, solid Catholic understanding of humility is not a novelty--but so many people misunderstand it, with an idea in the back of their minds that anyone who really takes good and evil seriously ought to go around preoccupied with self-loathing--and then the cycle continues, because no one will be drawn to Christianity by depressed Christians.  

Jules van Schaijik

#3, May 27, 2012 9:43pm

Devra, the link to the interview does not seem to be working. It goes to a spanish page, but I don't see a video anywhere.

Anyway, I clicked on the link to find more about "humble self-esteem." I agree that it must be based on the truth about oneself. But there must be more to it than that, because pride can also be truthful in that sense. As to an awareness of being loved: it seems as if that can also have the opposite effect. It may help a person to self-acceptance, but it can also increase a person's sense of unworthiness and self-loathing.

Perhaps I'm missing something. Wouldn't be suprising. I always get everything wrong. :-)

Devra Torres

#4, May 28, 2012 10:05am

Jules, I'm sorry, the "interview" is actually a Spanish transcript of it, and I linked to that because that's all I could find.  Zenit has an English translation of a couple sentences of it in its archive, but that seems to be all.

As to The Thing Itself: it's true, there's much more to it than that.  I had reservations about compressing these ideas into a short post, but wanted to at least introduce them.

The prideful person does see a partial truth--the truth about his qualities or accomplishments.  But he misses the fact that the qualities--for example, a talent for music--are gifts, and that even his own accomplishments--developing those talents, or working on those virtues--are not solely his own doing.  Life, strength, intelligence, motivation, and perseverence don't come from himself--although of course we can distinguish between infused and non-infused virtues.

An awareness of being loved can definitely increase a feeling of unworthiness.  I think what I'm trying to pinpoint here is a lively awareness of being loved together with a realistic sense of unworthiness, and a lived experience of "Of course I'm unworthy, and that doesn't have to interfere in the least with giving or receiveing God's and others' love."

Sarah Johnson

#5, Jun 14, 2012 7:20pm

I just loved this!  I'm enjoying catching up on what you've written the last few weeks.  Keep up the good work!

Devra Torres

#6, Jun 14, 2012 7:25pm

Thank you, Sarah!  You'll love the book, too.


#7, Jun 22, 2012 8:29pm

Don't tell Drs. Sampo/Mumbach, but this may be one of the best things I've ever read (lol)!  It is just awesome!!  You really have a way!  It makes me consider re-reading some of The City of God, which sort of scared the hell out of me the first time at school, for fear of not understanding it.  (If I could only remember which part(s) of it we read??)  You'll have to let me know when you finish your translating!  

Now I have to Tease you:  I could be your um... personal proofreader, um... if you wanted... LOL!  You know, just a fresh pair of eyes, yours are sooo busy... :)  xoxo Cathy

Devra Torres

#8, Jun 22, 2012 8:48pm

The City of God was SO THICK, and I don't know about your year, but for us, our very first assignment was 80 pages, due the next morning.  But it's a good book for reading parts of--you don't have to commit yourself to a cover-to-cover marathon.

Marie Reimers

#9, Jul 7, 2012 5:37pm

Thanks so much, Devra.  You have hit on a tricky subject.  I think that this issue, besides being one of general importance is especially important when evaluating education over the past 20 years.  David Brooks just had an interesting piece - from a secular standpoint - in the NY Times.

Personally, I have also struggled with, "What IS humility and how can I get really good at it"!  Sorry about that. 

Seeing ourselves always in relationship to our Heavenly Father does keep us little, as it were, but is also enormously encouraging, especially when we are (meaning I am) so prone to falling short.

Keep up the good work, Devra!

Devra Torres

#10, Jul 11, 2012 7:16pm

Marie, thank you!  I've been immersed in the book Love and Self-Esteem these last few weeks, and there's a lot more to it than I was able to put in the post.  Humility is so easy to get wrong, and the grains of truth in pop psychology are so easy to blow out of proportion.  I think another obstacle is, it can be very hard to really believe that God loves us as much as He does--maybe especially if one was raised in a certain kind of strict, religious household.


#11, May 25, 2017 9:34am

I just ordered the Spanish edition. I probably won't be able to read it yet, but I hope my husband who has already advanced to being able to read books in Spanish will be able to read it and share. In the meantime, I will plod along with DuoLingo! 

To comment #10, yes.

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