Translated by Alexey Malafeev
Edited by Paul Michna
“I’m worthless. Nothing will ever work out for me. No wonder nobody loves me.”
We often come across people who think like this. Psychologists label them as people with low self-esteem. But isn’t this exactly how we Christians should feel about ourselves? Isn’t it the difference between the publican who loathed himself and the conceited pharisee? Isn’t it a way for humility to show itself?
Under the guise of humility
As noted by priests, people with low self-esteem are commonly seen among their parishioners. They always doubt themselves, asking for the priest’s blessing whenever they need to make a minor decision, and they are really focused on their imperfection. Whenever somebody asks them for help, their first reaction is fright. A priests asks a parishioner, who can read in Church Slavonic, “Please help the choir, do a bit of reading today!” “Oh, no! I’m a terrible, terrible reader! I can’t! I don’t dare, Father!” Even though such behavior looks humble, does it really have anything to do with the spiritual life?
Such self-deprecation, according to Professor Viktor Slobodchikov, a PhD in Psychology, is not humility, but often an unhealthy psychological condition: “It manifests itself in refusing from volitional acts because of fear of failing or looking stupid or bad. So the person does whatever it takes to avoid ending up in a situation of possible failure. Protecting themselves from this fear, they lift responsibility off their shoulders, thinking that they will surely fail because they’re weak or inexperienced. But it only works like this when there are people around. When nobody is around, he or she forgets about his or her low self-esteem!”
So what is the difference between humility and low self-esteem? Archpriest Boris Levshenko, a cleric in a Moscow temple and head of the dogmatics subdepartment at the Orthodox Humanitarian University in honor of St. Tikhon, says, “A person with low self-esteem is too busy thinking about themselves, whereas a humble person does what they must do. A humble person accepts their imperfection, hoping that God will help them, while a person with low self-esteem is very depressed about it. They think that they don’t live up to the expectations of others, and often envy more successful people. A humble person is standing before God, whereas a person with low self-esteem only cares about what people think about them.”
Thinking that we’re worthless is very often closely connected with wanting to have something our own way. So if we can’t have it our own way, we start to think we’re worthless. As Archpriest Boris Levshenko asks, “What do we face most often? We wish we could be better and more successful than what we are. We want all or nothing, and suffer a lot when we choose nothing.” Viktor Slobodchikov adds, “Spiritually, it’s the same pride, only turned inside out. People think they really deserve something they don’t have. They are afraid that other people might notice that they’re not so smart, which is also a sign of pride.”
Such people often have an unhealthy attitude not only to themselves, but to other people as well. According to Ekaterina Burmistrova, a child and family psychologist, “A humble person is unaggressive and tends to forgive others, while a person with low self-esteem can be very aggressive towards people they think are worse than themselves. All their false humility disappears and they may attack people with rude remarks for, say, showing up in a temple wearing ‘inappropriate’ clothes, or ‘misplacing’ a candle on a candlestick.”
Falsely humble people and people who are actually humble react differently when facing evil. As Viktor Slobodchikov notes, “If one’s boss is a dishonest person who treats the subordinates really badly, a humble person interferes and tries to protect others, whereas a person with low self-esteem avoids confrontation. And if the latter is a church-goer, they mask their fear with humility, thinking to themselves, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’ But is it humble to let evil be?”
Bad attitude to oneself is most often rooted in one’s childhood. It happens to children who grow up without parents or in problem families, where parents don’t care. Psychologists say that if a father leaves the family, it can ruin a child’s self-esteem, because the child is sure that it wouldn’t have happened if he or she were good enough.
A person with such attitude may, however, have grown up in a normal family with loving parents, who just forgot to praise him, but didn’t forget to criticize. A family psychologist and mother of 8, Ekaterina Burmistrova comments, “A small child ‘molds’ themselves and their self-esteem by watching the parents’ reactions. People with low self-esteem are those whose parents thought that it is fundamentally wrong to praise children. Or whose parents, while struggling with the kid’s misbehavior (as most children have discipline problems), criticized not the misbehavior itself, but the child. It wasn’t like ‘you did a bad thing,’ but like ‘you are bad.’ Go to a playground and you might hear somebody say to their child, ‘You’re a bad boy! I won’t love you!’ just because the kid misbehaved.”
Being afraid of praising their child, parents often think that they impede the development of pride and teach their kid humility. But it frequently leads to the opposite. The child doesn’t receive any positive feedback and can’t handle it, which often results in demonstrative misconduct or pathological shyness, in constantly comparing oneself to others.
According to psychologist Ekaterina Burmistrova, parents sometimes think that their child’s humility should manifest itself as unconditional obedience or being afraid of expressing one’s opinion, which they force upon their child. “I’ve come across cases when parents, while trying to instill humility, spanked their child yelling, ‘Be humble, your sin is called pride, but this is more likely to teach their child to hold grudge or be cruel. You can’t beat them into humility, it can only be taught by setting an example of your own life.”
Comparing a child with more talented, obedient or diligent peers damages the child’s self-esteem severely. As Burmistrova continues, “All people are born with different abilities. Comparing one with others always makes an impression that one is wrong. You can only compare your child today with the same child yesterday. A kid mustn’t doubt that they are the best for their parents, for instance, the best eldest son. It is even considered that children at preschool age should have reasonably high self-esteem. In this case, when they go to school where the teacher will not think them the best, where they will have to socialize with their classmates and deal with many different subjects, their self-esteem will be adjusted, as they will see what they’re really capable of. But their initial high self-esteem will be something like a protective suit preventing them from getting too bitterly disillusioned with their abilities. Such children will find it easier to study.”
Archpriest Boris Levshenko notes that his pedagogical experience “has made me realize that not only is it important to point out flaws, but also to mark merits. It is true not only with kids, but also with students or grown-ups. The best way is to admire a person for having mastered or achieved something, and if they failed, to express regret. It might turn out that next time they’ll do ten times better.”
Entering adolescence, a child with low self-esteem may become either downtrodden or aggressive, a problem child. Burmistrova points out that it is “exactly these kids who end up in a bad company. They are fine with any environment as long as they’re accepted. They think themselves not good enough to choose, and agree unconditionally whenever chosen by somebody. It is much harder to help them than a preschool age kid.”
Archpriest Andrey Voronin, principal of an orphanage, has come up with his own method of rehabilitation for such adolescents. “In order to help a problem child form an adequate opinion on themselves it is necessary to put them in some extreme conditions. Before a person faces this kind of challenge, their understanding of the world and people around is quite limited. That’s why we went hiking with the children of our orphanage. The ten-year-old boys climbed Mount Elbrus and other mountains, where temperatures are around minus 30 or 40. It was a long distance walk on skis, and they even had to sleep on the snow at nights…”
Naturally, only those who volunteer can go, but there are always more volunteers than the hike permits. After such a trip the kids are almost born again. “Ten days of a hard hike changes kids like you can hardly change them in 10 months,” says Archpriest Voronin. “Our children used to feel flawed in comparison with those who have homes. But after a hike like that they feel much more confident, realizing that they are actually capable of coping with some challenges of life. The older start to care about the younger. And of course, even though we don’t do any Sunday school-like classes during hikes, we always try to interpret what’s going on in accordance with the gospel. The kids’ hiking experience instills in them a certain system of life values.”
Do not label others!
So what are grown-ups to do if they are absorbed in thoughts about their worthlessness? Should they climb up Mount Elbrus too? Or should they get a psychologist’s consult to raise their self-esteem?
Professor Slobodchikov believes that if a person switches from their psychological issues to actually living a spiritual life, the problem will become less severe. “When you’re in front of God, there are no such things as ‘I’m good’ or ‘I’m bad’. There’s only our unworthiness before Him. All other differences to which people pay attention in our world, such as education or intelligence, are of no importance here. There can’t be any ‘adequate self-esteem,’ cause it’s great pride to label yourself and others, gauging people against each other. The ultimate truth about us is known to God only!”
But shouldn’t a Christian think themselves to be completely worthless, worse than anybody else? Archpriest Boris Levshenko comments, “In patristic literature we sometimes read about saints who would say, ‘Everyone will be saved, only I will die because of my sins.’ But here there is no comparison with others; it’s not like ‘I’m worse’, it’s like ‘I’m sinful, my will always goes against what God wants from me, so I won’t be saved.’ One can’t think oneself to be absolutely worthless, because everyone is God’s image. So how can we consider God’s image to be worthless? It’s another thing that we must see the evil inside us and fight against it, praying that God may give us strength for this struggle. When the publican prayed, he said about his sinfulness and asked God for mercy. The pharisee, on the other hand, was full of pride because he started comparing himself with others.”
Let’s remember Paul the Apostle’s words: “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord” (1Co, 4:3-4). This is an example of a healthy Christian attitude to oneself, which is nowhere near obsessing about being no good “in comparison to others.” Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh wrote about this false humility: “This is one of the most destructive things leading to denying the existing goodness in oneself, which is simply unfair towards God. Lord gives us our mind, heart, good will, the circumstances, and some people who we can do good things for. And we should do good thinking that it’s good, but it’s not ‘ours’, it’s God’s.”
Archpriest Andrey Voronin reminds people who are prone to being discouraged about their worthlessness that Christians should rejoice: “If we lose this joy, we cease to be Christians and become philosophers who utilize the Christian terms to justify their sins and failures. But Christianity is about rejoicing! Surely it’s also about tears and penitence, but this comes not from our mind, but from getting closer to God. Apart from this, I always say to people who are obsessed with their ‘worthlessness,’ ‘Christ died for you! Can you imagine how precious you are to God?’”