Glynn Harrison is a retired professor of psychiatry from Bristol university.  He weaves together three strands:  a knowledge and love of the scriptures, an expertise from psychiatry and a knowledge of people.  Here the NH Media Team brings a summary of his seminar on Tuesday 9 August.

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Today we are looking at this issue of Self Worth.  The Bible says we are fearfully and wonderfully made.  It is extraordinary that the human being has this capacity for self-reflection.  It is one of the great mysteries of scientific exploration.

The “I” draws back from the “me” and says, “What is this?”  It is a self awareness and reflection that questions our own identity.  “Who am I?  What is my nature and purpose?”  You cannot ask that question without asking, “What is my value?”

You can see that this importance of worth is extremely important. The moment we think about love, we raise this question about our own worth – how can I receive love if I don’t have any sense of value?  How can I love somebody else?  It is hard to make a contribution to the world if we do not feel we have any value.  These are big questions.

Psychology as a discipline cannot give the answers.  These are philosophical questions and spiritual questions.

The question is, how do we get a sense of self worth?   Too often we have a personal story of being beaten down and diminished.

There are four possible ways of getting a sense of self worth but I think they are all wrong!

1. Get yourself noticed 

There is something about the human spirit that craves recognition.  Adam Smith       wrote, “To what purpose is all the toil of this world?… to be observed, to be attended to, to be noticed.”  Some people get themselves noticed in a hierarchy.  In the chicken yard we see the “pecking order” – the order of importance.

Fundamentally, people are looking for status and recognition.  Of course, it is preferable to be at the top, which comes all kinds of rewards.  Being noticed is intoxicating to the human spirit.  It is an occupational hazard of Christian work!  This gives us a sense of worth and significance.

The danger of staking your sense of worth on being noticed is that it is dependent on something you can’t control.  When you get to the top, it is hard word to stay there.  Too easily you can be knocked off your perch. It is stressful.

2. Being accepted 

The desire to be included, affirmed by somebody else and part of the group.  The trouble is that people keep raising the bar and we never feel that we are good enough.  We can still fight for people’s acceptance and affirmation, even when they are no longer around.

3. Being in control 

When we have control, we feel with have significance and worth.  “Within hours of that kick, I was tumbling out of control. You see I’m only as good as my last kick.  I was afflicted by a powerful fear of failure and I didn’t know how to free myself from it.”

Technology offers us the illusion of control, until we need the next upgrade.  Eating or losing weight can be are area of gaining control.  We all seek to find different ways to find control.  The problem with all these things is that they are contingent on something else!

4. Boosting “self-esteem”

The “self esteem” movement made a right diagnosis.  It said we were too reliant on things that were “contingent” in order to find our value and worth.  The movement told us to stop going after status and being accepted and being in control.  Instead it called us to discover “self” esteem.  If the “I” says to the “me” that “You are valuable” then no one can take this away from us.  This is really seductive.  It feeds into modern individualism.   It permeates Hollywood.  You are important.  You are worth it.

Too often this feeds into the broader narrative that God is there to boost our ego.  “I am special.”  The problem with “special” is that it is unique with a twist of greatness and importance and yet the reality is that not everybody can be great or important.  It sounds good but does it work?

An experiment was carried out at the university of Ontario.  They divided a sample into three groups and carried out various measures of people’s wellbeing.  Group One had a pack of “self esteem” statements and they were told to meditate on these things every day for three months and try to make them their own.  Group Two had to evaluate the statements and consider how these things were true and how they were not.  Group Three had nothing.

The people who at the beginning had low self worth in Group One actually felt worse about themselves because it is hard to believe your own propaganda.

The trouble is that when we boost people continuously, then we create people with fragile egos.  Increasingly educationalists are rejecting this type of “self esteem” focus because it has not helped and in some ways it has made things worse!

One of the best skills we can teach children is how to fail well.

Research into narcissism scores for university students shows that the numbers have been tracking upwards.

Encouragement and affirmation of effort rather than status /achievement produces better results. We want to encourage children to fail well and try again rather than avoid effort and risk in order to retain what they have already attained.

But we are still faced with the question, where do we find our sense of worth?

Q & A

What does it mean to fail well?

Boosterism creates perfectionism.  We need to have the courage to say that this doesn’t help young people.   Nobody is perfect in everything.  You cannot discover your strengths unless you adopt a posture towards life that recognises both strengths and weaknesses.  Failing well is about facing reality.  It is a tool by which we can play to our strengths and builds a sense of team (a sense of dependence on others which enables us to work together).

The simple answer is that we need to get our sense of worth from our Creator.  You cannot separate the question of worth from the bigger questions of purpose and identity.  That is the problem with self esteem is that it tries to ignore the big questions which lie behind self worth.

Alastair McIntyre says, “You can’t know the worth of a thing unless you know its purpose.”

What God does is to talk about our purpose and identity before He talks about our worth.  The great exposition of John is to tell us who He is and who we are – we are children of God, made in the image of God and being re-made into the image of Christ.  Can you think of anything more noble and dignified than that?  You are made in the divine image of God Himself?

You are loved, unconditionally. You cannot lose God’s love.  God will not betray you.  He is bound to you.  You also have a purpose.  You are called to reflect God in what you do.  God is fruitful – so we are fruitful.  God is a creator – so we become creative.  We are working in the image of God creating things out of nothing.  Everyone of us is called to bear well that image of God.

Eph 1:10 – He has prepared works for us to do.   Let His dignity and love re-shape who you are.  If God gives it, no one takes it away.  Christian identity is not discovered within the self but it is revealed to the self.  A voice comes from the Father that says, “You are my child.  You are an image-bearer in the world.”

The human heart is like an elephant with a little man on top.  The elephant is our habits and attitudes – the way our whole life has shaped and molded us.  The little man on top is our intellect.  The “little man” tries to steer and direct us but so often the elephant is the one that dictates.

We need to do three things:

  1. We need to think
  2. We need to imagine and re-imagine.
  3. We need to behave in the image of God.  Sometimes when we just do it, the feelings will follow.

One last tip – evaluate your service, not your identity.

Be up for evaluating your skills, competencies and acts of service.  There will be some things you are brilliant at and some things you are rubbish at.  Evaluate the act not your core identity, which is an image bearer.  Push those two apart.

We can own our strengths and let God’s pleasure flow into it.  And if we are not so good at something, let somebody else do it.  Whether you are brilliant or you are rubbish at something does not affect who you are because you are made in the image of God. “The Big Ego Trip”