Discerning the Difference Between Healthy Self-Esteem and Toxic Selfishness

Discerning the Difference Between Healthy Self-Esteem and Toxic Selfishness August 5, 2018
Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash

In response to my article The Self, Self-Esteem, and Dying to Self, one reader posted this question:

So…I’m just curious but how do you suggest one can find a balance between the two? I agree with your article and I’m grateful that you mention how Christian culture can cause us to have low self esteem as I feel like that’s a large reason why I don’t like myself, however other times I fear I’m just selfish and narcissistic and I don’t wanna be like that… what do you consider to be a healthy balance of self esteem that doesn’t turn into excessive self pride?

Thanks for asking this question.

First, and most important, I am so sorry to hear you say that you don’t like yourself. But I understand. I am a recovering self-disliker as well. I’m sorry that the church has, historically, done a poor job at proclaiming that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” as Psalm 139 points out.

Yes, there is a lot of language in the Christian tradition, and even in scripture, that seems to pave the way toward self-contempt. Consider this little gem from Jeremiah: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

The Bible says a lot about the human heart, and the gifts has given us through our hearts. God has given us eternity (Ecclesiastes 3:11), wisdom (Proverbs 2:10), and love — courtesy of the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). But I’m afraid that some Christians can’t get past Jeremiah, and how deceitful and wicked the heart is.

Filtering Out the Good, Magnifying the Not-S0-Good

A friend of mine once dated a woman who was intelligent, charming, and hard at work on her graduate degree. But she also suffered from a negative self-image. As my friend wryly noted, “If we were at a party and twenty-nine people told her how smart and insightful she was, but just one person made a comment about how stupid she was, she would ignore the twenty-nine and fixate on the one.”

I’m afraid my friends’ girlfriend is hardly alone. In fact that’s called “filtering” — a tendency that can show up among people suffering from depression, a tendency to filter out all that is good and positive and magnify what is negative. It’s a cognitive distortion, but unfortunately, when we are trapped in our own filter, it seems all too real.

It seems to me that Christianity, as a religion and as a culture, has tended to do too much filtering. We filter out all the messages that God loves us, God cherishes us, God is merciful to us and forgives us, God values us so much that God is willing to die for us. We filter all that out! And then, what do we magnify? “The heart is wicked and deceitful.”

Jesus tells his followers they need to deny themselves to follow him. But there’s a difference between self-denial and self-hatred or self-contempt. Self-denial is a valuable skill that anyone who wants to work toward a long-term goal must master: if you’re dieting, you learn to deny the constant craving for chocolate. If you’re training for a marathon, you deny the desire to be a couch potato. And so on.

So authentic self-denial actually comes from a place of grounded self-love. But again, that filter has distorted how many Christians understand the faith. They think you aren’t really loving God if you don’t actively punish and reject yourself.

Distinguishing Selfishness from Self-Love

Toxic selfishness, or narcissism, are manifestations of toxic pride — in Greek, ὕβρις (hubris). Hubris is different from the kind of pride that is healthy and life-affirming, like a parent taking pride in their child’s accomplishments. Hubris is, in effect, making yourself your own personal little god. “The universe revolves around me,” the narcissist might think. And in his mind, he’d be right.

We all have a little bit of the narcissist in us. We all look out for number one, and dislike it when we aren’t the center of attention. Most of us, as adults, have learned to sublimate that — but if we’re tired enough, or needy enough, we can throw a fit when we’re not getting our way to rival any two-year-old’s tantrum.

Is that evidence of original sin? Some Christians would say so. But I think it’s just as sensible to say it’s the result of having a reptilian brain deep within our cerebral cortex. We’re all hard wired to protect ourselves.

Small children are naturally self-protective. They are hungry or uncomfortable, and they cry. “Come take care of me now!” And as they grow, mommy and daddy begin to teach them that they aren’t the center of the universe, and they have to learn to balance getting their way with the needs of others. Most of us more or less learn this, and that’s how we can function in society. But all of us still have some narcissism deep down inside, and no one is perfect in transcending it (or hiding it, and repressing it just backfires sooner or later).

I’m belaboring this point for a simple reason. Part of cultivating healthy self-esteem is learning to be forgiving toward ourselves for all the ways we make mistakes — including how sometimes we are narcissistic.

Possible Ways for Discerning

To answer my reader’s question, how do we discern the difference between narcissism and health self-love? Here are a few possible ways to discern:

  • A healthy self-loving person is capable of laughing at him- or herself. The narcissist tends to take himself or herself very seriously: no room for humor!
  • The self-loving person feels gratitude for God’s mercy. The narcissist wants to prove his or her worth to God, because secretly he/she doesn’t trust God’s mercy.
  • The healthy self-lover knows how to balance “my way” and “let others go first.” The narcissist wants to be the first, and the center of attention, all the time.
  • A person who loves his or herself in a healthy way is able to admit making mistakes, resolves to make amends and do better, and practices self-forgiveness. The narcissist tries to deny making a mistake, but when he’s “caught” he gets extremely angry at himself and has difficulty forgiving himself — or making amends to others.
  • A healthy self-loving person understands that life is complex and many moral or ethical questions might not have a clear answer, whereas the narcissist sees everything in strict black-or-white terms.
  • The healthy self-loving person is humble, willing to ask for help when needed. The narcissist doesn’t want to ask for help, either for prideful reasons (I don’t need it!) or for self-negating reasons (I don’t want to be a bother).
  • The healthy self-lover understands that life isn’t perfect, and neither are our relationships — including our relationship with ourself (or with God). The narcissist insists that everything must be perfect (there’s that black-or-white thing again).

The last one might be the most important. When we practice healthy self-love, we know that sometimes we will get off course, sometimes we’ll get a bit narcissistic (or a bit self-denigrating). When that happens, and we catch ourselves, we lovingly correct ourselves, and try to go back to practicing basic positive self-regard. A narcissist, by contrast, can’t tolerate any evidence that he or she is anything other than perfect, so tends to be extremely hard on him- or herself, especially when making a mistake!

So what are the keys to moving from narcissism to healthy self-regard? Compassion: learning the art of just liking yourself, just as you are. Humility: remembering that the universe does not revolve around yourself, and it’s okay to be imperfect. Forgiveness: learning to forgive one’s self is actually great training for learning to forgive others. Trust and hope: learning to approach the future with a basic sense of optimism and a willingness to let God be God (so you don’t have to be).

I’m sure there’s much more to say, but this post is already way too long! I hope it’s helpful, though.

One final word: if you or someone you love continues to struggle with self-dislike, or with depression, or with anxiety, please consider working with a professional counselor. There really are good tools that we can learn to help us grow in healthy ways toward a life based in love rather than fear, in hope rather than despair, and in serenity rather than angst. You are wonderfully made — so you are worth the time and energy it takes to heal from low self-esteem or depression or anxiety!


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