Hope for a Poor Self-Image
What can we do if we don’t think much of ourselves?
by Jeanette Levellie
When I first met Judy, a new employee at my workplace, I couldn’t identify why I liked her so well. Was it her ready laughter, her openness to share struggles as well as joys, her ability to make you feel important?
Then one day as I overheard Judy admonish a teenage employee and make the correction sound helpful, I understood what made her appealing: Judy liked herself. Decades and several jobs later, I look back and realize how rare Judy’s healthy self-esteem was.
Most of us can count on one hand the people we know who exude confidence. The majority of our acquaintances — even fellow Christians — seem to suffer from varying degrees of insecurity.
Poor self-image is not a new malady, nor is it unique to modern-day Americans. Adam and Eve hid from the Lord when they realized they were naked after eating forbidden fruit. Both the stuttering Moses and the teenage Jeremiah tried to talk God out of using them as spiritual leaders. Even the apostle Peter told Jesus to go away from him, noting his unworthiness after Jesus gave him a miraculous catch of fish.
In nearly all cultures and in every era, people have suffered from feelings of insecurity, uncertainty, anxiety, worthlessness, or self-hatred.
Even those we expect to possess a healthy view of themselves — ones born with natural beauty, talent, intelligence, or wealth — don’t always smile when they look in the mirror. Superstar Mariah Carey told an interviewer, “I’ve always had really low self-esteem, and I still do.”
The late Maya Angelou, an award-winning writer, admitted, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” President Abraham Lincoln suffered with bouts of depression and panic attacks.
While not everyone with a poor self-image acts the same, many exhibit these similar behaviors:
Extremes in body language. People who don’t see themselves in a positive light often slouch, hang their head, make little or no eye contact, and rarely speak up. Or sometimes they act the opposite, using large gestures and a loud voice to attract attention, hoping to feel significant.
Self-condemning. Pointing out their own faults is a way for those with a low opinion of themselves to beat you to the punch, in case you noticed their long list of flaws (and they’re sure you did!). They often answer a compliment with, “Oh, it’s nothing” or the super spiritual cover-up of “It’s not me — it’s the Lord at work in me,” instead of a healthy “Thank you!”
Indecisive. We once knew a lady who spent twenty minutes choosing a cake mix at the market. Whether it’s buying a cake or picking a college, those with poor self-esteem worry that their choices will have horrible consequences, so they often freeze when faced with a decision.
Judgmental. Censure of others is another way that people who dislike themselves try to overcome their insecurities and draw attention away from what they deem as irreparable faults. They erroneously think if they point out the toothpicks in Aunt Ginny’s eye, you won’t notice the logs in theirs.
Joy-sabotaging. Since they don’t believe they deserve happiness, people who feel worthless often subconsciously undermine plans that may lead to joy. They might cancel a date to the movies with friends, not show up for their dream job interview, or refuse a marriage proposal.
Those folks in the minority who possess a healthy self-esteem might be tempted to feel superior. In that case, they need a reminder that a poor self-image is not a sign of weak faith or a flawed character. Instead, it points out some deep inner pain and hidden wounds, mostly from childhood but a few from life in general, such as the following:
- If a parent, teacher, or caregiver shamed, harshly criticized, or ridiculed a child or adolescent, those memories cause deep scars on the soul that elicit feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness.
- If peers rejected or bullied a person in their growing-up years, they mistakenly think they are sub-standard, inept, or stupid. In recent years, cyber bullying has led to several cases of teen suicide.
- If a parent abandoned or abused their infant or child, the child was led to believe they were not worthy of esteem or love. Even those who’ve been adopted by nurturing parents may struggle into their adult years with feelings of inferiority.
- If a loved one or spouse rejected someone they had vowed to cherish, the abandoned one’s heart may be shattered in a thousand pieces, leaving them with feelings of hopelessness and insecurity. They sometimes find it difficult to trust others and might develop a sarcastic outlook to cover their pain.
- If a boss treated an employee poorly or they’ve been unemployed for years, they might doubt their worth and contribution to society.
Before we despair that our neighborhood, church, and world are nothing more than a multitude of troubled, fragile people, God offers us abundant hope for healing. What are some of His ways we can overcome a poor self-image in our own lives and offer assurance to other sufferers?
Realize it’s a process. You want to love yourself by tomorrow at five. Your friend thinks that reading one book on gaining a healthy self-esteem will fix her. But we didn’t learn this unhealthy mindset in an instant, so it’s going to take some time to heal. Since God is brimming with grace, He’s OK with us taking baby steps of growth. With His help, we too can develop grace for ourselves and our friends who wrestle with feelings of inferiority.
Choose to believe God’s love. When we realize that harsh treatment from others is based on lies from Satan, the accuser of the brethren (Revelation 12:10), it helps us overcome erroneous thoughts about our worth. We can refute those lies with God’s Word. For example, one counselor in a Christian home for anorexic teenagers asked the residents to make lists of their negative self-talk. Then across the page from each item on their list, they wrote truths from God’s Word to renew their minds. The Word of God is more powerful than every lie Satan can conceive, and it will set us free to believe God’s love for us.
Try journaling, art, or music therapy. The creative arts, whether guided by a trained therapist or practiced alone, can restore our emotions to health in amazing ways. As we experiment with various methods of expressing our feelings, inviting the Lord alongside to heal our brokenness, we make progress toward healthier self-esteem.
Find and encourage a natural talent. My mother-in-law once said, “I don’t have any talents.” Yet she has kept meticulous records for her church’s Bible school program for many decades, not realizing that a love for detail and accuracy is a gift from God. No one is without some kind of talent. It might be dog grooming, fixing cars, or cooking. As we focus on what we enjoy, we become better at it and our self-image improves. As we encourage others’ gifts, they gain self-esteem.
Watch what we say. Mental health professionals teach a form of increasing their clients’ self-image by a method called “positive affirmations.” Hearing our own voice has a powerful effect on our thinking. When we tell ourselves, I love you. You are capable and valuable, we begin to believe it. How much more powerful for positive change when we speak God’s truths over ourselves!
Try personalizing these:
“The Lord is compassionate and gracious [to me], slow to anger and abounding in love” (Psalm 103:8).
“He will take great delight in [me]; in his love he will no longer rebuke [me], but will rejoice over [me] with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).
“The very hairs of [my] head are all numbered. . . . [I am] worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7).
“But because of his great love for [me], God, who is rich in mercy, made [me] alive with Christ even when [I was] dead in transgressions — it is by grace [I] have been saved. And God raised [me] up with Christ and seated [me] with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to [me] in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-7).
A champion of children and former pastor, Fred Rogers once said, “If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to people you may never even dream of.” Our champion of the faith, Jesus Christ, said, “According to your faith let it be done to you” (Matthew 9:29).
When we focus our faith on God’s view of us — as precious children — it changes our self-image from poor to abundant in His love and grace. Like Judy, we can like ourselves, since God so highly values us.
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.