Self Esteem: Finding the balance is tough

I’m a sketch artist.

I’ll sometimes sit in a room for hours on end doing quick turnouts of subjects who are lined up.  I do this at conventions and church meetings, at schools and fairs and in people’s living rooms.  I love to draw people.  Takes about 90 seconds and in most cases, produces something people treasure.

But not always.  You’d be surprised how often people would rather be anywhere on the planet than in front of me posing.

I can see it coming a mile away. The person reluctantly slides into the chair opposite me, looks in every direction except mine, and when I manage to get his/her attention, refuses to look me in the eye. Asked to look this way and smile, the party mumbles, “I don’t smile.” Or, “I don’t like my smile.”

A few times I have said with  more than a little impatience, “Look, I could understand that if you were 13 years old. But you’re a grownup. Get over this. Everyone looks better with a smile, including me and definitely including you. Now, look me in the eye and show me a smile. You’ll like the picture a lot better.”

One day, when no one else was standing nearby to be drawn, I tried something with this depressingly shy young woman.

I said, “Look, no one else is listening in on this and I’m old enough to be your grandfather, so don’t take it the wrong way. You are beautiful. God gave you a great smile and a wonderful appearance. Personally, I don’t think He’s happy that you’re always putting yourself down. Now, stand up straight and look the world in the eye and be the lovely person God made you.”

That’s risky, I know. It would be so easy to misinterpret that.

I get impatient with people who have the world going for them but act like they were born paupers and damned to be eternally deprived.

I know where this came from.

They picked up this low self esteem from someone else.

A critical daddy, a frustrated mother, a jealous classmate, a sniping husband or griping wife. A disgruntled neighbor, an unthinking peer, a carping boss, a thoughtless school-teacher, an unkind pastor. A cruel uncle, an authoritative aunt, a controlling grandparent–someone they trusted betrayed that confidence by sticking the knife in and twisting in.

In an old television interview, I watched Michael Jackson tell how his father would criticize his nose when MJ was in his teens. “It’s too big and too wide, boy. You didn’t get it from my side of the family.”

Asked how that made him feel, MJ said, “It devastated me.”

One day he and his brothers encountered a woman in an airport who recognized them. “Where’s little Michael?” she kept asking, looking around as though she expected him to be about knee-high. “Right there,” said one of the brothers, pointing to the adolescent Michael. “Ew,” the unkind woman said, “What happened?”

“When I got to my room, I cried,” he said.

No one comes into this life thinking of themselves as terrible and rotten and ugly. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Poor self-esteem is the work of people with bad mental health who try to feel better about themselves by downing others. If they pay attention, they eventually discover that no amount of disparaging others changes how they really are inside. The damage done to the others, however,  is often deep and permanent.

“You’re stupid,” said a mother to her daughter. What the mother was actually saying–I know this situation well–was that in trying to assist her small child with her homework, she herself felt helpless and out of her depth. Instead of honestly admitting her own shortcomings, she erupted onto the youngster with venom and unkindness.

That child, who in time would become my wife of fifty-plus years, grew up talented and bright and smart as well as attractive, but without any idea this was the case. It took years–decades, actually–to overcome the thoughtless and callous remarks of a mother, and perhaps a poor schoolteacher or two along the way, who truly loved this child but because of her own poor education and inadequate abilities mistreated her badly.

In her early 40s, my Margaret graduated from Mississippi University for Women with a bachelor’s degree (cum laude, mind you!) in social work.

If the young woman I tried to help  went out of that room feeling how wonderful she must be and how beautiful everyone surely finds her to be, she’s no better off than before.

If my positive words exalted her too high, the negative words of another can prick that balloon and send her cascading into the depths of self-pity.

If one person’s compliments can inflate us, another’s ugliness can destroy that in a heartbeat.

The challenge is for each of us to feel so confident in who we are and how God has made us that the words of others about us become irrelevant.

If they say we are brilliant and talented and the best-looking thing in town, fine. Thank them, then shrug it off. Their words have little to do with anything. They were being nice, and nothing more. (My brother Ron says, “Flattery is like perfume: it smells good but if you swallow it, it’ll make you sick!”)

If they call us weird, say we’re ugly, and tell someone we are stupid, that’s just as meaningless. Try to ignore that also. The problem is theirs, not yours. For some sick reason the speaker felt the urge to discharge their shotgun of venom while you were in their sights. If it hadn’t been you, it would have been someone else. Keep telling yourself: it’s not your problem.

What we would loved to have said to Michael Jackson…

–Sir, your father was cruel.  What he said about your nose being too wide was stupid, but don’t get yours bent all out of shape over a mental-health problem that is all his.

–Michael, that so-called fan who “ewwed” you in the airport, was no fan. She is the enemy. Laugh it off. She too is weird.

Likewise, we can wish that saying those positive things would make a lasting difference. Sadly, it rarely does.

Low self-esteem and poor mental health  usually do not respond to positive words, but are aggravated only by additional bad ones. Don’t ask me why; I’m just the preacher, not the therapist.

Strong self-esteem comes from a cadre of loving people around a child: parents, siblings, grandparents, teachers, and friends.

A wise parent will monitor the input his/her child is receiving from those he/she trusts and take prompt action if it turns out someone is abusing the youngster.

Guard your treasure, friend. (See II Timothy 1:14)

The ideal balance is a place situated halfway between thinking too much of oneself and too little. Here’s how Paul put it in Romans–

For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. (Romans 12:3)

Not too much, not too little.

Warren Wiersbe, in his commentary on this verse, tells of two men he knew who had wonderful spiritual gifts. The first never used his and constantly belittled himself. The other used his gifts but constantly boasted of his gifts. Both men were guilty of excessive pride, Dr. Wiersbe writes.

Do not think too highly of yourself.

Do not think too often of yourself.

Set your mind on things above. (Colossians 3:1)

Do that and I can almost promise you, you’ll feel just fine about yourself.  The Lord is called “Our Rock” for good reason.

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