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Do I have enough self-esteem?

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the second greatest command. 

As a result of its contact with popular psychology, a funny thing has happened to how this command is understood. Think about the following terms:

Self-realization: "fulfillment by oneself of the possibilities of one's character or personality." [1]

Self-esteem: an individual's overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth. It is the decision made by an individual as an attitude towards the self.

Self-actualization: "the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for … [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially."

Self-worth: having a favorable opinion or estimate of yourself. It means having unshakable faith in yourself and in your ability to follow through and get things done. Having a high degree of self-worth means feeling worthy of good things.

Self-acceptance is an individual's satisfaction or happiness with oneself and is thought to be necessary for good mental health. Self-acceptance involves self-understanding, a realistic, albeit subjective, awareness of one's strengths and weaknesses.

All of these phenomena taken together have brought us to a place of introspection— “Do I have enough self-esteem?” “Do I accept myself?” —and to the conclusion that I have to love myself before I can love someone else.

On the other hand…

Self-transcendence is a positive personality trait that involves the expansion of personal boundaries, including, potentially, experiencing spiritual ideas such as considering oneself an integral part of the universe.

According to this line of thinking, there are four defining characteristics of self-transcendence.

First, there is a shift in focus from self to others. This involves a recognition and turning towards something greater than oneself. As Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”

Second, there is a shift in values, specifically a turn away from self-interest to love of the other. Jesus said, “Love one another” and “love your enemy." Some have called this dis-interested love: love that is expressed through action on behalf of the other without regard for returned love. The biblical word is agape.

Third, there is an increase in moral concern. This involves being “sensitive to the well-being and rights of other people in our goal strivings and decision makings.” Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘Do not murder’, but I say to you, do not be angry with your brother….” In the six examples of Pharisaic legalism beginning at Matthew 5:21, he points beyond their rules to the persons with whom they have to do and concludes in 5:58 that we are to have the same telos as God does toward others.

The result of these three leads to the fourth defining characteristic: emotions of elevation.

“These emotions include awe, ecstasy, or amazement because of something extraordinary …This feeling of awe is part of life-transforming experiences because it moves people towards worship or becoming a better and more responsible person.” Jesus expressed this in John 4 when the disciples came back after their shopping trip and Jesus wasn’t hungry: “I have food that you don’t know about.”

Self-transcendence turns the pop psychology understanding of “Love your neighbor as yourself” on its head. We come to “love” ourselves as we first love others. Self-esteem comes from esteeming the neighbor. Self-actualization is the result of contributing to another’s life. Self-acceptance results from the acceptance of the neighbor.

And this leads to the fulfillment of the great command to love God. For how can we love God, whom we have not seen, if we don’t love our brother, whom we have seen? (1 John 4)


[1] Quotes are from the article by Paul Wong, From Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy to the Four Defining Characteristics of Self-Transcendence, posted Jan 2, 2017, Existential PsychologyMeaning Therapy

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