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posted: 8/28/2011 12:01 AM

Self-esteem must be grounded in self-worth

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Can we really solve all of society's ills with just more self-esteem? Sometimes I think that's what some of us believe.

As I read the books, magazine articles and professional journals that come across my desk and computer monitor, I see the phrase "low self-esteem" used to explain almost any personality or behavioral problem being described. Whether in the field of education, religion, psychology or psychotherapy, the lack of self-esteem often seems to be the diagnosis of choice.

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I certainly agree that low self-esteem is a problem. Simply building up people's esteem, however, is not necessarily going to solve anything. Our self-esteem first must be grounded in our self-worth. Remember the poster popular a few years ago: "God Don't Make Junk!" The point was that we are all born with unconditional worth simply because we are us. Self-esteem comes when the people around us teach us to acknowledge this worth.

A lot of this learning comes through how parents, relatives, neighbors and teachers respond to our efforts to grow and develop as individuals. If our efforts usually are met with approval (even when we make mistakes or fail) and if guidance and discipline is offered positively, we will grow up with a fairly healthy esteem for ourselves. If we are constantly pushed, belittled or disapproved of, our esteem suffers accordingly.

As we mature, however, another source of self-esteem is available to us. We can acknowledge to ourselves our own worth. And we can value for ourselves what we do.

Here's where it gets tricky. "Value" is not just in the eyes of the beholder. Some behaviors really are more valuable than others, no matter how open minded we might try to be. A very talented car thief is still a car thief. And though I believe in his unconditional worth as a person, I'm not going to suggest he should esteem himself more because he is so good at swiping cars. Nor would I agree that if he just had more self-esteem, everything would be great.

All great moral and religious systems maintain that there are certain rules for behavior. Usually these have to do with respect, fairness, mutuality, responsibility, love, and so on. I think these values are, in fact, built into our very psychological makeup (recent research in psychobiology even supports this idea). We ignore them, then, at our own peril.

When I do something that violates one of these basic rules, I ought to have less esteem for myself. I ought to feel guilty. In fact, I need to see my behavior as contrary to my basic worth as a person. That is why we need to be careful when we prescribe building self-esteem as the cure for so many of people's problems.

Certainly much of our society's ills are the result of treating people as having no worth. In building self-esteem, however, we must teach others that though they have unconditional worth, their behavior does not. Self-esteem must also be rooted in our behaving in accord with the basic life-affirming values that are part of our very human nature.

Self-esteem? Certainly. But for the right reasons.

• The Rev. Ken Potts' book "Mix, Don't Blend: A Guide to Dating, Engagement, and Remarriage with Children" is available through book retailers.

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