“Self-Esteem”: an Epiphany

Forget the term “self-esteem” for a moment. Think of it as “esteeming oneself.”

I just had an epiphany regarding the concept of self-esteem. This was the trigger:

“A child increasingly needs to achieve tasks for his own sake, and gradually, his self-esteem becomes more important than the esteem he gets from others. He can begin to develop personal values and mental skills that support sustained effort, tolerance of frustration, and resilience when his initial efforts do not work. Sometimes the child’s values develop into a desire for prestige, status, reputation, fame, or even dominance of others” (Webb, et. al, “A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children”).

We think of self-esteem as the overinflated ego that results from a child getting one too many participation trophies or needless pats on the back, to the point that it’s become a distasteful term. Re-read the quote and see how this concept of esteeming oneself is best understood vis a vis the idea of seeking esteem through others.

We all crave for others to esteem us: to value, respect, and honor us and our accomplishments. To a certain degree this is normal; it’s when it becomes the sole motivator that problems occur. A person with self-esteem is one who is intrinsically motivated: she respects and values herself and believes in her inherent competence and self-worth. She doesn’t need to rely on the approbation of others, and therefore she is self-motivated and driven to achieve.

The person who holds their own self in esteem believes firmly:

  • I am an individual that has value in the eyes of my creator.
  • I am competent.
  • I respect and honor myself.
  • I recognize my own strengths.

Self-esteem is fundamentally a personal value by which a person chooses to put the seeking of external validation below the seeking of personal achievement and fulfilment. It is the self-respect that leads a person to eschew prestige and popularity in favor of relying on his internal moral compass.

In the secular worldview, this concept of self-respect and self-esteem does not take into account a creator. For us, respect of oneself comes vis a vis respecting one’s creator. Think of it this way: instead of seeking external esteem, we direct our esteem to the creator. His primary directive for us is submission. When we submit, this is the only way to honor ourself and esteem ourselves. All “self-esteem” must come from this fundamental self-to-creator relationship.

An example: When one of my kids misuses something, I remind them, “You are not respecting that object.”

Invariably they will say, “How can you respect an object?”

I reply, “By using it in the manner in which it was intended to be used.”

Allah tells us, “Wa maa khalaqtul-jinna wal insa illaa liya’budoon.” :  “I have not created jinn or men except to worship me.”

When we ignore this, it’s like a person using a vase as a hammer or a book as a step-stool: it’s disrespecting the purpose of the object. Likewise, if we do not live our lives in submission to Allah, by definition this cannot be self-esteem. We are misusing our bodies and abusing the gift of our creator. If we live beholden to the seeking of others’ esteem, we are also disrespecting the purpose of our life: it’s His approval that we crave, not others.

In the early days of Islam in Makkah, the value of esteeming oneself meant that the Muslims had to forego their desire for others’ esteem and instead, value and honor their own souls as believers. They respected their own selves too much to seek the honor and prestige of the Quraysh’s social system of idolatry. This is why Umar ibn al-Khattab famously said that when we seek honor and prestige in other than Allah, he will humiliate us.

In Jordan, my neighbor would discipline her son by saying, “Ihtarim nafsak”: literally, “respect yourself.” Self-esteem dictates that you do the right thing because it’s a form of respect and value to your own self, not because you want others to think highly of you.

Do you see now why external rewards, participation trophies, and over-the-top praise can actually damage the concept of esteeming oneself? Can you also see why riyaa’ (doing good deeds to be seen or to show off) is such a great sin?

O Allah, let us seek honor in obeying you. Let us honor our souls by driving them towards the purpose of their creation. Let us not be distracted by following the whims of others, and let us be those fearless believers who “laa yakhaafoona lawmata laa’im”, who fear not the blame of the blamers, but rather stand strong and tall for what they believe in.

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