Recently, my friend John asked, “What is performance-based self-esteem?”. I am sure he knows inside what it is but recalling his own beginnings in this journey, John recalled how easy it was to not see this pattern in his own life and wanted me to make a video for men experiencing similar to how both he and I had.
At the root of many views about self-esteem is a fundamentally incorrect view of self-worth, value, and significance. These wrong views start with an assumption that these things are somehow gained or that they are a destination that one arrives at after a journey involving some combination of effort and will.
How’s my self-esteem doing today?
If I’m living this way, I treat the experience of self-worth as though it were an investment into a mutual fund. I make some sort of initial deposit followed by continual deposits in the form of things I think add to my value. Then I start to watch the market to see how well it’s performing.
That “market” is usually a combination of the approval and validation of self and others. Like any market fund, in the value goes up and down and up and down based on whatever drives that market. It’s an endless anxiety-provoking, insecurity-inducing mess. Every day brings with it a new sense of value and significance.
Such a view will eventually lead to some sense of bankruptcy or at the very least, an anxiety-filled life. There is no rest in such an approach.
If I as a person must work to acquire value, worth, and significance, then naturally, my success at doing so will be directly related to how well, how fast, and how thoroughly I do this work. That sounds pretty predictable and formulaic and therefore appealing to most. If I play by the rules of the game, I get the results I’m after, right?
Unfortunately, this way of living has unescapable downsides.
First, If I stop working or experience any form of down-turn in my performance I experience a drop in my sense of self-esteem. If I lose my job, get demoted, or experience financial loss – my sense of value goes down. When my friends look upon me with disapproval or disappointment – my sense of value goes down. If I make a mistake and people are angry – my sense of value goes down. I get physically injured and become less capable of producing – my sense of value goes down. If I’m not having sex, the market is in free fall. If my wife stops loving me – major market crash
Anything that could make my sense of value, worth, significance, and therefore well-being increase.. the converse can make it decrease.
Second, the approach leads to endless comparison. Comparison with others, a past version of ourselves, and future versions of ourselves. If my value is tied to things that can be up or down, then the natural outcome of that will be that I compare myself to others. I won’t otherwise know how well I am or am not doing. As a result, I will feel better than some and worse than some. I’m also going to be tired as f*ck from trying to stay ahead.
It is hard to have meaningful relationships when I compare myself to everyone. Everyone falls into either being better, the same, or worse than me. One will trigger insecurity, another feeling of superiority, and the few who are like me will be those I can relax around. At least until they become better or worse than me. Neither of those leads me into rich, deep, meaningful connections. Instead of finding unconditional love, I find subtle manipulation, envy, contempt and numerous other unattractive attitudes at work. It undermines everything in my life.
All of these are empowered by an underlying belief my value is not the same as everyone else’s so I must work hard to ensure my place in line. Left here I will fall prey to a concept that human value ultimately exists in a hierarchy and place myself and everyone else somewhere in this hierarchy. My sense of self-esteem will be correspondent to where I see myself in that hierarchy.
When hierarchies exist, some humans deserve more than others and some deserve nothing. This view of life when played out to its’ rational conclusion ultimately leads to disregarding the life of the weak, frail, and those of low estate.
Do we not see this played out around the world in the present?
Bonded and insured
In order to find my true sense of value, worth, and significance… to really have self-esteem, I need to withdraw those things from the market of performance and place them somewhere secure. This must be a location where the value is fixed and impervious to change. It needs to be bonded and insured.
This means that my value must rest in something that exceeds me and has the authority and means to ensure my value with utter reliability and fidelity. This source must not be fickle, honest, impartial, and reliable.
Unfortunately, I live during a time of existential vacuum. Society has embraced meaninglessness as a virtue – often with gusto. This worldview cannot produce a healthy individual, let alone a healthy society.
If life has no meaning and is just an arbitrary result of time, chance and randomness, then any desire I have to find value, worth, and significance is madness despite being uniquely me. Any value I assign to myself is arbitrary. Any desire for self-esteem should be treated as a mental illness because there would be no basis for wanting such if life has no meaning.
At best, if life has no meaning and therefore there is no intention behind my existence, then how can I find a secure source for my value and worth? Randomness is by definition, fickle and unreliable.
Trustworthy and secure
To have security and insurance, I must place my hope in something with a reputation worthy of such. it must be immutable, constant, stable, and utterly reliable.
I am not that thing. The people around me are not that thing. A universe that exists by random chance is not that thing.
I believe that only The Creator is that thing… and I see this plainly around me. The sun has risen and set every day of my existence. The universe works reliably against a pattern of precision. This precision has allowed great men like Galileo and Kepler to understand the heavenly bodies. It has allowed us to understand the human body, the hummingbird, and the woodpecker. It’s why a honey bee can know how to dance before its fellow bees in the dark and communicate the path to sweet nectar.
Life does not appear to be at all random but intentional. A clock has a clockmaker.
Am I creature of intention?
I am either a product of randomness or a product of intent. if randomness, what is my basis for wanting to be valued? How does it serve me and why do I even need to be served? Why do I matter? I am a product of intent, then I must discover if this intention was loving or something else.
As a loving creature, it makes no sense to me that there would be any other intention behind my existence than love. What I create is imbued with my characteristics. What then are my characteristics and what do they tell me about what made me? At my core, I love. Therefore, I must be imbued with love by a maker who also loves.
And therein is my value – I am the product of loving intention, brought into existence from nothing because The Creator who is love – considered that my existence was a worthwhile endeavor. I am here because I matter and have purpose and meaning. That is value, worth, and significance unto itself. I have it, we all have it. There is no hierarchy. There is no market. It is bonded and insured until the sun fails to rise and set.
There is nothing to add or remove. I was born a completed work of art – what Paul of Tarsus called a “poiema” – a masterpiece – the word from which we get the word “poem”.
Life is the process of revealing this masterpiece and poem, not a blank canvas or script hoping to find expression through the hands and eyes of others or myself. I can rest in this. I am secure already.
Want to talk about your own feelings of worth?
- Book: Searching for God Knows What (Repackaged) by Donald Miller
- Book: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story by Donald Miller
- Book: The Inside-Out Revolution: The Only Thing You Need to Know to Change Your Life Forever – by Michael Neill