One of the subtlest and contrastingly the most obvious counseling issues is that of individual self-esteem. The particular side of self-esteem, which can be extremely detrimental to the entire life of an individual, is bad self-esteem. Self-esteem can be defined as “the evaluation that an individual makes about his or her worth, competence, and significance.” (Collins 426) Self-esteem is an a holistic perspective of an individual on himself/herself, including self-image, the mental picture we hold of our physical selves in the way we appear to others, and self-concept, which includes our perception of our own character, traits, and personality. Self-esteem for an individual tends to swing back and forth between low and high self-esteem; the ideal self-perception is one that balances out at a realistic, healthy perception of self. For the sake of page limit and the expansiveness of this topic, I will specifically deal with Christian misperceptions of self-denial as inferiority, excusing sin as acceptable to Christ.
If one is in counseling for low self-esteem, then, what are the causes of this disruption in self-perception? An unhealthily low self-esteem is known as “inferiority.” In the context of Christian counseling, the counselor can identify many possible causes of inferiority complex: faulty theological beliefs; sin and guilt; parent-child relationships; experiencing defeat or failure; unrealistic expectations; faulty thinking, and community influences and myths. All of these possible causes of low self-esteem evidence themselves both in the mentalities and behaviors of individuals suffering from inferiority complexes. Overall, low self-esteem in an individual can be summarized as a mentality of self-deception (versus the martyr complexes some Christians adopt, excusing inferiority as self-denial, when in fact the two are entirely different issues: one is life Jesus, one giving into the sinful tendencies of the flesh).
The martyr complex of Christians is not unique to Christianity alone, but Christian individuals excuse their sin, which attempts to pacify both the guilt of personal conscience as well as deal with the negative feelings of others imputed to the individual. To illustrate inferiority masked as the Christian martyr complex, I will describe a hypothetical case study, picturing the martyr complex in the subject of a woman, because I tend to think that the nature of women leaves us more easily susceptible to low-self esteem than men. This is because society has historically objectified the personhood and being of women, bombarding us with its version of womanhood, forcing us to manufacture for ourselves a sense of self-worth in religion and ideals. For the sake of this paper, the subject I will be describing a young lady who is very devoutly religious, of a sensitive nature both spiritually and otherwise, and dedicated to mimicking the standard of Christ in her life.
Upon first glance into this young woman’s life, none might see a self-dejecting image cowering beneath the mindset of inferiority, but rather a young lady very dedicated to loving her Lord and Savior and His people with her life. Within the mind of this young woman, however, lurks a fear that somehow she might be falling short of the perfect freedom from sin which she believes should manifest itself in her life because of her love for Christ, and therefore she lives in constant terror of her sensitive conscience. Fear does not exist from internal spiritual reasoning, however, but dogmatic teaching from an institutionalized community calling itself the living body of Christ, the Church. The Church has imparted not only societal pressure, but also unrealistic guilt to this young woman by inferring that because of the female gender, this young lady is by nature is historically responsible in Mother Eve for the pollution of humankind in original sin. Thus the Church has rendered this young woman a victim of circumstance, incompetent of maintaining her own relationship with God because she cannot trust her own conscience and is in need of a male sounding board. From closer scrutiny, one finds this young woman’s life to be riddled with internal and external lies of insufficiency to maintain her relationship with Christ.
The next question, which arises, inquires as to how low self-esteem affects the behavior of this young woman. Beginning with the motivating sentiments of self-criticism, shame, and setting of her own realistic standards and goals, the young woman’s own struggle to balance her self-misconceptions was further discouraged by misinterpretation of her beliefs by fellow Christians. Aspiring to mimic the image of Christ, the young lady received accusations of pride, self-conceit and hypocrisy, all of which indeed are made true because the young lady has not allowed herself to freely accept the grace of Christ’s sacrifice. However, the individuals speaking such “counsel” into this young woman’s life evidence the overall impersonal nature and assumptive nature of Christians who, with the best intentions possibly, mistakenly encourage this young woman to an even darker state of self-degradation than she had already fallen too. But what external behavior results from this internal behavioral motivation?
At first, the young lady simply submitted herself to the demands made of her, dressing extremely conservatively and remaining quiet within assemblies, as some Christian organizations require. From the repeated condemnation of others within her community, the young woman developed a self-destructive mentality, fating herself to perpetually having a guilty conscience and being unable to approach God/separated from Him. Yet this faulty theological belief made the young woman miserable, and caused her to search from some sort of hope in life, even if divorced from God. The young lady reached a place where she felt she was separated from God, and her faith in Jesus Christ, believing that His body the Church was the means of His presence on earth, discouraged her from ever being upright in the eyes of God. Thus, since she could not be perfect, the young lady’s low self-esteem drove her into the depths of despair over her lack of ability to maintain her relationship with Jesus Christ.
Pushed to the edge of desperation for some sort of home, someone to take pity on her life, the young woman’s self-destructive mentality took on a martyr-type of masochistic behavior: she believed she must actually suffer and crucify her flesh in order to obtain favor with God. This led to behaviors such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, through which she tried to discipline her body into following after Christ. Falling from her own standard of self-discipline through physical weakness, the young lady turned to more destructive behaviors. Motivated by deeper inferiority coming from failing her own standards of discipline which would render her useless to God’s service, the young woman tried to pay for the deeper and deeper sins she found herself falling into with her own blood. Believing that she had discredited herself from the blood of Christ because of how she had disregarded Christ’s sacrifice through her lifestyle, the young lady hoped to prove herself worthy of the grace of God through her penance.
Guilt plaguing this young lady’s conscience with no perceived hope of repentance, the young woman began cutting herself. This allowed temporary satisfaction for the guilt of her conscience through the release of pent-up emotions channeled through physical pain. Yet, as the saying goes, one’s sin will find one out, for one form requires a more severe form of sin to deaden the memory of a lesser sin. Having refrained from community because of a double load of guilt… the guilt from her “penance” as well as her original inferiority complex, the young woman fell into a severe social depression accompanied by a spiritual weight, which she could not shake. The young lady had abandoned the thought that she might pay Jesus back for His suffering by her own, and collapsed in church one day, sobbing over the covenant she believed she had irrevocably broken with God.
At this point, the young lady was most in need of Christian counseling… not the sort she had previously received, but a tender heart that would not impress further guilt upon her, but gently alert her to the reality of her true self-worth and state of her relationship with God. Fortunately for this young lady, such an individual was present in her life: the slightly older woman behind her in the pew at church had some previous experience with the harsh realities of life, and recognized the signs of self-abuse on the young girl’s very appearance. Sensing heaviness about the girl’s spirit, the older lady prayerfully watched the girl finally collapse in hopelessness, and rushed to her side to offer support. Walking her out of the sanctuary, the woman recalled how helpless she had felt in some points of her life as well and contemplated how to impart the closeness she was sure of with Jesus to this young woman who felt isolated and unlovable by self and even God.
When counseling a Christian individual with this self-martyring type of inferiority complex, Collins suggests seven key principles for imparting hope to the life of one who already knows the source of all hope. First, genuine support and acceptance is necessary without offering too enthusiastic an approval of the counselee’s confessions. One of the most crucial elements of restoring a Christian’s godly self-perspective follows, sharing the biblical teaching that all men are created in the image of God and that as a Christian, one’s faith covenant with God is based in love—not my inconsistent display of love for God, but His constancy. Thirdly, it is necessary for a counselee after being presented with his/her actual state in Christ to develop a realistic self-evaluation antithesising current behavior to right relationship with God. This actualization of Christ-like image within an individual must be reinforced by replacing the negative self-talk, the detrimental thoughts of an individual, with the truth of Christ: yes we are indeed hopeless on our own and incapable of maintaining our covenant with God, thus we must rely wholly on His faithfulness.
Upon choosing the path of faith that God can sustain, we must map out practical ways to improve the counselee’s lifestyle in light of the truth of Christ. For the young lady of this scenario, such methodology would include therapy and accountability for the self-mutilation and possibly a gradual program for establishing and maintaining healthy eating patterns. The final aspect of recovery from a Christian inferiority complex is found within the context of community: bold honesty in the church about one’s state can be risky and painful at first, but for the young lady of our scenario, community was both what she needed and feared in her recovery process. A gentle presentation of the truth in the context of community allows for individuals to gradually be restored to a healthy self-esteem. One cannot expect hope to be acquired over night, but persistent counseling can coax a needy individual back into acceptance of the grace of God for self’s own insufficiencies. Without Christ, we are indeed inferior and worthless, but the grace of God imparts absolute meaning to life.