Q&A: More Comment Than Question on Self-Worth-Part 1

Not a question but a comment.

Ether 12:27 “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

As one with serious and debilitating weaknesses, this scripture never worked for me. Then the other day I realized why – it’s because I operate under the assumption that I’m an intrinsically bad person. If one begins with the assumption that one is an intrinsically good person, then it’s a beautiful and reaffirming statement.

I know intellectually my attitude is wrong, but it’s hard to change the wiring of your brain that results from being brought up that way. No, I wasn’t raised in an abusive home. Emotionally neglectful, perhaps, but not abusive. But the message from my father, and no doubt from his father and his father’s father, is that we are second-class beings and will never be on an even footing with normal people.

I can’t even begin to express how lonely it is to be surrounded by people and never connecting with anyone. Gah! But I’ve learned to accept it and get on with life.

RESPONSE

I know this isn’t really a question, so I won’t pretend this is an answer, but I would like to respond to your comment. What I want to say is rather lengthy, so I’ll respond in two posts. This is part one.

How we feel about ourselves is one of the core issues of life and has an enormous impact on our personal well-being as well as on our relationships. In recent decades, much has been attempted in the area of trying to boost children’s self-esteem. I don’t care much for the term “self esteem,” mostly because it is too often associated, in my opinion, with messages that we should think highly of ourselves no matter what. For whatever it’s worth, I prefer the terms “self-image” or “self worth.”

Feelings of self-worth develop at a very early age and to a large extent as a reflection of what our parents think of us. Each of us begins the process of learning who we are through what has been called the “looking-glass self,” namely, “I am what I think you think I am.” Parents or parent surrogates are the all-knowing, all-powerful beings in our early life, and to a large extent, define the world for us, including who and what we are. Other significant figures in our life—siblings, grandparents, teachers, friends, etc.—may contribute to the looking-glass self, as well, and very soon, there is little or no distinction between what others have told us we are and what we believe to be the truth. If parents are loving, caring, and positive and others around us are mostly kind, we may develop a pretty healthy sense of self and feel, at least for the most part, comfortable and confident. However, if parents and others were hurtful, critical, or abusive, children—and this is well-documented—don’t have the perspective or ability to recognize that the problem is in the painful behavior of others. In other words, the mirrors we’re looking in are fun-house mirrors that distort reflections because of curves and imperfections in the mirror. Nevertheless, the child believes that the reason for the hurts he suffers lies in some inadequacy or flaw in himself. The child concludes that “if I were smarter” or “if I were better-looking” or “if I weren’t so lazy” then “I would be treated (or liked) better.” These feelings run deep and can persist through adult life. Even when parents and others are positive, life being what it is, some hurtful messages end up being sent.  No one manages to grow to maturity without some areas of self-doubt.

These self-doubts, whether mild or severe, eventually become so deeply entrenched in our self-concept that even when we may receive positive feedback from people around us, we filter the positive through what we have come to believe is the truth of our identity and generally, we reject the positive, only allowing negative comments or evaluations to come through and reinforce our damaged self-image. The negative comments are often greeted with thoughts like, “I knew I was no good at that,” while positive comments generate thoughts such as, “If they knew me better, they wouldn’t think I was any good.” Once our minds are made up about our low value, no one around us really has much power to change our self-concept, no matter how hard or diligently they try, because we’re going to filter out the positive and only accept the negative. Any approach to improving our feelings of personal worth that is based in the opinions or responses of others is limited in what it can accomplish because of the self-image filter. This is not to say that kind and respectful treatment does not help soothe a wounded self-image and genuine loving kindness can work miracles in helping heal the injured soul. Nevertheless, for such care and love to truly and lastingly make a difference, the injured person must accept the truth of their value from the inside-out, because he or she comes to believe in their inherent value and then lives up to their potential through good works.

It may seem terribly sad that everyone gets hurt growing up, at least a little. But consider that this is the way the Plan is set up. If it were intended for each child to have perfect parents, or even parents who really knew what they were doing, it would be a different Plan. The Savior explains: “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27, emphasis added). How does the Savior give us weaknesses? My husband, in a flash of insight, once suggested that in place of the phrase “I give unto men weakness,” the Lord could have, with equal accuracy, have said, “I give unto men parents.” As we were parents at the time, this was a rather sobering thought, but it is certainly consistent with the way God works through others, using our human weaknesses to accomplish His purposes. This in no way exempts parents from the responsibility to be the best parents they can be: kind, loving, benevolent. Nevertheless, life happens, and we all do end up developing some weak areas in our sense of self.

So how do we heal a damaged and negative self-image? We need to look at the only perfect, unblemished mirrors in the universe—our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. As we come to know them, they can reveal to us who we really are. And They do so based on two things: our worth and our worthiness.

In the next post, I’ll discuss how we can apply these principles to heal our self-image wounds.

  1. Pops says:

    I like the “I give unto men parents” line – an excellent insight. Once you finally get the parenting thing sort of figured out, your kids have grown up and left home. Oh well.

    One of the things that a weakness does is put us in a difficult spot that requires some kind of response. The wind is blowing at gale force and the waves are high, and there is only one safe thing to do – point the ship directly into the wind and apply full power. Anything else and the ship goes under. What I mean to say is that there are a lot of ways to respond to a weakness, but pretty much all but one produce bad results pretty quickly. The one correct response that will keep us afloat is humility and maximum effort to overcome the weakness, coupled with reliance on grace, that in the end things will be okay.

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