When I first became aware of the darkness of low self-esteem and how it causes such suffering and pain for people, I was concerned. I wanted to help. A big part of my being is tied in with being called and gifted by God to be a pastor, a caregiver. It is an ingrained part of who I am–I can no more ignore that part of me than I can ignore my need to read and watch the news.
So, as a pastoral care-giver confronted by the darkness of low self-esteem and its effects on people, especially my friends, I was determined to help. Since I am also a writer and speaker, I turned to my favourite tool–words. All I had to do was show my friends how great they really were and everything would be fine. I would tell them how good they were at (fill in the blank), how much I and others appreciated their ability to (fill in the blank) and how their ability to (FITB) made the world a better place.
The results were always less than I expected. Some would basically ignore what I was saying, pretending modesty. Others would deflect my compliments by telling me that all the glory should go to God, not them. A few would light up just a little and say thank you–but only a little and only for a short time–I assume that their darkness easily snuffed out the compliment. And a few, to my surprise, would actually argue with me, telling me that I really didn’t know what I was talking about. And a very few would tell me that if I really knew what they were like, I would never want to be around them.
I learned early that trying to compliment people out of their darkness didn’t really work. the compliment coming from outside was generally no match for the darkness coming from the inside. The darkness of low self-esteem easily explains away anything from outside. It isn’t prepared to hear or accept the positive and can quickly wrap tendrils of darkness around any compliment or positive statement.
I tried the approach of helping people dig into the origins of their darkness. As we move through life, there are people and events that affect us deeply–and the younger we are, the more significant these people and events are. When I had permission, I would (and still do) help people open up some of the rooms in their mental storage spaces and air out some of these old and painful memories. As hard as it is, people can and do make the connection between the pain of the past and the darkness of the present. They learn to see how their present is formed and shaped by the past; how what they do and think now grows out of what happened then.
And this is a valuable process and an important accomplishment for all of us in all areas of life. We are all hoarders of past events and experiences and feelings–and the deeper the pile, the more festering and rotting stuff there is to complicate our present. Cleaning and airing the storerooms of the past is a valuable process for all, not just those struggling with the darkness of low self-esteem.
But I also discovered something interesting. The insights into the past were always helpful and valuable–but the person would end the session or sessions with lots of insight, a deeper understanding of who they were and are and why they are who they were and are. They could even see the strong connection between the junk from the past and the poor self-image of the present. But they would still carry the darkness and would still feel inadequate. They might understand why they were the way they were but that was as far as it went. The darkness was still there and still affecting them.
So I discovered that although external compliments and looking at the past might have some effect, they often didn’t really illuminate the darkness. I don’t think doing either is wrong but it does seem to me that is just isn’t enough–my friends struggling with the darkness of poor self-image needed something else. I still compliment and still help people process the past–but I have been looking for the something else for a long time. While I won’t say that I have found it, I have discovered a few things that seem to help some people some time–those we will look at in another post.
May the peace of God be with you.