Monday, April 5, 2010

Authenticity, Self-Esteem and Self-Acceptance

We have to be real, but this is difficult. When we lack the ability to be authentic and transparent, we are in disharmony and conflict, obsessively trying to maintain an image. Karen Wright writes about the importance of being real:

o “Authenticity is correlated with many aspects of psychological well-being, including vitality, self-esteem, and coping skills. Acting in accordance with one’s core self—a trait called self-determination—is ranked by some experts as one of the three basic psychological needs.” (Psychology Today, June 2008, 72)

o “People feel profoundly like they’re not living for who they really are, their authentic self, their deepest possibility in the world. The result is a sense of near-desperation.”
(Wright quoting Stephen Cope, 72)

Here are some of Wright’s suggestions to achieve authenticity: read novels, meditate, cultivate solitude, play hard. These suggest that all we need to do is to spend some quality time with ourselves. She also maintains that we should “be willing to lose” and cites Thomas Moore’s rationale:

“Feelings of inauthenticity are heightened by a lack of a philosophy that allows failure to be part of life. If you’re leading a full life, you are going to fail some every day.” (Wright, 75)

Moore is correct. Failure is a part of life, and we need to learn to graciously accept it rather than to in-authentically deny our failures. However, finding that supportive philosophy is not easy. Secularism can’t provide it. If you believe that you only go around once, then failure or the lack of pleasure assumes monumental importance. Secularism puts an even greater burden to succeed and get what we want in our limited time upon our shoulders. If we fail to achieve, well then, we’ve just failed again. No mercy for those who stumble!

Buddhism is more compassionate and accepting of failure, but at a great price. It diminishes the significance of failure because failure is illusion, but so too is the rest of life! Life in this temporal world of illusion must be transcended through attaining enlightenment. However, “enlightenment” is a matter of “recognizing” that everything we’ve valued (friends, family, vocation, beauty…) is also illusion. Buddhism therefore represents a denial of not just failure but everything we value. It’s like cutting off the head because of a toothache.

In contrast to this, Christ proclaims that through Him we attain abundant life (John 10:10). How does this work? We can only be authentic if we can first accept and see ourselves as we truly are. This however is the most painful thing. To see myself also involves accepting what the Bible tells me about myself. It says that I’m desperately wicked (Jer. 17:19), that I hate truth (John 3:19-21), that I am an enemy of the One who created me (Rom. 5:8-9; 8:7); that I had become worthless (Rom. 3:12), and, despite all of my protestations to the contrary, I hadn’t been seeking after God (Rom. 3:11).

This understanding of self is something from which we all flee. Denial and self-righteousness have become our bosom buddies. Consequently, normalcy is equivalent to self-delusion. The psychologist, Otto Rank, had proclaimed, “With truth, one cannot live. To be able to live, one needs illusions.” Similarly, the novelist, Andre Gide, confessed, “Each one of us has his own way of deceiving himself. The important thing is to believe in one’s own importance.”

What does this say about authenticity and self-acceptance? They are rare commodities. Psychologist Shelley E. Taylor sums up the clinical evidence:

“People are positively biased in their assessments of themselves and of their ability to control what goes on around them, as well as in their views of the future. The widespread existence of these biases and the ease with which they can be documented suggests that they are normal.” (Positive Illusions, 46)

Ironically, mainstream secular counseling is actually pandering to our insatiable appetite for more positive illusions about ourselves through building self-esteem—something diametrically in opposition to authenticity and self-acceptance. Inflating our esteem represents a refusal to accept the truth about ourselves.

What resources does the Bible provide to counteract this? It unmasks us by unmasking our ugliness. God also puts us through trials to make this truth very graphic through His Spirit (2 Cor. 1:8-9; 4:7-18; 12:9-10; 1 Pet. 1:6-7; Eccl. 3:18). However, it is only through the promises of His unchanging love and forgiveness that we can tolerate such a glimpse. Only through the assurance that He accepts us can we begin to accept ourselves along with the depth of our destitution. Accordingly, Elyse M. Fitzgerald, director of Women Helping Women Ministries, writes,

“The depressed person needs a deep draught of encouragement, not trite banalities like, “Cheer up, things are bound to get better,” or “You’re not so bad. You’re really a wonderful person.” No, the depressed need strong medicine like, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ”…The counter-intuitive truth that the depressed person needs to hear isn’t “you’re really a wonderful person,” but rather, “you’re more sinful and flawed than you ever dared believe”…Bathing our soul in the Gospel message will powerfully transform…It’s true that I’m more sinful and flawed than I ever dared believe, and that truth frees me from the delusion that I’ll ever be able to approve of myself; but I’m also more loved and welcomed than I ever dared hope, and that truth comforts and encourages me when my heart condemns me and my darling desires are all withheld. It assures me that although I struggle with accepting myself, the Holy King has declared me righteous.” (Tabletalk, March 2008, 15-16)

It’s through God’s encouragement that we can begin to accept the painful truth about ourselves and to live authentically. Ironically, there is great freedom in this. If we can learn to rejoice in the pit, then enjoying the mountaintop isn’t problematic. If we can accept the unflattering portrait of ourselves, we can cease the obsessive and strenuous occupation of trying to prove ourselves to both self and the world around us. If we can accept ourselves, then the opinions of others loose their bite. Criticism will no longer constitute a treat because it can tell us no new dirt about ourselves. If I take an umbrella, I will not fear the rain.

Self-acceptance is a pre-condition for authenticity and the peace associated with it, but God’s acceptance of us is the pre-condition for everything else. Modernity’s answer is self-esteem, but it turns out to be the antithesis—a REFUSAL to accept ourselves as we truly are.

No comments:

Post a Comment