Self-Esteem is Made to be Broken

Megan Thode sued Lehigh University for giving her a C+

Megan Thode

Megan Thode believes that Lehigh University owes her a B.

When instead she received a C+ in a class critical to her intended career as a professional counselor, she challenged the grade through the usual university channels. She even called in her father, Lehigh University finance professor Stephen Thode, to support her case.

The university stuck by Professor Amanda Carr, who had given the C+ grade based on Thode’s poor showing in class.

So Thode took the next logical step.

No, she didn’t re-take the class. She sued the university for $1.3 million. Her claim: that’s how much money she would lose in her career because the C+ grade prevented her from completing her Master’s degree in counseling and human services and becoming a state-certified counselor.

And here’s the kicker: Thode was attending the school tuition-free because of her father’s teaching position there. The university had even given her an on-campus job.

Unfortunately for Ms. Thode, she failed in court as well.

Megan Thode learned the hard way that she’s not so special after all.

I’m not so sure about the old saying, “Rules are made to be broken.” But here’s a new version:

Self-esteem is made to be broken.

Self-esteem and spoilage

I find it deliciously ironic that a concept popularized by psychologist Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 book The Psychology of Self-Esteem, written in his early days when he was still a disciple of The Virtue of Selfishness author Ayn Rand, has now been adopted by mainstream liberal-minded psychologists and educators in the United States as an absolute necessity for raising emotionally healthy and well-adjusted children.

From there, the idea of building up children’s self-esteem has been popularized in the wider culture. For several decades now American parents have been busily inculcating in their children the idea that they are the most special beings in existence, that the world exists to make them happy, and that the entire universe revolves around them personally.

I’m being a bit facetious. But not overly so. The very fact that Megan Thode was so convinced that Lehigh University owed her a passing “B” grade that she felt perfectly justified in suing them to make them give her the grade she wanted indicates that our culture is raising children who think that the world revolves around them.

Unfortunately, these children brought up by indulgent parents will have to spend a good part of their adult life unlearning the self-absorbed attitudes and undoing the flawed character that their parents spoiled into them.

The psychosis of self-esteem

When we treat our children as if their self-esteem means everything, and shelter them from the ordinary struggles of life, we are setting them up for a rude awakening when they hit adulthood and find that it’s a tough, uncaring world out there . . . and that success will not be handed to them on a silver platter.

This false sense of self-esteem causes a loss of contact with reality that, even if it does not rise to the level of a true psychosis, certainly causes those infected with it to be delusional about the realities of the world.

In the quest to build up their children’s self-esteem, many parents cannot bear to see their children struggle. Yet struggle builds character. Success in the face of difficulties and setbacks provides a great boost toward a healthy self-esteem.

Instead, these parents fight their children’s battles for them, all the while inculcating in them the belief that they are wonderful, precious, brilliant beings who will easily conquer the world, and will never have to feel the sting of frustration, disappointment, pain, or failure.

This false “self-esteem” is made to be broken.

Obviously, parents and teachers must treat children with basic human respect and decency. It does no good to go to the opposite extreme and verbally and physically abuse children, treating them like dirt. This causes tremendous damage. Children treated this way will spend much of their adult life struggling to overcome their bad upbringing—if they manage to overcome it at all.

A healthier approach would be to communicate to children and teens that God put them on this earth for a purpose, and that this purpose involves devoting their lives to serving their fellow human beings in whatever way they are most suited to serve.

Hard lessons in reality

We do come into this world wrapped up in our own feelings of pleasure and pain. Even without indulgent parents, it’s fairly easy to hit adulthood thinking that the world exists to serve our wants and needs. A more subtle version of self-absorption—common among idealistic, well-intentioned teens and young adults—is thinking that we know much better than our parents how the world should be run.

Young adults will find out for themselves, the hard way, that the world is a much tougher beast than they imagined. Reality simply doesn’t work the way we think it should, no matter how hard we try to force it to function according to the idealistic notions of our youth.

And those of us who reach adulthood thinking that the world revolves around us are also cruising toward a very rude awakening when we discover that the world has no particular interest in catering to us unless we give it some quid pro quo—which we will have to work for.

A broken self-image prepares us for a healthy self-image

And yet, the very effort to bend the world to our wishes and whims, and the ultimate failure of that effort, is part of our growth into more mature and more spiritual human beings.

When we humans get odd self-absorbed and unrealistic notions into our heads, the most effective way of learning humility and a lesson in reality is to have everything we thought was supposed to happen when we hit adulthood completely fall apart on us. Only then do we realize through our own hard experience that there is an underlying truth about life that is far deeper than the shallow, idealistic, and rather self-important notions we started out with.

It’s natural for us to have to walk back our inflated sense of self-esteem and self-worth when we enter adulthood. Unfortunately, indulgent parents will make that journey much longer and harder for their children.

Many of us do start out in life with a false sense of self-esteem that’s all about how great we are, how smart we are, and how the world would be a much better place if only it would arrange itself according to the way we think it should. This type of “self-esteem,” which goes along with a faulty and flawed self-image, must be broken if we are to move on to a healthier and more realistic self-image that can provide a foundation for a valid sense of self-esteem.

Yet all of this—including our initial false self-esteem—is part of God’s plan for us.

God intentionally lets us start out thinking we’re the cat’s meow so that we will put out our best effort at life. God wants us to give it our best shot, and venture out into adult life intending to make our mark on the world. Even if the goals motivating us turn out to be faulty, the very effort to achieve them builds in us a character, drive, and determination that God can later harness when we turn our lives toward better and higher goals.

Yes, God wants us to give life our best shot, whether selfishly or idealistically, and attempt to make the world revolve around ourselves and our own ideas.

God knows that when we hold nothing back in pursuing our own goals and ideals; when we give it our best shot . . . and it all ends in disappointment if not outright failure, then we may finally be ready to listen.

Who does the world revolve around?

You see, the world does not, in fact, revolve around us. And we are not the greatest intelligence in the universe.

Those honors are reserved for God.

When we have given the world our best shot, and it just hasn’t cooperated with us, then we may finally be ready to open our eyes to the reality that God is perfectly well in control of this world, and is running it with far more intelligence and wisdom than all of us humans put together.

In the end, it is not our own goals for ourselves that matter. It is God’s goals for us. Struggles and setbacks can illuminate this fact for us, awakening us to new possibilities, new goals. God has placed these goals deep within us from our very creation. In the end, discovering our true self—our true loves and our true skills and capabilities in life—is discovering the human being that God created us to be.

True self-esteem involves serving, not being served

When our own way fails, and we set about to discover what God has put us here on earth to do, then we can begin developing a healthy self-image that is a basis for true self-esteem. Healthy self-esteem leads to a higher emotional intelligence, which is a critical ingredient for succeeding in adulthood.

This healthy self-esteem is all about devoting our lives to being the good, loving, thoughtful, and skilled people that God created us to be.

Healthy self-esteem could also be called our heavenly or angelic self. It a key part of the angel-being that God had in mind for us from the moment of our conception and birth.

This angel-being is not about getting the world to serve our pleasures or to operate the way we think it should. It is about serving God by serving our fellow human beings in ways that our inborn character and our life experience have uniquely fitted us for.

Yes, each of us is special. Not because the world revolves around us. Not because we know what’s best for the world. We are special because God has sent each of us into the world to make it a better place by giving of ourselves to others in our own unique way.

This is what the Bible calls “loving our neighbor.” And when our life is devoted to loving our neighbor, we will take great pleasure in being the person we are . . . yet have very little interest in receiving praise or kudos. The opportunity to serve others using our particular knowledge, skill, and experience will give us all the joy and satisfaction we need.


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in Current Events, Spiritual Growth
11 comments on “Self-Esteem is Made to be Broken
  1. jahnosecret says:

    Thanks for another very stimulating article. My view is that it is ok for children to think how great they are as long as they understand the spiritual source of that greatness. That is the opposite of the sort of self-esteem that is really self-indulgence and arrogance in disguise. True self-esteem always results in compassion for fellow human beings and our planet – as you say the goal is to serve. I also agree that to shield our children from challenge is to deny them opportunities to grow into their life’s purpose.

  2. liz says:

    I have two children 9 and 11. We adopted them 5 years ago. They were abused and neglected in thier birth family. They are now suffering greatly due to extremely damaged self esteem. They think they are bad, garbage and don’t deserve a life. They both talk of suicide at times. When you live everyday observing the devastating effects of damaged self worth you are acutely aware of the huge, vital importance of self esteem in the development of healthy happy and useful humans. Please do not confuse self esteem with the arrogant sense of over entitlement that has pervaded the western world.
    My children are in no position to serve anyone and will not be until they have been properly served themselves. This is what my husband and I are trying to do – to give them what they have missed and to place in them a healthy sense of of their own self worth.
    When I read Swedenborg I am sometimes very disturbed by some of his ideas and language when it comes to how we are supposed to think about ourselves and it is not, regrettably, anything I would want my children to read, In no way do I want them to read about how bad, how evil they are – they think that in spades already.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Liz,

      Thanks for expressing your thoughts here. I’m so sorry to hear that your children were abused and neglected in their birth family. This article is really about children who are spoiled by indulgent parents–which is very common these days. As I say in the article, going to the opposite extreme and abusing children physically and emotionally is also hugely damaging to their wellbeing. You and your husband have your work cut out for you. My hat is off to the two of you in taking on the difficult but oh, so necessary task of building up a healthy self-esteem in children who have had it shattered in their early, formative years.

      I do understand what you are saying about reading Swedenborg. He wrote in an earlier and starker age. Many of the harsh things he wrote have to be adapted and interpreted for the present age and culture. (Though for many pampered Westerners these days, a bit of shock therapy might be just what the doctor ordered!)

      On the subject of loving oneself in a healthy way, there is some great insight in The New Jerusalem #97-99. You can find it in modern language in my own translation, The Heavenly City: A Spiritual Guidebook. This translation is also available on the web for free. You’ll find the relevant chapter here, and you can scroll down to #97.

      In #98 Swedenborg makes the analogy to a house and its foundation. Putting it in more modern terms, for the “house” of our mind and life to be sound and healthy, there must be a sound “foundation” of a healthy and balanced love of self. Though Swedenborg speaks of it in literal terms of providing food, clothing, shelter, and so on for ourselves and our family, the same is true of providing emotional food, clothing, and shelter for ourselves and our family. In other words, a healthy (not overblown and spoiled) love of self (also called self-esteem) provides a foundation for the superstructure of a good and constructive life.

  3. liz says:

    Thank you for you thoughtful and generous response, Lee.

  4. Tori says:

    “Yes, God wants us to give life our best shot, whether selfishly or idealistically, and attempt to make the world revolve around ourselves and our own ideas.

    God knows that when we hold nothing back in pursuing our own goals and ideals; when we give it our best shot . . . and it all ends in disappointment if not outright failure, then we may finally be ready to listen.”

    So pretty much we’re all supposed to have a life goal so we can later find out it’s not going to happen…?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Tori,

      Haha! Pretty much. Of course, that’s not how it happens for all people. But it is a very common life trajectory. Also, sometimes we actually do achieve the life goal we set up for ourselves, and find out that we’re still not happy. It’s different if our goal is something more thoughtful, such as serving our fellow human beings in our own humble way. Some goals that we set for ourselves are actually good goals, and sometimes we do achieve those good goals.

      • Tori says:

        So I pretty much shouldn’t even try to get the job I’ve always wanted because I know it’s going to fail?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Tori,

          No. You should try very hard to get the job you’ve always wanted! We humans can succeed at many of our goals, and we’re meant to give it our best shot, as I said. If we just say, “Forget it, I’ll never accomplish anything,” and don’t even try, we’re not building the sort of character we need to become the best and most spiritual person we can be.

  5. K says:

    If I understand Swedenborg and the Word right, there’s nothing wrong in pleasure for the self, as long as it’s in the right level of priority, right? Don’t even angels enjoy stuff like leisure and “the finer things in life,” though their chief joy is doing useful work they enjoy for the benefit of others?

    • Lee says:

      Hi K,

      Yes, that’s exactly right. First priority is being of use to others. But we can’t and shouldn’t spend all of our time serving others. The mind and body need R&R, which means we need to take regular time for ourselves and our own development, rejuvenation, and enjoyment. Plus, God loves us and wants us to be happy. Life here on earth is hard enough without finding some enjoyment of our own and with our friends and loved ones.

      For one of Swedenborg’s statements about this, see The New Jerusalem #97, 98, & 99 (the links are to my modern English translation).

      And yes, Swedenborg says that angels enjoy leisure time and all of the good and healthy recreational activities that we enjoy here on earth. But as you say, they get their greatest joy from loving and serving other people during the “working” part of their days. I put “working” in quotes because for them, doing their job is not a task, but a joy, even if it may also be a real challenge at times.

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