Over at the main Rest Ministries web site we have just started a series of articles, blogs and more on self esteem and body image when one is chronically ill. Today we are featuring an article on self esteem in place of today’s devotional. I hope you enjoy it. You can find the first post from this series here. -Lisa
Self-Esteem and Chronic Illness: Where Does Faith Come In?
Self-esteem and chronic illness can both impact our day to day life in drastic ways.
Chronic illness has a way of zapping all kinds of things. It zaps our strength, energy, ability to fight disease, and it can zap our spirit–our zest for life. If we allow it. Before we can fully understand how illness impacts our self-esteem, however, we need to understand what self-esteem really is. Even though this word is well known to most of us, let’s look again at what it really means.
What is self esteem –really?
Wikipedia describes self-esteem as. . .
A term used in psychology to reflect a person’s overall emotional evaluation of his or her own worth. It is a judgment of oneself as well as an attitude toward the self. Self-esteem encompasses beliefs (for example, “I am competent,” “I am worthy”) and emotions such as triumph, despair, pride and shame.
It can be confusing, can’t it? Because you don’t want low self-esteem, and yet, high self-esteem can lead to trouble too. Some think of self-esteem as their worth based on accomplishments, talents, appearance or financial resources. When we feel too prideful, we begin to think that we earned everything we have –leaving God out of the equation.
Think about that for a moment.
I hear people who are healthy say it is because they eat right, exercise, and more, and that is why they are not ill. Because they have prevented it. But I feel a sense of fear for them. Because if they imagine they have earned a healthy body (rather than it just being a blessing), how will they cope if they are suddenly hit by a chronic illness? What will it do to their self-esteem, their confidence, even their relationship with God?
When we think too highly of ourselves, it can lead to our downfall.
So I should think less of myself?
Some of you may be thinking, Well, no problem there! I already know what a klutz I am. I can hardly make a meal for my family. I am feeling pretty awful, so I guess I am right where God wants me!
No! We were promised that God has a future and hope for us (Jeremiah 11:29), and that does not include beating yourself up.
It is kind of like the storybook character Goldilocks who was trying to find the perfectly sized chair and the right mattress. You don’t want to have too much self-esteem and believe in your own strength. But you don’t want to forget that you are a child of the King and you can feel good about the strength that is available to you–through Him.
We’re not God. . . Or even Oz
When we think we have that much control–the right to define ourselves based on our good or poorly we feel about ourselves–we are placing ourselves in a position of being the one controlling our future –as well as the ultimate judge of our behavior.
For example, one may believe, If I eat right and take care of myself, I won’t become ill. Those ill people probably have too much stress and don’t eat organic like I do.
Some people would finish that thought with, God is rewarding me because I am taking care of my body like He says. I deserve this blessing. In fact, it’s not really a blessing. It’s just the result of my diligence.
We are assuming we are the one in control –even by feeling good about ourselves. But in reality, any control we feel is just a mirage. God is in control. God already paid the price for our sins. We can’t take the credit.
Frances Chan has said, “Both worry and stress reek of arrogance.” The same could be said of high or low self-esteem.
What do you mean I am arrogant if I have low self-esteem?
Everything we have been given from God is a blessing–it is not deserved. And, (read carefully) we are able to seek forgiveness from our sins; we have been given grace and mercy. So we don’t have to feel like we are being punished for not living up to His expectations or our own.
James 4:6 says that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” When we trust in ourselves too much we are at risk of having undo pride.
When God forgives us for our sins that we have confessed, and then we keep living as if we have a black mark on our life, doesn’t that mean His forgiveness meant nothing? He doesn’t want us to live that way. Our lack of self-esteem, our choice to allow our weaknesses to rule our life, does not cancel out God’s forgiveness.
For example, I remember one woman sharing her story…
“I know why I have fibromyalgia now that I am new mom. It’s because I had that abortion when I was seventeen and then I slept around a little bit. Now, even though I have come back to God and am married and a mom, He is punishing me because of my past mistakes.”
This woman could allow her past sins to eat away at her–forever–even though she asked for forgiveness many years ago. What do you think her self-esteem is like? How well do you think she is coping with her disease, since she assumes God hands out punishments through invisible illness? Will she be able to feel the joy of being a wife and a mom if she is carrying this weight around with her?
What happens when our self-esteem is too high or too low?
We should feel good about ourselves, but we should feel this way because we are children of the King and therefore we can recognize a blessing. In Luke 17:10 Jesus tells us “You also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’” (Luke 17:10).
I recall hearing one celebrity say, when someone told her she had earned her success, “I worked like a dog and God blessed everything I did.”
So, when it comes to self-esteem we can see why there are some confusions because we need a healthy balance of feeling good about ourselves, but making sure we are feeling good for the right reasons.
Yep. Illness throws everything off a little bit, doesn’t it? Illness causes us to lose many of abilities, but also our availability. When this happens we are instantly at risk for losing self-esteem.
And when I mention losing our self-esteem over these losses and griefs, I am not talking about the fact that we can’t flip our hair the way we once did due to our neck problems.
Rather, I mean that a great deal of our self-esteem comes from what we can do, who we can impress, who we can even encourage. We can drive for our child’s field trips anymore. We can’t cook dinner for a family of fifteen. We can’t go to the beach for the day or go-go-go on a vacation filled with sight-seeing.
When those lists of things we once did–and things we enjoy–begin to shrink, we can explode and lose our temper. But we can also “implode” into ourselves and have an increase in anxiety and depression.
Illness can take away some of the basics
I think most people who are healthy have a different viewpoint about self-esteem than those of us with chronic illness. Women who have given birth, for example, will say how by the time they gave birth, they were no longer self-conscious about their body because of all the exams, discussions, and obvious bodily changes.
Illness can do that to a person too. When we are healthy we take a natural pride in wearing a cute outfit, being able to hobble around in heels without many problems.
For example most people would take this for granted: Driving somewhere, getting out of a car, walking into a restaurant, sitting on a high stool, and reading a menu, knowing she can eat anything.
For one who is chronically ill, she or he may not be able to do even one of those things.
And it’s depressing.
You feel dependent on others, as though you are missing out, self-conscious about your walker or cane, needing to sit in a comfortable chair, away from the light, having someone else read you the entire menu until you could find something your stomach would be able to handle. Perhaps your list of things that would need altered is different, but you get the idea.
It’s no wonder our self-esteem can suffer.
There is no magic wand that we can wave over your circumstances, (I’d love to be able to fix it all–and am so glad God will someday).
The lens that we use to view our circumstances, and how we make a conscious choice about what to be grateful for, is far from “rose-colored.” In fact, it’s more like sticky-hands-scratched-up-found-them-under-the-car’s-seat glasses. And they can make a bigger difference than you may imagine.
Many professional resources online offer ways to “boost your self-esteem” and we will talk about those next week. But for now, know this from my friend Dr. Gail Hayes:
“There is nothing that can diminish you unless you decide to think less of yourself. You are the deciding factor in your stature; where you stand; how you present yourself; where you are going; and how you plan on arriving at your destination. No one can change your identity unless you give them permission! You are just that wonderful. You are just that powerful.” -Dr. Gail Hayes author of The Power of a Woman Who Leads and the upcoming book, You are a Daughter of the King (2014).
She knows that it can be confusing to find just the right balance between being confident and relying too much on your own self. When we ask God to point out the times we take too much credit, it doesn’t take long for Him to do just that.
You can see the books she has written, including, Why Can’t I Make People Understand? at the Rest Ministries shop.