Self-esteem as Violence

Blogging isn't good for the soul.

I have a rule about blogging. Don't blog about your blogging.

Some of this is just consideration for you, the reader. You came here today to read some thoughtful content, not for me to talk about my plans for this blog, or that this is my 1,000th post, or that today is the blog's anniversary, or that I made some "top blogging" list. You came here to think and reflect, so I try to keep my eye on that ball.

But the main reason I stay away from blogging about blogging is that most posts of that sort, for me at least, come from a not very healthy place.

Take, for example, a post about appearing on a "top blogging" list. Such lists appear from time to time and sometimes you're on them and sometimes you are not. And even when you are on them there is your place on the list. All this can create a rush of pride or envy or resentment, depending upon how it all sorts out. And none of those feelings are particularly healthy, perhaps especially the pride. So I try to move on, emotionally speaking, from such lists. And not blogging about them is one way to move on. Don't indulge the demons.

I bring up this example not to make a point about narcissism and blogging (a topic I should address someday), but to use it as an example regarding the relationship between violence and self-esteem.

One of the things I've learned from writers like James Alison, a theologian deeply informed by Rene Girard, is how rivalry is intimately associated with our self-concept. Specifically, most of us create, build up and maintain our self-esteem through rivalry with others. Our sense of self-worth is created and supported by some contrast and opposition to others. I am a self in that I am over and against others. Better. Smarter. More righteous. More successful. More authentic. More humane. Less hoodwinked. More tolerant. More insightful. More kind. More something.

In short, selfhood is inherently rivalrous. Rivalry creates the self. Rivalry is the fuel of self-esteem and self-worth.

Which means that the self is inherently violent. The definition of the self is an act of aggression and violence. To be "Richard Beck" is to engage in violence against others, if not physically than affectionally. From sunrise to sunset every thought I have about myself is implicated in acts of comparison, judgement, and evaluation of others, allowing me to create a sense of self and then fill that self with feelings of significance and worthiness. 

And this also applies to those with low self-worth, those who define themselves negatively in comparison with others. The violence here is simply internalized, directed toward the self rather than toward others. But at the end of the day it's the same mechanism, you are either winning or losing the rivalry, having either high or low self-esteem, but in either case the self is still being defined by violence.

Things like blogging, given its nature, can bring these rivalrous feelings to the surface making them more transparent (if you are self-reflective). But it's just a symptom of a deeper sickness, that the self in inherently rivalrous and that self-esteem is a feeling of significance achieved over against others.

We feel good about ourselves by stepping on the heads of others, physically or psychologically.

In fact, this may be the best definition of "original sin": Being a self makes you a violent person.

So how you blog non-violently? Non-rivalrously? How you do anything, think anything, believe anything--particularly in relation to the self--non-violently? Non-rivalrously?

How do you become a non-violent, non-rivalrous human being and person?

I think the self has to die. That's what the bible seems to think. There must be a letting go, a surrendering, an emptying of the self. All efforts to define the self by acts of justification, the accumulation of evidence and data that the self is significant, have to be renounced.

Phrased positively, the self must be experiencing as gift, as an experience of gratuitous and surprising grace.

Only there, in the midst of grace, can the neurotic knot at the root of our violence be loosened and undone.

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51 thoughts on “Self-esteem as Violence”

  1. Man, sounds like somebody has to deal with lots of envy and pride. Glad I'm not like that ;)

    But seriously, I think you are spot-on that gratitude (for yourself and others) is the positive antidote. One that I would need to chug non-stop to be free of this. Maybe that's what that whole pray without ceasing business is about....

  2. Ha! That is like "I don't mean to interupt but ....."

    Ya got that chest thumpin' stuff about your blog out there while pretending you didn't and then told us of the pitfalls of building self-esteem on such things. Well done.

    I think, for the growing mind, self-esteem built on finding a secure niche, competing with others and such, is very useful. After a certain amount of security is gained, learning to embrace our shared ordinariness and marveling in the mundane is another level of growth. The Glory of Insignificance is a treasure to be sought.

    Thus, rivalry and comparison are good, but must be viewed and treated for what they are.

    I never cared much for number of readers on my blog -- but I did want quality. For me, blogging is like going to the coffee shop and talking with friends. And I like lively controversial conversations -- not ones filled with platitudes and perfunctory expressions.

    I recently used a knot as an image in one of my posts. A knot can be useful -- tying down a tent or docking a boat, or it can be a confusion to hide our neurotic self-deception as you say -- and as my post says.

  3. Dude... nice job calling him out for hypocrisy (which he's acknowledging by writing the post) and then double-linking to your own stuff, all whilst letting us know that you, at least, have transcended the whole stupid game.

    What a hall of mirrors. Also, check out my link on exactly this topic... wait. No. I can't QUITE bring myself to do it, now.

    Curse you, red baron! I needed the ratings boost!

  4. Don't we all. For what it's worth, I don't mind the charge of hypocrisy. It's helpful to me. And I don't think Sabio intended it harshly.

    By way of transparency, and hypocritical self-justification, I think the "chest thumping" Sabio is pointing toward are the quotes on the sidebar. Which are pretty grand. Those are quotes about my two books and not the blog. Still, they are self-congratulatory. The reason behind them is this. Both my books are published by publishers that don't do much marketing. The marketing of my two books is basically is limited to those few inches on the sidebar and word of mouth. I put those quotes up there and I let them be and I try not to spend posts writing about when my next book is coming out or what the cover is going to look like or what my advanced reviewers are saying, etc. And, of course, I don't Tweet stuff. Still, all this is a very fine line. Thus the post.

    And I'd also like to note that I don't judge authors who do a lot of self-promotion. I have a day job. I don't pay the rent in book sales or pageviews. So my "humility" in this regard is a product of my situation, not my virtue.

  5. The past year I've thought tons about gratitude and gift and they way they untangle neurosis. And there is some empirical science here as gratitude is a regular feature of the happiest people.

  6. I guess I WAS being a bit smarmy, there. I don't really think Sabio's being particularly harsh, either. I think we're all trapped in these cycles of violence you talk about. It's odd to me that you'd post this, since I was writing about it (in my own, self-referential way) just yesterday.

    It also came up in a meeting I was having yesterday with the director of the short film on school violence I'd told you about (the LOCKER 212 thing). We were just about to lock picture, and he asked me if I ever wondered if we were just USING the zeitgeisty-ness of the bullying thing in order to further our careers. I thought about it and said, "Yes... absolutely." That I figured that any time you took up the Ring of Power (and Art is Absolutely about power, among other things) and DIDN'T wrestle with your motivations -- didn't question THE ENTIRE TIME if you were a worthy vessel, or just out for your own selfish gains -- then at that point, you had lost. The Ring had taken you.

    What I appreciate about this blog is the acknowledgement of hypocrisy. Because you ARE a hypocrite. As am I. As is Sabio.

    Thank God for Grace, eh?

  7. Yeah, you got it Richard -- not meant harsh at all. Actually intended to be playful. But I broke on of the rules of communication: touch one sacred cow and the whole message is lost. Bottom line: I think self-promotion can be very healthy. I think seeing through self-promotion can be even more gratifying. Doing both makes sense.

  8. The notion that the very existence of our selfhood makes us violent reminds me of something Pete Rollins says in The Idolatry of God.

    In the first few chapters, he talks about the birth of the self in the Lacanian mirror phase - when a baby becomes aware of 'I,' there is also awareness of 'not-I.' Because of this, Pete says "The sense of selfhood is marked indelibly with the sense of separation" (13), and as a result, "one of our first impulses is to find ways of abolishing the void" (14). In other words, our need for self-esteem is what drives our need for certainty and satisfaction, which makes us violent.

    I have always found the relation between some forms of radical theology (Pete Rollins and John Caputo, not Altizer, necessarily) and Girard's mimetic theory to be very interesting. You've given me more to think about.

  9. Getting behind how "self" is made is a wonderful technique shared by both theists and non-theists (including Buddhists). 'Tis a secret way to understand our own unnecessary deceit. I think. But hard to practice, eh?

  10. Amen. I missed your post yesterday. Thanks for the head's up!

    Incidentally, almost all of my posts are time-stamped. I wrote this post last week. So fortuitous convergence!

  11. You are sounding a bit Buddhist today. I say this based on my reading of 1/2 chapter about Buddhism in my world religions class ;) But seriously, nice post.

  12. About 4 months ago I began the daily practice of centering prayer. What you said here today, Richard, is very near to the thought I was having today as I settled into prayer after just posting a new blog. The need for validation was visceral! "Alex, your constant urge towards self-esteem NEVER STOPS!" It infects everything I do... even this. Love me. Say I matter. Affirm me. It's what Sebastian Moore calls "Desire out of emptiness." Thank God for Keating (and before him, in my own case, writers such as yourself!) who have helped me to recover the paradoxical un-selving so central to the Christian gospel!

  13. Thanks for this. I have one of Moore's books, do you know where that quote comes from? No worries if you can't track it down.

  14. Persons of high self-esteem are not driven to make themselves superior to others; they do not seek to prove their value by measuring themselves against a comparative standard. Their joy is in being who they are, not in being better than someone else. People with troubled self-esteem are often uncomfortable in the presence of those with higher self-esteem and may feel resentful and declare, "They have too much self-esteem." But what they are really making is a statement about themselves.

    When we have unconflicted self-esteem, joy is our motor, not fear. It is happiness that we wish to experience, not suffering that we wish to avoid. Our purpose is self-expression, not self-avoidance or self-justification. Our motive is not to "prove" our worth but to live our possibilities.

    In today's culture some frustrated people announce that they have decided to pursue a "spiritual" path and renounce their egos. This enterprise is doomed to failure. An ego, in the mature and healthy sense, is precisely what they have failed to attain. They dream of giving away what they do not possess. No one can successfully bypass the need for self-esteem.

  15. Sure, Richard. Evernote knows all and sees all. ;)

    Its elaborated in: "Let This Mind Be in You: The Quest for Identity through Oedipus to Christ"

    I like to contrast his thoughts with Tillich: "Every individual, since he is separated from the whole, desires reunion with the whole, His 'poverty' makes him seek for abundance. This is the root of love in all its forms." ST VII, 52.

    Whereas Moore apparently wants to stress a contrasting view:
    "Wanting this or that cannot possibly be the start of the wanting process. It too must be preceded by a continuous condition of myself in my environment, a continuous wanting-I-know-not-what, a 'just wanting.' Now what is this 'just wanting' state? If we don't reflect carefully, at this point, on our experience, we will say, 'It is a state of emptiness wanting to be filled'. But if we reflect, we see that this is the opposite of the truth. 'Just wanting' is a feeling good that wants to go on feeling good and looks for things to feel good about. This is very clear in the child. The child—like the dolphin—is a bundle of pleasurableness. Freud describes our original condition, moving in the amniotic fluid, as the 'oceanic' condition. Thus as we move, in our inquiry, from the definite, specific wants, back to the undifferentiated 'just wanting', we are moving towards [ital]not emptiness but fullness.[/ital] In the life of desire, it is 'everything' that becomes 'this thing'; it is not 'nothing' that becomes 'this thing'." Let This Mind Be in You, 5.

    David Schnarch (where I discovered Moore in the first place) also has a handy synopsis of the ideas behind Moore's sometimes complex prose in "Passionate Marriage, 395-99.

  16. Thanks--as usual when you are brilliant and helpful to me I have little to add, but thanks for writing this.

    Oh--one thing to add--it reminds me a bit of "surrender" in the Twelve Step thing. Lots of stuff about how ego, struggle, sacrifice, discipline, and everything else is just BS without this mystical thing called "surrender." The self has to die.

  17. I can't speak for Richard here, but I don't think it's the possession of high self-esteem, in Kevin's sense, that's the problem. What Kevin describes as "high self-esteem" sounds rather close to the highly differentiated personality that has learned the paradoxical esteem found in giving up the quest for esteem... maybe. The trouble lies in quests for self-esteem that are constituted and measured by anything finite.

    The criterion used to smoke out authentic self-esteem (most properly termed "faith" I'd say) from "idolatrous" self-esteem lies in the extent to which the self can sustain ego death without self loss. If one is unable or unwilling to let their ego be drug through the mud and crushed, then their self-esteem is still attached to a finite reality and therefore is not nearly strong enough. Only a paradoxical self-esteem that emerges in one's embrace by the infinite is sufficient. For only the esteem that completely transcends mere ego is able to give birth to a self that truly has no need to justify or secure itself over and against others. Slander it, insult it, kill it. It really doesn't matter. It knows what it is.

  18. I suppose it sounds a bit buddhist, but when you develop the discipline of just observing yourself in action, without judgment, your prickly spots and weak points quickly become obvious. Once they get labeled as a problem, it seems to me, we get defensive or feel condemned. But when we can simply observe what makes us jealous, insecure, prideful, etc., we can deal with it through a combination of confession, awareness and addressing what is underlying these things. Its just a puzzle to be worked through rather than a judgment on self.

    Ultimately I think the antidote to this violence of self is to learn to simply be. Which, I suppose is a whole other can of worms. But often I will just tell myself, "all that is required of me right now is to take my next breath and act in kindness." In time, the rest becomes less and less pressing and important.

  19. Hello Rich. What an insightful post from a Christian psychology professor!

    This raises several questions:

    1) Is it okay to blog about the ETHIC of blogging, that is respecting others, never bullying someone, acting as if one encountered the person in the street and so on and so forth?

    2) is that not a argument against God's existence that He created us in such a way that we can only BE in opposition to others? This seems to favor Buddhism.

    3) is it fair for God to reproach us something we have not chosen?

    4) what are the practical ways to make this experience of giving up oneself?

    5) Is it psychologically possible to feel particular while not feeling superior to other possible?

    These are many questions and you are quite a busy man, so you are allowed to pick and choose the one(s) you prefer ;-)

    Friendly greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  20. There's a podcast I started listening to a few months ago that gleans helpful insights (for living well in the world, developing compassion, etc) from several practices: Yoga, Buddhism, Psychology, Christian Contemplative Prayer (Merton, Keating, Rohr), Native American Spirituality, Chinese Tai Qi Quan & Qigong, and a few others. Having been in several different Evangelical streams since 1979, I'm now at a place where I can receive (and feel confident can discern) the good things these discipline can offer, whereas in years past, I would shun them like the plague. The podcast is called Insights At The Edge and is found on iTunes or at

  21. Coming to a place to find the good in things is valuable. After leaving Christianity, I have come back to a place where I can find a bit of good in it too.

  22. I just stumbled across a perfect bit of writing by Cynthia Bourgeault that really nails the distinction I was trying to make below. I'll tag it on here as I think it's a critical distinction.

    "Classic psychotherapy takes place within the domain of egoic functioning; its goal is to improve it. Through therapy, wounded and dysfunctional people get the help they need to live better-adjusted and more successful lives. Weak and damaged egos gain self-esteem, and overly defended ones learn to relax and enjoy the ride.

    Classical spiritual work, no matter what the religious tradition, is about transcending the ego. It seeks to awaken within a person something that is recognized as a "true self," or higher Self. This does not necessarily mean eliminating the ego, but rather displacing it as the seat of one's personal identity. It is like discovering that the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa." 'Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening,' 102.

  23. And thanks again to the genius of Evernote I can underline the point a final time, but this time by way of Sebastian Moore:

    "…he who comes to some sense of what is called the self comes under an almost insuperable temptation to claim this realization 'for himself', to appropriate it in terms of the ego. Such a person becomes the mystagogue for whom the mystery of human totality has become a pretension and has [ital]replaced[/ital] the need to live out the life of the ego in its context of history and society." 'The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger,' 11.

  24. Hi Alex,
    Josiah Royce, in The Religious Aspect of Philosophy, called this "the work of man as man": [to find] his destiny not in himself, but in the life about him, or in the ideal life of God." (210-11) The connection to the Great Commandments is clear. I'd not understood worship to require a "deseating" of the ego, but the Shema makes that clear. This cuts to the bone.

    (BTW: Wm. James seems to have used Royce's view to inform his view of God in the Principles. It would be fun to trace how that view plays out--and perhaps critiques--the case studies in the Varieties.)

  25. that's what Peter Rollins talked about on Wed when he was at EMU- that the first part of attachment: recognition of the mom and baby as two entities, causes an extreme desire (not unlike that of a zombie's) for connection - and this excessive desire for an object, this sense of lack creates an idol out of the object and this is original sin. it was a fascinating talk.

  26. Tracy!
    Good to see you here! (did you get the email I sent to you last week?)

    Right, right, The Shema, Faith as ultimate concern, "deseating" the ego, exposing the causa sui project as a sham, dying to self, the Christian paradox, revelation as reason in ecstasy, centering prayer, it's all the same terrifying, liberating movement!

  27. This reminds me of a conversation we've had several times in grad school about differentiation. The truth is, we're never going to be a true "self" until we stop feeding and depending on other-validated intimacy and affirmation and start turning toward self-validated intimacy and affection.

  28. Rivalry is intimately associated with the eyes. Two thoughts: keep your eyes low. And keep the eyes of your heart fixed outside the self; on the Beloved One.

  29. Alex,

    I'm presently reading Bourgeault's Wisdom Jesus and she points out that the Kenotic path is that which transcends the egoic self--the same point that Richard is making in this post. This also lines up with something Thomas said;

    Thomas Merton said one day to a fellow monk, "If I make anything out of the
    fact that I am Thomas Merton, I am dead. And if you make anything out of the fact that you are in
    charge of the pig barn, you are dead." Merton's solution?
    "Quit keeping score altogether and surrender yourself with all your sinfulness to God who sees neither the score nor the scorekeeper but only his child redeemed by Christ."

  30. Doc Holliday: It appears my
    hypocrisy knows no bounds.

    Wyatt Earp:
    Doc you're not a hypocrite, you just like
    to sound like one.

  31. I don't know that this is much of a solution. Where do we get our ideas about how to validate ourselves? For that mater, what does it mean to "validate"? Are we supposed to validate everything about ourselves, or select and decide what to validate and what to decry or change? The former seems narcissistic. If the latter, where do we get our criteria for how to validate ourselves? What does "intimacy and affection" mean in this context, and what does it mean to validate it?

    I want to push back against the idea that somehow we have this internal spring from which our authentic self-concept flows, and the assumption that it's even possible for us to consider ourselves independently from social context. (Spoiler: I don't think it is, and I don't think that's even a bad thing. I think that humans are social creatures; self-sustenance, whether material or ideological, is both impossible and undesirable.)

  32. I didn't realize Rollins was such a Lacanian! I'm going to have to read more of him.

  33. I like the ideas of gratitude and gift, too. They seem to recognize our existence and circumstances as contingent, something we receive or something that happens to us, as opposed to something I do, our I'm-the-hero-of-my-own-story-and-captain-of-my-ship-of-destiny or I-pulled-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps mentalities.

  34. Yes! The Buddhist concept of "non self" has helped me profoundly. As someone who spent a lot of years battling low self-esteem (I hate even saying that phrase), a big revelation for was to come to understand my behaviors/actions as behaviors/actions and not as essential elements of my permanent self. Because when you are attached to the permanent self, you can fall into a number of traps. For someone with self-esteem issues you either a) fall into self-loathing or b) fall into self preservation - where your fear of critically examining yourself prevents you from growing.

  35. I need it everyday. I wrote it as an act of confession.

    Blessings to you my friend.

  36. What about self as defined by/as uniqueness? (And other as defined - and valued - by uniqueness?)

    Of course, the uniqueness is gift. (But superiority can also be seen as gift.)

    I think we do need to feel and believe ourselves to be special, and to often that specialness is something we strive for competitively with each other. But at it's base, I think the desire to be special is the desire to be loved - concretely and specifically. For who we uniquely are. And love - real love - is always a gift.

  37. Thanks for this Richard. I have been getting this sense for a while now, the sense that competition and rivalry is at the heart of our sin and insecurity. Given this, why do we continue to participate in blogging awards, Dove awards, etc.? Isn't the elevation of one by necessity the submission of the rest?

  38. I do think those awards are insidious. Like I noted in the post, I keep trying to put gratitude out in front of me. Keep blogging (or working or creating) for the joy of it. If we can keep joy in front of us I think we'd all be much happier and healthier, in any endeavor.

    Joy is becoming a bigger and bigger place of reflection for me. When Jesus prayed his last prayer in John that's what he wanted to leave behind for his followers--joy. "That my joy may be in you and made complete."

    And I can help but notice how joy cuts through so much of our neurotic BS.

  39. Not to rival your self-expression, but what a lot of useless malarkey. Violence is when I stab your eye out, not when I tell you you're speaking nonsense. But go ahead, self aggrandize in building castle in the air instead of surrendering to the mystery of Being. All you thoughts and opinions are SO much more important than the experience of the Holy. Jesus I am glad I'm a Zen Buddhist. But I suppose my rejection of Christian nonsense makes me a violent person. Hah! Hah!

  40. I'm not sure if this is a Poe, or you're serious: if the latter ,and speaking as a Buddhist, I am *horrified.*

  41. Are you serious in attacking this particular article with that particular dismissal?

    I'm new to this blog (came over from Sullivan's) and this particular article struck me as coming closer to "advaita/anatta"-type notions in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions than almost ANYTHING else "Christian" I've ever seen.

    With all due respect and attempted humility, may I suggest that you ignore the label on the can and taste the actual soup inside it?

  42. I really enjoyed this piece when you first posted it, Richard, and I'm glad to see it popping up more and more around the internet. I completely understand your point, and agree with you completely, but I do have some concerns with the violence metaphor, and how it might be perceived to victims of physical violence.

    I know that you certainly didn't intend for this to be some sort of belittling the horror of physical violence, but some people who are still trying to cope with their situations may see it otherwise.

    Even though you see yourself as coming from a point of experimental psychology, I know you have the compassion and wisdom to offer some cogent points to those of us who are down in the trenches with people who are victims of physical violence.

    Dying to self. Yes, i agree that much of our daily living has to come down to that. But, that phrase has been tossed around flippantly by so many in Christianity that it is almost an insult to a suffering person. I know ther has to be a better way of getting that concept across to someone who is desperately clinging to that tiny shred of self to just stay alive.

    Basically, what I'm asking of you is how we can translate these very important ideas down to someone who is in the midst of great suffering.

    Thanks for such a though-provoking post (even though you're only blogging on blogspot) ;)

  43. Blogging about blogging is out, but apparently blogging about blogging about blogging is okay. Just don't blog about the fact that you have blogged about blogging about blogging, because that would be blogging about blogging. On the other hand, you would be safe pledging not to—in other words, to blog about blogging about blogging about blogging about blogging—because that would just be blogging about blogging about blogging, not blogging about blogging.

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