How many of us really feel good about ourselves? In this psychologically-sophisticated age, we all know about self-esteem and how important it is. We all know that we need more of it (though we may be convinced that certain people need less), and we may have even learned to monitor our self-esteem like we monitor our energy levels, and feed it a quick fix when it is running low. A Course in Miracles acknowledges this basic need to feel good about ourselves, yet its idea for how we can do so is completely different than ours. I recently led a workshop on the topic of self-esteem in the Course, and I thought I would summarize here the basic insights I presented at the workshop.
The little self
What is our operative self-concept, the one we carry with us through each day? According to the Course, the operative self-concept of most everyone alive is what I will call "the little self." The little self is the belief that we are tiny, weak and vulnerable, that the world is far bigger and stronger, and that we are more or less at its mercy. The countless quotes in the Course that speak of this perception mirror the pervasiveness of it in our experience. Here is one: "You see yourself as vulnerable, frail and easily destroyed, and at the mercy of countless attackers more powerful than you" (T-22.VI.10:6).
My favorite quote is where the Text speaks of "a tiny you and an enormous world, with different dreams about the truth in you" (T-27.VII.11:3). On the one side is this tiny you, bravely clutching your dreams of what you want your life to be. On the other side, however, is an enormous world, and it has its own plans for you. It doesn't care a whit about your dreams. It has already cast you as a faceless cog in its vast machine, or perhaps just a smudge on the bottom of its boot. Our lives, therefore, are one long contest of wills, ours against the world's. We try and try again to fulfill our dreams, but the forces arrayed against us are just too great. We win an occasional skirmish, but most of the time we are retreating, and while retreating we are scaling down our hopes. Who of us has the same dreams we had when we were nineteen?
The effect this picture has on our self-esteem is obvious. We feel little. We feel worthless. We feel as if we are not enough: not smart enough, not bold enough, not pretty enough. If we were enough, we could win this war with the world.
The inflated self
All of us are trying to escape from the ghetto of the little self, and we all try in more or less the same way. We seek, through our own efforts, to become more: more confident, more capable, more talented, more learned, more attractive, more wealthy, more acknowledged, more beloved—the list goes on and on.
I call this "the inflated self," and we all seek it in one way or another. We try to puff ourselves up through our own efforts. Then we hope that the world will notice our display of colorful tail feathers and love us for it. The Course also describes this as "grandiosity" and "specialness," for the essence of it is not just having more, but having more than others. "It is a delusional attempt to outdo" (T-9.VIII.2:6). If my intelligence (or income level, or attractiveness) is only average, how much worth does that give me? Our search for self-esteem is our search for an inflated self. It's as simple as that.
The problem, says the Course, is that it never works. No matter how much of the "more" we accumulate, deep down we still feel like the same old little self. Underneath all our muscles, we still see ourselves as the ninety-eight pound weakling. The Course says, "Grandiosity is always a cover for despair….It is an attempt to counteract your littleness, based on the belief that the littleness is real" (T-9.VIII.2:1,3). The Psychotherapy supplement says that our "inflated sense of self [merely] holds in darkness what is truly felt" (P-2.V.1:6). All our bravado simply serves to cover over the insecurity we truly feel. The world is still bigger than us and we still live in fear.
The guilty self
On the conscious level we tend to ping-pong back and forth between the little self and the inflated self. Yet how we really feel about ourselves remains deeply hidden, surfacing only in rare moments. I call this the guilty self. According to the Course, the secret cause of all our low self-esteem is our conviction that we have turned ourselves into a selfish attacker, a sinner. The Course calls it the "lingering belief that you have made a devil of God's Son" (W-pI.101.5:3). This belief undermines our entire emotional state, causing us to punish ourselves with depression, pain, sickness and even death. Our guilt is the real reason we do not like ourselves.
The guilty self, ironically, is the product of both the little self and the inflated self. Your little self feels mercilessly victimized and so is constantly pointing a finger at the world, saying, "You destroyed my dreams." That is unforgiveness, and that produces guilt. On the other hand, your inflated self is constantly telling others, "I am better than you. You are lower than me." That is an attack, and that too produces guilt.
The challenge is to become aware of the guilty self. The Psychotherapy supplement implies that it might take a lot of therapy to help the patient even begin to hear the mournful chant he sings to himself all the time: "God may not enter here" (P-2.VI.1:4). Only when we hear that chant in ourselves can we realize that there is no hope within the system of the little self and the inflated self. We must turn elsewhere.
We feel so trapped in these self-concepts. How do we get out? To begin with, we need to realize that our self-concept is just that—a concept, something we conceived. It is nothing but a picture of ourself that we painted. Strangely, says the Course, this image "bears no likeness to yourself at all" (T-31.V.2:1), for "you have no image to be perceived" (T-3.V.4:5). Your self-concept was made not to mirror your true Self but to replace It. Most of all, it was made to hide the fact that God created you. You believe that by crafting your self-concept—as both a private idea and a public image—you have actually succeeded in making yourself. This is the essential belief behind the self-concept: that with our thoughts and actions we are literally forming who we are. It gives us the illusion that our identity is up to us. What if it is not?
The true Self
The Course teaches that who we really are is the Son of God. I think most of us take that to mean that in addition to the "me" in this world, there is this Son of God character somewhere, and it's who I really am. Instead, what the Course really means is that the "I" that experiences itself as being in this world, that tries and makes mistakes, that feels pain and aspires to spiritual awakening, is the Son of God. I am just deeply deluded about myself, so that when I say "I," I mean "this particular imperfect human named Robert Perry." I am like the mental patient who, when he says "I," means "I, Napoleon." He is not Napoleon, of course, he just thinks he is. And I am not Robert Perry, I just think I am. There are not two selves, the Son of God and the "me" in this world. There is only the Son of God, who has fallen into the profound delusion that he actually is this particular character in this world. I experience myself as the little self, or the inflated self, or the guilty self. But the one who experiences himself as these things is the Son of God.
If the very "you" that is reading these words is the Son of God, right now, then you already have limitless self-worth. You do not need to earn it. It is based on nothing you have done or achieved. It is based on nothing anyone thinks of you. If you were a homeless person without a penny, dirty and disheveled, forgotten by everyone, all of this limitless self-worth would still be yours. It has nothing to do with anything particular to you. In this sense, nothing particular about you matters. Your special talents, your special traits, your special place in the world—none of them can increase your self-worth one bit. It is already infinite. For you are the Son of God.
This is where real self-esteem comes from—from accepting the Self you already are, not from your successes at enhancing yourself. In fact, it is crucial to accept that your achievements have no effect on your Identity, and thus no effect on your worth. As the Course says, "Your worth is not established by teaching or learning. Your worth is established by God" (T-4.I.7:1-2). Who you are is not up to you. Who you are was created by God. It was set by Him forever. All of your choices and all of your efforts can do nothing about it. They cannot enhance it and they cannot damage it. That last point is a real relief, as we think and do things all the time that appear to damage our worth.
This highlights the essential difference between the world's approach to self-esteem and the Course's. In the world, our starting point is that we have no worth, and our efforts raise us up from there. In the Course, our starting point is infinite worth. Our efforts would only take us down from there, but they have no power to do that. We can therefore summarize the contrast in these two succinct statements:
The world: "I have no worth unless I can make myself worthy through my efforts."
ACIM: "God has given me infinite worth, and all my efforts can't do a thing about that."