Humble, not Low Self-Esteem

My dad was the personification of true humility. At times, he also seemed to me to have low self-esteem, so it was easy to confuse the two traits.

Nurturing a positive self-esteem was a major focus of the early childhood training I received in college. I understood the importance of recognizing personal worth in the healthy development of a child’s psyche. In my personal study of Scripture, I found countless passages that validate both the virtue of a humble spirit and an awareness that each individual has extreme value to God. It’s hard to imagine someone with low self-esteem being able to nurture high self-esteem in someone else, but in my experience it’s very possible.

In my home growing up, my parents were my heroes. They both lived lives characterized by service to others. A whole book could be written about their self-sacrificing generosity to the church and community. In their own non-showing way, they met the practical and core needs of the people who most needed to experience God with flesh on.

My Dad had a very strong spiritual gift of mercy. There seemed to be no limit to the times he took on the challenge of tenderly caring for the unlovable, the forgotten, and the people that the rest of the world had given up on. Twice he pastored a church on the brink of splitting because individuals and groups within the churches were polarized in their views and beliefs. Under his leadership these churches were able to extend grace and forgiveness to their members and grow stronger as individual Christians and as a church. This is only one of literally countless situations where Dad’s gift of mercy brought healing when it seemed impossible; yet he never sought credit or praise from any one of them. There were people who noticed and admired his Christian faith and service, but for the most part he quietly lived a life of faithfulness to his Lord without any fanfare or recognition. He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. When I was a very troubled teenager and unable to sleep at night, I would quietly get up and see him in a chair in the living room, deep in prayer or Bible study with his Bible and journal in his lap. I never once got up after 4 am when I did not see him there. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the only person who knew he did that.

My mother was one of my greatest cheerleaders. She often praised me for my artistic expressions in writing, music, painting, poetry, and even in my work with children. However, she was her own worst critic. She thought she was fat and ugly; and she had a hard time receiving well deserved praise for her own creative expression and skills. I learned from her to see myselves as special; but I also learned from her to negate the praise I received from others. I greatly admired my mother, but the lessons I learned from her were conflicting and confusing. Her praise and encouragement fed my hungry soul with affirmation. It gave me courage to express my creativity and grow in my skills of nurturing others. But I also learned to reject and criticize myself when no one but God could see or hear me.

Watching and learning from my parents challenged my understanding of what humility and self esteem were really all about. A casual look at the two can give the impression that they are opposites, incompatible with each other. So far as the humility goes, it was clearly lived out in my parent’s lives and was reinforced in the study of the Scriptures. My parent’s affirmation of my skills and abilities, coupled with passages like Psalms 139:13-14, “For You did form my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will confess and praise You for You are fearful and wonderful and for the awful wonder of my birth! Wonderful are Your works, and that my inner self knows right well.” and Matthew 6: 26 which concludes with, “Are you not worth much more than they?” – together they affirmed to me that I was worth a great deal to God.

Gaining clarity was a process that has taken time and effort. I believe I now have a clear understanding of how they work together. God’s affirmation of the many of me is all the security in my self worth that I need. I know with certainty that it is God Who orchestrates my lives and blends them into a beautiful masterpiece. He has done (and continues to do) great things. He is the Potter, the Creator, the Savior. He alone gets all the credit and all the glory. Praise be to God!

I’ve often said that I believe my multiplicity developed more out of a life of extreme paradox rather than extreme trauma. To be sure, there was extreme trauma in my early life; but there was also tender loving care. It wasn’t a matter of my parents being hypocritical. They were consistent in their demonstrations of nurturing affection and care. But they weren’t there to protect me from extremely traumatic experiences that wounded me deeply and severely. It wasn’t their fault, but that didn’t make the traumatic experiences less traumatic.

I simply could not reconcile the good and trustworthy with the violation and injury. My world was irreconcilable until it became more than one world. Having two worlds gave me the freedom to laugh and play, to grow and mature and enjoy the many blessings that come from living in a secure world. It also let me anticipate and guard against the evil that I knew would return as soon as I let my guard down. In that world I was constantly afraid and insecure; but my mind could create spaces of hiding and shelter where I could run to when I felt afraid or when danger reappeared.

Have you ever heard the saying, “I’m my own worst enemy? That saying epitomized my early and mid teen years, at least in one world.

In one world I flourished and grew in my faith. I had very intimate encounters with my living Savior when I studied Scripture. Every day I opened my Bible and it was as if Jesus Himself was unfolding the words and causing them to penetrate deep into my soul. I kept a prayer journal in which I poured my heart out to God, and I knew with certainty that He was right there with me, revealing Himself to me and leading me into a deeper, richer relationship with Him.

That was one world; but a very different world co-existed with it. In this other world I was full of self loathing and hatred to the point of being suicidal. I felt such rejection of myselves that I didn’t think I could stand to continue to live another day. Food was my enemy and eating was torture. I developed a very complex and diverse relationship with food. I regularly engaged in self harm, but I kept it hidden. It wasn’t a cry for help. For me it was an outlet for unbearable emotional pain. Physical pain, if it was severe enough, would temporarily be a release valve for the emotional pain that was so intolerable. Countless nights I cried and sobbed all night long. In a space in between conscious and unconscious thought I was aware that my desperate cry was an appeal to my Creator, but those cries were far too vulnerable to reach a fully conscious level.

As I entered my senior year of high school, and then as I was a college student, I gained more distance from my injured souls; and from all appearances I matured physically, mentally, and spiritually. I discovered that I had a highly tuned sensitivity to young children, especially those with special needs. When I worked with them they grew and flourished beyond what other people thought possible. I instinctively knew what they needed and how to best help them achieve it.

I studied and received teaching degrees in Early Childhood and Special Education. I completed in four years what normally would have taken five years. I excelled in my studies, and worked while going to school to avoid having to take out loans to pay for my education.

But the clock struck 12 in my Cinderella life when my mother got cancer and died between my fall and spring semesters of my senior year. The day she passed away I had a physical collapse. That fall semester I took 18 credits, did my student teaching, and helped take care of my mother. When she passed away I had no physical reserve left. Even the nutrients that are stored in the marrow of my bones had been completely depleted. My doctor was emphatic that I not attempt to take the final 18 credits I needed to graduate that spring; but it was so important to my mother that I complete my education that I couldn’t give heed to my doctor’s instructions.

Life spun crazily out of control. I got married and moved to a different state the weekend I would have graduated. A week after the wedding my husband erupted in rage towards me. That was the start of thirteen years in a severely abusive marriage. Oh, the long, long list of catastrophes that piled up is too extreme to recount. That sounds like it surely must be an exaggeration but it really isn’t. I was in survival defense mode all the time, especially as children were born into our family and my defenses had to protect them as well as us.

The story is long – far too long to continue here; but it feels like dropping it here is not fair to the reader. Please stay with me while I turn the corner.

Romans 8:28 (Amplified Version – “We are assured and know that [God being a partner in their labor] all things work together and are [fitting into a plan] for good to and for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” is so familiar and I share it here because I want to say that He has redeemed every trauma I have ever experienced. During the trauma and the struggles it caused, God was my ever loving Abba Daddy and constant companion. He has transformed those experiences into bridges to other suffering people who can relate to them. They find courage to face their own hurts and wounds, and overcome the barriers that hinder their growth and healing. I have the privilege, honor, and joy of being a part of that.

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