“I can give you $3,800, but can’t go any higher.”
My stomach dropped.
I was having my car appraised for trade-in because I needed a four-wheel-drive SUV for the commute to my new job. Truthfully, I wished I could have kept the car, which was surprising to me since I was never someone who cared much for what kind of car I was driving. But this car was different. To me, it represented independence (it was the first car that I purchased myself), family (it was the car in which I drove my eldest son home from the hospital), professional success (I drove the car to graduate school and conferences), and my overall personality (when I bought the car, people kept saying: “that car is so you!”). Trading in this car felt like giving up a piece of myself. $3,800!? Was he kidding me?!
I stared blankly at the appraiser.
His response seemed tailored to my thoughts: “I know that $3,800 doesn’t seem like much, but I use various criteria to evaluate a car’s worth and sentimental value is not one of them.”
Intellectually, I understood his explanation. Make, model, year, mileage and wear-and-tear were all relevant to the car’s value; my emotional connectedness was not. I begrudgingly accepted his offer.
Certain objects have high subjective worth even when they have limited objective value. A family heirloom or a child’s blankie, for example. The worth stems from a personal or emotional association to the object rather than actual material value. Interestingly, while human beings seem innately hard-wired to sentimentally connect to objects, places or even other individuals, they often have difficulty connecting to their own sentimental value.
This discrepancy is, to a large degree, a function of the “value messages” that people are exposed to through interactions with family members, the media and society-at-large. Messages such as “you are what you drive, where you work, how you look, the clothes you wear, the relationships you keep or the grades/acknowledgements you get” all serve to interfere with a sentimental connection to one’s intrinsic worth. As one encounters significant life-experiences the specific external categories upon which to stake her self-esteem get solidified. Success or failure in these areas determines the person’s sense of self-worth. Importantly, by rating oneself based upon external contingencies, one discounts the possibility that personal worth is innate and ever-present.
One who believes that their unadorned self has no inherent value is likely to miss the opportunities available to establish a sentimental connection with themself. After all, an object perceived to be worthless is rarely paid the attention necessary for it to achieve subjective worth. In effect, one takes on the role of the appraiser, rather than owner, when assessing their own value. This, in turn, results in self-esteem that is both externally based and unhealthy in nature.
As experiencing high self-esteem provides an emotional high, an individual tends to exert great effort in the domains upon which their self-esteem is based. Such an expenditure can, at times, have unwanted negative results. An individual whose self-esteem in contingent upon professional success, for example, may choose to work long hours at the office even though doing so has limited professional impact and results in negative consequences with regard to family life. Someone whose self-esteem is based upon school performance, may exert so much effort (and pressure) in academic pursuits that their quality of life suffers. Within the context of unhealthy self-esteem, this work ethic may be understood as the individual’s attempt to harness control over their level of self-worth by exerting excessive effort in these categories of their self-esteem rating formula.
Interestingly, because success in any area of life that is external hinges upon many variables that are not within one’s control, pursuit of success often results in feelings of anxiety, depression, and extreme fluctuation in level of self-esteem.
If unhealthy self-esteem is categorized by one’s taking the appraiser-role rather than the owner-role, then healthy self-esteem can be understood as an individual sentimentally connecting with themself. It is the acceptance of self-worth as inherent in a person’s being rather than based upon one’s performance within a given category.
The source of this value can be subjective and unique to the individual. One may, for example, identify “I exist” as the source for innate worth. Others may benefit from identification of a concrete source of worth. They find it easier to accept the existence of innate value, and integrate such acceptance into their life, when based upon an authentic source. They reason, just as one would be hard-pressed to fabricate a sentimental connection to an object, it is impossible to manufacture a basis for inherent worth. The Bible provides this source.
Healthy Self-esteem Based on Tzelem Elokim (Image of God)
In the first chapter of Genesis (1:27), it is written: “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him.” Rabbi Akiva, in Ethics of the Fathers (3:14) expounds upon this verse: “Beloved is man for he was created in the Image. It was an act of special favor that it was disclosed to him that he was created in God’s image, as it said: ‘For in the image of God did He create man.'”
According to Abraham Joshua Heschel: “the intention is not to identify ‘the image and likeness’ with a particular quality or attribute of man, such as reason, speech, power, or skill. It does not refer to something which in later systems was called ‘the best in man,’ ‘the divine spark,’ ‘the eternal spirit,’ or ‘the immortal element’ in man. It is the whole man and every man who was made in the image and likeness of God. It is both body, soul, sage and fool, saint and sinner, man in his joy and in his grief, in his righteousness and wickedness. The image is not in man; it is man. (The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence, 1966, p. 152).”
Believing that human beings are created in God’s image is different than genuinely feeling it. Working to inculcate this belief in a way that provides emotional wellness takes deliberate effort. Healthy self-esteem takes hold when there is congruity between belief and feeling. The goal, then, is for one to use their cognitive recognition to achieve the experiential sensation of the presence of the tzelem Elokim that they bear.
Clearing the Path for the Image
There are experiences in life that strip away the external domains upon which one stakes his self-value. These serve to dismantle their framework of unhealthy self-esteem. For many, the Pandemic has served this role. With shifts in employment, relationships, and interactions with the outside world a person may be pushed to, for the first time in their life, ask the question: Who really am I?
Renowned Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, months after his liberation from the concentration camps, described the experience of being an inmate: “What remained was the individual person, the human being-and nothing else. Everything had fallen away from him during those years: money, power, fame; nothing was certain for him anymore: not life, not health, not happiness; all had been called into question for him: vanity, ambition, relationships. Everything was reduced to bare existence. Burnt through with pain, everything that was not essential was melted down—the human being reduced to what he was in the last analysis: either a member of the masses, therefore no one real…just a prisoner number; or else he melted down to his essential self (Yes To Life: In Spite of Everything, 2020, p. 26).”
With the externals forcibly demolished, one is faced with a choice. Rebuild what they know, as it provides a sense of familiarity and comfort or allow the ever-present, intrinsic, human value infused in them and all mankind at the time of creation to surface.
Choosing the latter provides a foundation for the individual to embrace the owner-role, sentimentally connect to his innate value, and develop a self-worth that is immeasurable, unwavering and truly healthy. It allows them to feel worthwhile because of their essential self.