How do you see yourself? Are you a good person or a bad person…or are you neither good nor bad? Are you priceless or worthless? Are you valuable or discardable? What is your self-image or self-worth and how can you improve it? Knowing the answer to this question will have a great deal of impact on how you feel about yourself…your self-esteem.
So what is the basis for your self-image? In order to determine this, we need to answer this question: “What is your reference point?” What is a reference you may ask? A reference point is “an indicator that orients you generally”. Not a very helpful definition so let me illustrate it further. How do you tell north from south? On a map, you look for the Equator. In the night sky, you look for the North Star. The Equator and the North Star are both reference points. How about in school? How can you differentiate a good grade from a bad grade? Usually, you use a letter system or a percentage system. Letter grades and percentages are both reference points. We use them to measure good and bad grades. Here’s the problem…what happens if the reference points start moving? What would happen if the North Star started moving or the Equator was drawn in different locations on each map? What would happen if one person’s “A” was another person’s “B”? The answer is…chaos.
So how do we develop a self-image or self-worth in the midst of this chaos? We find a stable reference point and be true to it. What’s your reference point?
Are relationships your reference point? Sue Johnson states that “people are the mirrors through which we see ourselves”. In other words, how people treat us and look at us have an effect on how we see ourselves. Anybody who has experienced racism knows this to be true. It takes a strong and stable reference point to withstand the constant suspicion and condescension and not take on some of the negativity. Anyone who has been in a bad relationship knows it as well. When someone repeatedly treats you like rubbish, you either protest and leave, or stay close to that person and risk believing them.
Parents are the most profound example that relationships can be a reference point. Many who come to counseling are there because their self-image was given to them before they could even speak. Parents who abuse or neglect their children leave lasting scars that take a lifetime to heal.
What about fame and fortune? Are those good reference points? Probably not. What do we know about those who base their self-image on these things? All it takes is a quick trip to TMZ to find out. Celebrities are among the richest and most famous in the world, yet they have astronomical rates of divorce, drug-use, and depression. Many have made very public train wrecks of their lives trying to maintain their fame and fortune while destroying their life in the process.
What about beauty or power? The standard of beauty is constantly changing. You can wear the latest styles, only to be horrified years later (i.e. the 80′s). Power is fleeting as well. The more you try to grasp power, the more you end up compromising yourself and others. Even if you achieve power, you find that you cannot steal what can only be freely given and end up settling for a cheap obedience than genuine love.
So what’s the common denominator here? All of the above reference points are unstable and external and do not make good reference points. The poor in America are the rich in Africa and there is no amount of beauty, fame, or success that can be achieved where we can legitimately claim “we have arrived”. We can merely say “I am prettier/richer/more successful/funnier/smarter/etc. than <insert person here>. Who then can stand strong in any situation? The answer…one who has a stable internal reference point…a reference point that can be controlled and does not move or change depending on the situation.
The Stable Internal reference point
A good reference point must be stable. By this, I mean that the reference point cannot change from day to day. Also, a good reference point must be internal. By this, I mean that it must be something that is formed within you rather than something that is manipulated by an outside source. If your reference point is steady and is something that comes from within you, you will be able to carry yourself with a great deal of confidence. Here are three examples of possible stable internal reference points.
For the Jewish people in the Holocaust, many clung to their faith tradition. It was their faith that framed the story of who they are, where they came from, and where they were going. They were a chosen people, set apart for a purpose and created in the image of God. The Nazis could not never take that away from them.
For some, it is the act of serving others that gives value to life. When someone is needed, they find value in their existence and everything they do has more meaning attached to it. The new parent understands this more than anyone. That beautiful little helpless face looking up at you for the first time will give you new reason to live: you are necessary, you are needed, you are loved.
For many, it is the painful experiences of placing your self-worth in something external, only to watch it fail again and again. Through that pain, the one who is open will learn to refocus on what matters and will find an identity in it. Resilience cannot be taught. It is the fruit of a life shaped by difficulty. What is left is a stable image of self that is unwavering because it has been tested and proved strong.
Finding a strong self-image can be as simple as having a child and as complicated as going through a long process of self-examination. It can be as difficult as going through repeated painful experiences and as easy as accepting who you are in this moment right now. Take the first step by examining yourself. What story frames your life? What in your life makes you valuable or needed? Are you constantly trying to win the approval of someone? Do you feel guilty because you’re not rich/famous/powerful/beautiful/smart? Now is a great time to stop relying on unstable external sources for value and seek worth in something that lasts.
P. S. Having a difficult time finding out what your current reference point is? When was the last time you were insulted? Chances are…if someone can insult you in a particular area, you’ve probably found an unstable external reference point. Watch out for what you use to support your self-worth…you may find that it cannot support the weight.