Okay, here’s a question: Do you put yourself first or others first?

Here’s another question: What is the right thing to do regarding the first question?

Third question: Who told you that? Where did that message come from?

And the final question: Where does self-esteem come in? Does putting yourself first demonstrate self-esteem? How about if you put others first?

Is This Selfish?

David walked into the house hungry. He’d had an incredibly difficult day. Things did not go well with the partners in his new business. They didn’t believe his year-end predictions and they wanted more data than he could give them. He was really annoyed about that, angry actually. He was in a huff as he walked in.

“Hi,” Doris said as he came in. No matter how challenging it was, she always tried to be pleasant.

But she didn’t get a reciprocal greeting.

“Where’s dinner?” was all David said.

We don’t need more information than this to say that it appears that David is selfish or self-centered. He seems to put himself first, but more than that, his wife wasn’t on the list at all.

Well, I shouldn’t say that. David has learned that in order to get some of the things he wants he must attend to others – to a point. So there might be a time when he gives a gift or a “Hello.” That logic still filters events through “Me” as the operator: If it’s in my interest, then I will cater to others. This approach keeps the behavior in the category of “selfish.”

Is there a time when this is right?

If a person is only good to others in order to extract a favor and otherwise ignores their needs, I can’t think of a case when it is justified. Maybe you can help me, here.

David probably got this message growing up, either from parents who spoiled him, thinking that the sun and stars set upon him, or from parents who were too busy with their own lives to pay attention to him. He figured out for himself that the only person who would take care of his needs was him. The presence of others didn’t enter the equation unless it was in terms of how to meet his needs.

This isn’t about blaming David’s parents for his selfishness; rather, it’s simply showing how things happen. Regardless of the origins, David is now responsible for who he is.

Now let’s switch to a new scenario.

How Would You Describe Eti?

Eti had a cold and needed some things from the drug store, but she didn’t want to bother her adult children. Her mother, on the other hand, called her to come give her some assistance, and feverish as she was, Eti ran to help. When she arrived, her mother was annoyed that she was a half-hour later than planned. Her mother needed groceries and of her five middle-aged children, it was Eti she would call upon. Eti arrived wheezing and coughing, and, oblivious to that, her mother said, “I don’t know why you always put me last. I don’t know why it was so hard for you to get here when you said you would.”

Eti didn’t bother to answer because her mother was somewhat hard of hearing and wouldn’t hear her anyway, especially since her voice was just a squeak. She just felt bad and sad. Somehow, it became her fault; she could not do anything right.

It seems that Eti does not put herself first and that she was trained to do this by a mother who gave her the message that she should always be first. While it is true that honoring a parent is of paramount importance, it is complex. For example, if honoring a parent interferes with your marriage, the Bible suggests that we give precedence to the marriage. Ideally, we work out a way to make everyone happy.

Uh-oh, what did I just say? When we make “everyone” happy does that include ourselves?

One answer to this is provided by the airlines. In going over safety features before each flight, we are told that if oxygen is needed and we are traveling with minor children, we must provide for ourselves first. Why? – The only way we are able to take care of others is if we get the oxygen first.

Eti would probably faint in her attempt to help those with her. In her effort to treat others well, she consistently puts herself last. That’s selflessness.

Is it good? We often hear praise of people like this and it is certainly praiseworthy to think of and care for others. But is it right to do it to the exclusion of oneself? Is it right, in effect, to not take the oxygen first?

What Does True Self Esteem Look Like?

Imagine an Eti who can say assertively and with sincerity to her mother that she isn’t able to help her today because she is sick herself but arranges for one of her children or siblings to go over to her mother. Imagine a David who inquires about Doris’s well-being and offers to help her before gently asking about dinner plans.

When a person takes care of her or his needs so that he can take care of those he loves, that comes from self-esteem. This is something that both David and Eti lack.

One could make the mistake of thinking that David does have self-esteem: After all, he takes care of himself. However, a person who has no place for others in his sphere of operation is self-referential and that means there is no way for him to measure himself – how well he’s doing – in the real world. All he can ever obtain is a measure of himself relative to himself. This is useful in noting skill improvement but it will not help in really knowing where he stands in a world of people.

David can acquire self-esteem, paradoxically, by starting to see others as important and accomplished as himself.  He must search for qualities in others that he truly admires. Now, he has a real-world standard against which to measure himself. When he works on himself to measure up to that standard, he can justifiably be pleased. That’s self-esteem.

Eti can acquire self-esteem by starting to interact with others such that she sees herself as being as important and as accomplished as they are. She must recognize the essence of who she is and love it just as her Creator does. As much as she wants to do for others – which is surely a good thing – it is only true kindness when the love she has for the other person equals the love she has for herself. Otherwise she is nullifying herself and that can’t be the reason for which she was created.

Self-esteem is the recognition of one’s value in relationship to others. Others are neither better nor worse. High self-esteem means the most realistic assessment of who one is in terms of value in the world, strong points – and weak points, too. You see, if your evaluation of your weaknesses is realistic, then you can also plan a way to improve them or at least to put them into perspective.

Furthermore, a realistic evaluation of your strengths is only realistic when it comes with awareness of weaknesses. Humans generally have both. This balance is what keeps us appropriately humble yet as strong and capable as we need to be to function here on Earth.

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