by Kathleen Gerwin
Recently, my sister and I helped my dad clean out his storage shed. Amidst the laughter that accompanied the excavation of our childhood, we came across a box marked “TROPHIES,” a war chest of gold-painted plastic—relics from our “glory days” in sports.
My sister and I are products of what I lovingly call “The Little League Generation,” where everybody got a trophy. Whether it was through fear of hurting our fragile egos or the desire to engender a sense of positive self-esteem, no sports season was complete without the “awards ceremony” in which we were bedecked with the spoils of our season . . . namely, a trophy. This is not to say that I didn’t have incredible coaches who taught me invaluable lessons, but the sheer size and quantity of these golden treasures got me wondering about the way in which we often teach kids—and clients—lessons about self-esteem and self-worth.
Is the best way to engender a high sense of self-esteem to bestow on our kids “trophies” in the form of praise and positive labeling? As a teacher, I have seen the unintended consequences that such labeling can have—the student whose “gifted” label requires her to get straight A’s can suffer just as much as the student from whom much less is expected. “Beautiful,” “smart,” “talented,” and “athletic” carry with them just as much baggage as “ugly,” “dumb,” “worthless,” and “fat.” Many a “gold trophy” comes at the cost of sacrificing self-hood on the altar of others expectations.
In his book, Intimacy and Desire, David Snarch writes that the problem for most individuals is that they lack a “solid flexible self.” “To the degree that you lack a solid sense of self,” writes Snarch, “you depend on a reflected sense of self.” A solid, yet flexible, sense of self allows us to interact with others from a place stability rather than need and is characterized by:
- An internalized set of values by which you run your life
- A lasting sense of self-worth
- An ability to maintain your own convictions, despite others disagreeing
- Releasing the need to always be right and not “crashing” when you’re wrong
- A willingness to self-reflect (without guilt and judgment) and change course if necessary
As a pastoral counselor, this is the type of self-esteem I hope to engender in my clients—a sense of self that is internally derived and nurtured. After all, perhaps the very best trophy is the one that we give to ourselves.