I’m concerned we are misdiagnosing insecurity. And as a result, I’m concerned we are mistreating it too.
I first stumbled toward this realization after wrestling with insecurity in several areas of my life. I devoured every book and article I could find on the subject of self-esteem. I read verses about God’s delight in me. I self-talked scriptural truths about my identity in Christ. I did this for months, and at the end of it all, I realized something.
None of it helped.
I knew God loved me. I knew I was made in his image. I knew I was created with a purpose. I believed all these things. Yet none of it touched the depth of insecurity inside me. It wasn’t until I read Tim Keller’s tiny, power-packed book The Freeedom of Self-Forgetfulness that I understood why these messages weren’t working.
The problem, I discovered, was a gaping hole in Christian teaching, especially to women.
Two Sources of Insecurity
I came to realize there are two primary causes of insecurity. The first is one we talk about all the time: low self-esteem. Spiritually speaking, I define low self-esteem as an inability to see ourselves the way God sees us. When our self-image is primarily shaped by wounds or lies, the pain is real and damaging, and the gospel has an answer for it. God absolutely desires to restore our self-understanding by aligning it with the truth of his Word. We rightly respond to low self-esteem with biblical affirmation.
However, there’s a second cause of insecurity, one we almost never address. For many of us, the source of our insecurity isn’t low self-esteem, but self-preoccupation. What we need isn’t to think more highly of ourselves, but to think of ourselves less.
For many of us, the source of our insecurity is self-preoccupation. What we need isn’t to think more highly of ourselves, but to think of ourselves less.
The reason self-preoccupation causes insecurity is that it raises the stakes—on dating, parenting, working, and serving—by turning it all into a referendum on our worth. Every slight, every rejection, every awkward interaction must be “about us.” Such a focus is crushing.
Of course, it’s not always easy to distinguish low self-esteem from self-preoccupation. The two intertwine and overlap, and sometimes one leads to the other. Nevertheless it’s crucial to know the difference, since they require different solutions. If we address our self-preoccupation the way we address low self-esteem—that is, with affirmation—it actually makes the problem worse. Affirmation only feeds self-focus, rather than delivering us from it.
The only path out of self-focus is self-forgetfulness, which is why Christian messages to “believe in myself” weren’t helping. Rather than solving the problem, they were reinforcing it. Rather than prying my gaze off of myself, they simply handed me a mirror with a Jesus tint. What I needed was freedom from thinking about myself, even when the thoughts were positive.
Limits of Self-Help
Many self-help “gospels” aim to address a need by restoring our dignity as image-bearers of God and claiming our identities in Christ. But this type of affirmation is ultimately limited in its helpfulness. Over time, it hits a ceiling.
The reason self-help solutions inevitably fall short is because they don’t have Jesus at their core. At their core is us, and a human-centered gospel can’t save.
That’s the pitfall of much popular Christian teaching. When the majority of messages for women are about our beauty and self-worth, we gradually get the idea that Jesus came to earth and died simply to help us like ourselves. To borrow the words of Isaiah 49:6, this is “too small a thing.”
Women can gradually get the idea that Jesus came and died simply to help us like ourselves.
A godly self-image is healthy and good, but we cannot settle for a gospel with self-satisfaction at its core. It may be counterintuitive, but the me-centered gospel cannot give us the freedom we crave. It simply enlarges our burdens and shrinks our faith.
That’s why God calls us into a bigger story: to live for him, instead of ourselves. When we shift our focus off ourselves—our fears, our appearance, our success, our self-doubt—and fix our gaze on Christ alone, we encounter the freedom we were created to have.
We finally learn to be free of me.
Editors’ note: This article is adapted from Sharon Hodde Miller’s new book Free of Me: Why Life Is Better When It’s Not About You (Baker).