WHILE GIVING OVER the local masjid’s community newsletter one Friday afternoon after Jumuah, I came across an article praising the impressive accomplishments of a young sister in the community just returning from a week-long trip to Japan.
This sister, at just 16 years old, is a high school senior involved in several challenging extracurricular activities which include holding a class office, membership in the Muslim American Club, the Arabic Club, volunteering with Save the Children (an organization dedicated to stopping child labor around the world), and of course traveling around the world.
I couldn’t help myself. I found myself studying her carefully the next Friday afternoon outside of the masjid as she was talking with her friends. She stood out among the other young girls of her age—more focused, determined. She possessed special talents and gifts Allah had blessed her with and regularly shared them with the community. I wondered about the path of this confident, young girl’s life. What had brought her to such an impressive state so early in her life? How had her parents prepared her to go out into a world whose superficiality ruthlessly consumes our youth? How had she encountered the challenges to her beliefs most adolescents inevitably face along the way?
This confident, talented, young woman, responsible and motivated in both her spiritual and life goals, is proof of the many special gifts and talents Allah has kindly bestowed upon all believers. It is up to each individual to nurture the distinct attributes of his/her character and realize the value and beauty that he/she possesses,
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We have indeed created man in the fairest stature. [Sûrat Al-Tîn, 95:4]
Do we believe that we are worthy of such accomplishment, and do we have the self-esteem it takes to achieve it? Self-Esteem is an essential tool in facing the challenge explained in the next verses of this surah:
Then [if he disbelieves,] We reduce him to the lowest of the low. But not those who believe and do righteous deeds. Indeed, for them, there is an unfailing reward [awaiting]. So what, then, causes you [O disbeliever,] to belie the Judgment [Day]! Is not God the Most Judicious of Judges? [Sûrat Al-Tîn, 95:5-8]
Self-Esteem versus Conceit
Just what is self-esteem, and how is it any different from self-absorption and conceit? Many, confusing the two characteristics, are reluctant in recognizing the positive aspects of who they are individually. The National Association for Self-Esteem defines self-esteem as, “The experience of being capable of meeting life’s challenges and being worthy of happiness.” It is grounded in respect for truth and reality.
On the other hand, excessive self-absorption is symptomatic of someone suffering from poor self-esteem. It is a form of egoism, where one adopts an attitude of bragging, boasting, and claiming qualities he/she does not truly possess.
A woman once came to the Prophet asking whether she would be permitted to say that her husband had given her something which he really had not, in order to boast and show off. The Prophet responded,
The one who creates a false impression of having been given something which he was not given is like one who wears a garment of falsehood. (Muslim)
A conceited person is desperate to prove his/her superiority to others. Islam frowns upon such superfluous displays which go against its basic teachings that encourage modesty and humility. One must be careful not to slip into the sin of boastfulness and constant search of praise and recognition for every deed performed. Surely it is selfish and self-centered to focus inwardly and be obsessed with our own abilities and what we bring to the table. However, it is important to acknowledge the blessings our Lord has bestowed upon us in the form of special talents and qualities.
When we possess abilities with which we can serve the greater good, such as being a doctor, teacher, lawyer, or any other profession that serves humanity, we have a duty to make those abilities known and to use them in serving others. Not to do so would be wrong, for it is through this acknowledgement of one’s unique ability that the community is blessed, and in turn, the individual grows in heart and mind, rewarded with the blessings of Allah.
Is Self-Esteem Born or Made?
Psychologists and scholars agree that fundamentally, healthy feelings about one’s self is best started in the home, and should be developed from birth. Thankfulness for the individual Allah created each of us to be is largely dependent on how our parents or guardians see us. As children, we see ourselves as a reflection of another’s perception of us.
Providing a warm, loving, unconditionally compassionate environment for children to flourish can in fact promote and encourage their faith in Allah. It can assist a person very early in life to begin thinking about Allah’s purpose for them, and perhaps thwart the growing tendency among the youth today to float about in a lackadaisical fog, insisting that they are merely taking time to “find themselves.” People with strong self-esteem are decisive.
A confident child can say “no” to peers who insist on engaging in some questionable activity. They in turn grow into adults willing to take on responsibility, and are indeed thankful for their accomplishments. They are much better prepared to deal with the many trials and tests of Allah in this life.
However, for many, self-esteem and self-worth do not come easily. There are many individuals who, due to a variety of circumstances in their lives, have never experienced a strong sense of self. They struggle with attaining and maintaining it on a daily basis.
A sister once revealed to me her sad upbringing with a mother who had earned her living as a prostitute. It was through her mother’s chosen lifestyle that she was born into the world. The mother eventually left that life behind, but continued to view her daughter as a constant, negative reminder of that unfortunate time.
This woman struggled throughout her life with poor choices made due to her fledgling self-worth. After many years of intense personal work, and having embraced the beautiful religion of Islam, she is now a very confident woman, blessed with a beautiful family.
Interestingly, those with a high self-esteem often find it easier to forgive the bad treatment and behavior of others. This allows the individual to move forward from anger and get on with life. The Qur’an explains that this is a good deed which brings one closer to Allah,
[those] who restrain anger and pardon [all] men; and Allah loves those who do good. [Sûrah Âl-ʿImrân, 3:134]
It is never too late to take the necessary steps needed to gain self-esteem.
Gaining and Maintaining Self-Esteem
Building self-esteem requires change in behavior, and behavior changes with practice and sincere intention. It is possible to build a healthy self-esteem at any time in one’s life. This can be an empowering process.
Many virtues encouraged in Islam are fundamental in assisting this process. A few include: Keeping one’s word, being grateful for the good in our lives daily, honesty, and taking responsibility for our actions and choices. By adopting these positive characteristics, one gains self-respect, and consequently, the respect of others.
All that is valuable in life requires action to realize it and maintain it. A business, marriage or friendship cannot be sustained without continuous effort. Once a person is successful in attaining a healthy sense of self-confidence, their work is far from over. The principles must be practiced regularly in order to support the result. Success is determined by continuous effort. The responsibility of self-improvement is never ending.