Editor's Note: This is the first column from ToledoFAVS readers posing questions to psychologist and author Dr. Kevin Anderson about life, happiness, suffering, love, work, sex and other universal human concerns. Dr. Anderson can be reached at KevinEAnderson7@gmail.com. The identities of the questioners will be treated with confidentiality on ToledoFAVS.com. WilmingtonFAVS.com readers are also welcome to submit their spiritual questions to Dr. K at his email address below.
Dear Dr. K.:
My first grandchild was born earlier this year and “Maria” is now 8 months old. She has wonderful parents, and both sets of grandparents live in the same city. Maria has several aunts and uncles who live in town and her great-grandparents visit often.
While my daughter is a terrific mom who manages to keep everything in balance, I am a little concerned that Maria is getting too much positive attention. Every time she does anything, she is greeted by claps and cheers and oohs and aaahs from her adoring relatives. If she eats her food, people clap. If she stands up, people cheer. If she plops back down on the floor, everyone smiles.
Maria is a beautiful baby and I am glad she has so much love in her life, but I don’t want her to grow up thinking she’s a superstar who’s entitled to applause and attention every time she does anything.
When, if ever, is too much love a bad thing for infants?
Thank you for listening to my questions.
-- Concerned Grandparent
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To begin a response to your interesting question, I'd like to differentiate between "self esteem" and what I call "sacred self awareness." As a child grows up, trying to prop up her self-esteem with constant praise can produce a child who has an inflated sense of her capacities and an under-appreciation for the amount of hard work it takes to be really good at something. But at eight months, Maria is a superstar, as is every other child. When I want clients who have survived child abuse, neglect, or other trauma to realize their own deep worth, I ask them to think of how they feel when they hold a child like Maria. I tell them that they too are worthy of such automatic affection, even awe, because they also came into this world as a shining star. The really healing idea for many people is that the original self, the sacred self, is not lost even through great suffering. Instead, it becomes layered over. The task of spiritual practice is to increase our awareness of and contact with the sacred self.
This idea of the "sacred self" might sound self-centered to some, but the key is to see the sacredness of all human beings, which is only possible if we see it in ourselves. Buddha said, “You, as much as anyone in the entire universe, are deserving of your love and compassion.” When I have spoken at many different Christian churches, I often see posters for programs to help the hungry or needy, with a caption asking the reader if he can see Jesus in their eyes. No one seems to object to that kind of thinking, but when we start talking of believing we ourselves contain a divine spark, we get nervous. We seem more comfortable focusing on our own flawed nature, even while reminding ourselves that we should see the Godseed in others.
The gleam we feel in the presence of a child like Maria should make us question psychological theories (e.g., Freud) or theological doctrines (e.g. original sin) that would have us believe that we come into the world essentially flawed or driven only by base motivations. Theologian Matthew Fox has written about "original blessing." Similarly, the psychologist Carl Rogers emphasized instead an original wholeness or goodness in human beings. We know our intrinsic worth early on; we only begin to question it, according to Rogers, when we encounter "conditions of worth"--statements or behaviors by others that make us feel that our core value as a human being depends on others' assessment of us. It is clear that a promotion at work depends on a boss's assessment, but our innate sacredness is unchanging and unconditional. I usually tell clients who doubt their worth, "Sorry, you were born with it--you're stuck with it."
If the people in Maria's life were to continue to make her the center of attention in every way as she grows up without teaching her, by how they live, about the sacredness of every other human being, then your current concern could develop into a longer-term problem. Believing that I and everyone else in the world contain a Godseed is mysticism; believing that only I contain such a sacred energy is narcissism.
Kevin Anderson, Ph.D. is a psychologist, spiritual writer, and public speaker. His books include Divinity in Disguise and The 7 Spiritual Practices of Marriage. He can be reached at: KevinEAnderson7@gmail.com.