Kobe Bryant, Self-Esteem, and Disunity in Christ

I'm so excited that my book Disunity in Christ is finally coming to a bookstore or Kindle near you! I'm eager to share the fruits of my labor with my faithful readers, so I'll be posting short excerpts each week until the official release date on November 4!  This week's excerpt was taken from chapter 5 which is titled "Running for Cover: How The Groups We Form Protect Our Identity and Self-Esteem." Enjoy! When I was in high school, I knew a girl we nicknamed Five O’clock Shadow. Perhaps because she was a little awkward and lacked the gleaming weaponry of social status, Five O’clock Shadow didn’t belong to any particular friend group. No one wants to be a loner, so she spent most of her free time trailing my group of friends, joining in on our conversations and inviting herself on our group outings. Five O’clock Shadow simply wanted to fit in—and to her credit, she was a diligent and tenacious tagalong. We made top-secret plans to avoid spending time with her but she always seemed to know where we were headed. If we managed to get away from her for a moment, she would use her uncanny tracking skills and soon discover us. Hence the nickname Five O’clock Shadow—no matter what we did, we simply could not rid ourselves of her.

If we had been mature and compassionate people, and as diligent at being kind as we were at creating witty and cruel nicknames, we would have recognized that she was a genuinely pleasant girl who was toiling for her own social survival and would have welcomed her into the group. But we were high schoolers who were consumed with fighting our own wars of identity and selfesteem. In our shortsightedness, we couldn’t think of any good reason to befriend Five O’clock Shadow. She wasn’t beautiful according to our narrow definition of beauty. She wasn’t a teammate. She wasn’t even funny. To sum it up, she didn’t add any social currency to our group. If anything, she made our group lose prestige. So we shunned her.

ENDLESS ADOLESCENT IDENTITY WARS

As a volunteer Young Life leader, I witness junior high and high school students vying for acceptance in the same way that Five O’clock Shadow did when I was in school. Being labeled a loser is to be avoided at all costs. The goal is to be identified as someone who is “cool” and, by extension, valuable and good.

Most teenagers will do almost anything to gain significance. This includes banding with others who are similar—those who agree with them, affirm them and confirm that they are in fact valuable and good—and together waging war against other individuals and groups. And lest you think that this sort of behavior is solely caused by adolescent immaturity, it is worth noting that social psychologists have witnessed it in full among adults. The truth is that many of us are still stuck in our high school identity wars. And as we’ll come to see clearly, our identity crises are a root cause of the divisions in the body of Christ.

As kids, we often heard voices that were both positive and negative, wanting to believe the positive but haunted by the negative. Thus began our lifelong quest for identity, sometimes carrying a chip on our shoulders, wanting to prove that we belong with all that is good and valuable and not with that which is lesser and flawed. No wonder so many teenagers are mired in an identity crisis—they are caught in the crossfire between the positive and negative feedback that comes pouring into their selfconcept.

These identity crises can remain unresolved well into adulthood, however, because group memberships can serve to harbor our cracked and unstable identities and even create space for them to thrive.

According to social identity theory, self-esteem is closely tied to our group memberships because our group identities often overlap with our sense of self. For example, not only do you think of yourself as an individual, but you also probably think of yourself in terms of your many group memberships: gender group, social roles groups (such as mother, spouse, friend, etc.), ethnic group, occupational group, church group, even hobby related groups (book club, fly fishing, etc.). To the extent that these groups are important to you, you will expand your sense of self to include them in your identity.

To illustrate this idea, I’ve created a highly scientific Venn diagram of Kobe Bryant’s identity. Each circle represents Kobe and his group memberships and/or relationships. As you can see, more important group relationships take up larger parts of the identity.

Kobe venn

The more you are invested in your group memberships, the more impact they will have on your sense of self and, by extension, your self-esteem. The relationship between self-esteem and group membership wouldn’t be a big deal except for the fact that whenever self-esteem is involved, we tend to go on the defensive.

PLAYING DEFENSE

Research on social identity theory has discovered that when it comes to group membership, we do four things to maintain positive self-esteem: (1) We tend to gravitate toward and form groups with similar others; (2) once the group is formed we engage in group-serving biases that defend the group’s positive identity; (3) we try to increase our status by associating with higher-status groups and distancing ourselves from lower-status groups; and (4) if all else fails we literally disparage other groups because in doing so, we elevate our own group.

With respect to self-esteem, our group identity is one of our first lines of defense. As such, we tend to choose our groups carefully.

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