Background Shadow

Exposing a Quiet Threat to Self-Esteem

How is a thief exposed?  Usually his or her identity comes into focus when we realize that something of value has been taken from us.  A successful thief stays in business by pulling the wool over our eyes, and keeping our attention in the dark.  Maybe the thief starts out taking small bits of what we possess [Read more…]

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Cinderella’s Guide to Self-Esteem: A 21st Century Revision

In the classic fairy tale, after her father’s death, beautiful Cinderella is cast into a different role – exchanging her cherished identity for that of a servant routinely dismissed and abused by her stepfamily.  What she holds of greatest value is something external  – a dream of a changed life dependent upon an outside force.   Dr. Kevin Solomons points out that the fairy tale seduces us into believing that we acquire value (the handsome prince) by being beautiful, kind, and adept at pleasing others.   For too many of us, this becomes the illusive path to self-esteem and our happily ever afters – a path on which external sources dictate our internal worth.   Lacking helpful woodland creatures and a fairy godmother with a magic wand, we must work harder to find our self-esteem.  And once we find our handsome prince, there’s no guarantee that he can or will stick around.   In such a scenario, our self-esteem will likely crash.  So what’s a 21st century girl to do?

Instead of looking for external sources to prop up our self-esteem, what if we begin by examining the process through which our concept of self-esteem develops?   Once upon a time, we entered this world young and vulnerable, and we relied upon our caregivers to provide our needs and to teach us about our identity because we were clueless.  If our caregivers had been more like Cinderella’s father, maybe we would have learned that we were beautiful, loved and valued simply because we existed.  If our caregivers were more like Cinderella’s stepmother, years of negative conditioning may have convinced us that we had nothing of value inside or outside.   We would have lost touch with our authentic self – or possibly never even discovered it – because our experiences never pointed us to our inherent value.

Maybe we’ll find our self-esteem when we embark on a journey to identify our authentic self – not the self others say we are, but the self we know we are.   Maybe the process has been our problem: we’ve been looking for outside evidence of a treasure that has resided inside all along.  We don’t need the glass slippers, the sparkly dress, diamond tiara, coach, and handsome prince.  We need to recognize the conditioning process and set out to discover who we really are.

What might happen when we  learn to separate our truth from                     someone else’s fiction?  

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The Great Perfection Hoax: A Horse’s Exposé

For certain purposes and for limited times, horses wear blinders to reduce the distraction of what is behind and beside them.  Some trainers use blinders keep horses from getting spooked on busy streets or distracted by crowds at a race.  By limiting their field of vision, blinders enable horses to focus on the task at hand.  If worn all the time, however, blinders would get in a horse’s way. He may not spot the cool stream to his left or the tasty mound of hay to his right.  He could run through a wide meadow unable to quench his thirst or satisfy his hunger.

So, what do horses, blinders, and perfection have in common?

Searching for perfection is like wearing blinders: it limits our field of vision.  We become unaware of change and opportunity outside a narrow focus of expectation.  Sure, perfection has its allure – otherwise we wouldn’t be enticed by perpetual media adds tempting us with the perfect car, a way to get flawless skin, or  exercise equipment promising 6-pack abs in a flash.  The problem is that perfectionism defines success in very narrow terms, and like blinders on a horse, it excludes a wide range of possibilities that we may actually find appealing.   Think about how expecting perfection in people can mess up relationships.  Evidence of imperfection in a loved one may blind us to his good points, while imperfection in ourselves motivates us to dismiss our own strength, beauty, and value.

Just as horses don’t always wear blinders, perhaps its time for us to remove the blinders of perfection.  What will happen if we do?

A teenager may discover a gorgeous smile amid acne.  A septuagenarian may recognize sparkly eyes in sea of wrinkles.  A man may appreciate his 10 year old ride.  A wife may discover kindness in her husband.  A woman may realize that her curvy body is sexy.   A student may discover that learning is more important than just getting A’s.   Without blinders, maybe we’ll all get closer to finding satisfaction.

What will you discover when you remove the blinders of perfection?

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Taking the Sting Out of Criticism…

Few people like criticism, and for good reason: other peoples’ negative opinions can prove deadly to our self-esteem.  Criticism can deflate self-esteem by arousing and arming what McKay and Fanning (2000) call our “internal pathological critic” (p. 147).  Think of your pathological critic as an inner mp3 player that effortlessly streams messages of your personal deficiencies.   Who wants to crank up the volume on that playlist?  Whether criticism is constructive (motivated by a genuine desire to help) or manipulative or pointless, it’s usually unwelcome.  So how can we keep criticism from eroding our self-esteem?  First, entertain this idea: “criticism has nothing to do with true self-esteem.  True self-esteem is innate, undeniable, and independent of anyone’s praise” (p. 148).  Second, consider that much criticism is not based on objective reality, and recognize that “we rarely perceive reality with 100% accuracy and objectivity” (p. 148).

Here’s an example.  One recent evening, three activities converged to create a critical response in my family.  While my daughter was drying her hair in the bathroom, my son placed a bag of popcorn in the kitchen microwave and pushed “start”.  Meanwhile my husband was glued to the TV as he waited to see a famous knockout in heavyweight boxing history.   Suddenly, a circuit breaker failed – the microwave lost power and the bathroom went dark, but the television still worked.  I descended the stairs, opened the circuit breaker box, and moved the offending switch to “on”.  The switch refused to stay “on”, so I moved it all the way to “off” and back to “on”.  As a result, the TV lost power one second before the awaited knockout.  My husband immediately criticized me for turning off the circuit breaker switch – even though it was necessary to restore power upstairs.

In my family story, each of us perceived the event differently: our teens thought something odd had occurred; I suddenly remembered that one of our circuits has an overload problem (usually observed only when Christmas lights and the microwave are simultaneously in use); my husband, engrossed in TV land, assumed that human ignorance had messed up his evening.  My point is that we each regularly and uniquely filter and edit what we perceive of reality, and our emotional reactions fall in line with our perceptions.

It’s like we each play a reality show on a TV screen in our heads.   Maybe you and I have cameras aimed at the same scene in real life, but we see different images and hear different voice-overs on our mental TV screens.  We each uniquely filter and edit our reality shows, but neither screen permits either of us to see reality directly.  I can’t fully know what’s on your mental screen and you can’t fully know what’s playing on mine.  I can’t even tell you  some of the messages displayed on my screen – they come and go faster than I can communicate.  Due to reliability issues, I can’t automatically believe what I see on my screen, and neither can you.  Our voice-overs interpret reality and sometimes distort what we see.  I may think my reality show is very accurate when, in fact, it is really distorted.  I can’t control all of what I see on my mental screen all the time.  Yet sometimes I can focus my awareness on one thing when I pray or meditate.   Although we can each improve the quality of our personal reality shows, neither of us can eliminate the screening process.  Here’s the kicker: critics don’t criticize us, they only criticize the versions of us that show up in their personal reality shows.  What critics see and who we are may be vastly different.

Through five senses, we humans perceive reality, but our perceptions are influenced by our genetic wiring, momentary physiological and emotional states, memories of similar past experiences, beliefs, and our needs (McKay & Fanning).  These influences provide many opportunities to distort perception.  A person who is genetically wired to be gregarious may criticize you for being shy, without considering that you may be genetically wired that way.  A critic’s unpleasant attitude may be attributable to a bad enchilada eaten at lunch, and have nothing to do with your job performance.  Your loved one may come home angry from work, throwing off rejecting vibes that have absolutely nothing to do with you.  Sometimes people criticize us because they are responding to reruns of the past – stuck in past habits: I grew up in a family where sarcastic humor reigned, and I learned that habitual sarcasm feels like a negative, critical attitude.  Prejudices, values, and beliefs all influence our perceptions.   If a mother values neatness, she may critically exaggerate any sign of sloppiness.  A prejudiced person can’t trust what he sees when hated groups appear in his personal reality show.  Someone may reject you in the present based on a belief learned from past experience, having nothing to do with you.  A critic’s needs distort her perception of reality:  a woman in constant need of physical reassurance may regularly criticize the appearance of others.

With all this potential for distortion, none of us can take criticism at face value.  Perhaps remembering that will take some of the sting out of criticism.


McKay, M., & Fanning, P.  (2000).  Self-esteem.  Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.


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The Insidious Power of Shoulds…

Have you ever considered how our shoulds can work against us?  Those thoughts running through our heads in the form of “_______ should _______” reflect our values and rules for living.   Such thoughts compare the way we are to the way we think we ought to be.  Yet they work against us when they are rigid, not critically examined by us, or unrealistic.  Maybe I’m 5’8” and big-boned.  If my rule for living tells me that I should weigh 120 pounds, I will be judged inadequate or defective if I weigh 138 – even if my doctor tells me I’m healthy.

In Self-Esteem, McKay and Fanning (2000) observe that “this is the tyranny of the shoulds: the absolute nature of belief, unbending sense of right and wrong.  If you don’t live up to your should, you judge yourself to be a bad and unworthy person” (p. 111, emphasis added).  Maybe this explains why some of us get our emotional chains jerked by common and troublesome rules of living like these:

  • I should maintain a 4.0 GPA.
  • I should never feel anger.
  • I should have it all together.
  • I should be perfect at _______.

Yet surely not all shoulds or rules for living are unhealthy.   So how do we tell the difference between those rules spinning through our heads?  Mckay and Fanning (2000) suggest a test with 4 criteria:

  1. Is the suggested rule flexible?  Do I allow for exceptions? Maybe not if my rule includes words like never, always, perfectly….  Flexible rules permit some failure to meet the ideal standard.
  2. Is the rule owned by me? Have I critically examined it? Does it make sense to me?  If not, I may have unquestioningly accepted someone else’s rule.  It’s like buying a house without a walk-through, or buying shoes without trying them on for fit.
  3. Is the rule realistic?  Is it based on a test of positive and negative consequences?  Unrealistic rules demand that I act on principle regardless of the pain my action brings myself or others.
  4. Does the rule enhance my life rather than restrict it? A healthy rule encourages me to do what is supportive and nourishing – except when long-term consequences would be painful to myself or others.

So why does my title suggest that our shoulds or rules for living have insidious power?  Unhealthy rules for living can stealthily attack our self-esteem in two ways.   First we may judge ourselves by rules that do not truly fit us.  Maybe I grew up believing that I should be self-sufficient.  That rule may promote some academic achievement, but my self-esteem may take a hit if I become unemployed and have no job prospects.  Second, our rules may attach moral judgments to essentially non-moral tastes, behaviors, and situations.  Maybe our families gave us “an impossible dilemma: ‘Follow the rules we’ve created about how you should look or act or be condemned as worthless and bad’” (p. 122).   In childhood, my small faith community articulated specific rules for living, and some people applied moral judgments to my favorite recreational activities: swimming, tennis, and going to G-rated movies.   My self-esteem took a hit because my tastes and recreational preferences differed from those of my grandmother’s religious peers.

I think it’s important to determine if our shoulds or rules for living are healthy. 


Mckay, M., & Fanning, P.  (2000).  Self-esteem.  Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

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