My Foolproof Method for Avoiding Low Self-Esteem

Apropos of yesterday’s Young Woman: This, Finally, Is Your World, my wife Catherine asked me to write this.

“If anyone in this world should be wracked with low self-esteem,” she said, “it’s you. You had the worst parents ever. First your dad moved out; then your mom literally abandoned you — and your dad is never, for one single moment, anything but horrible to you. But you don’t suffer from low self-esteem at all. And the reason you don’t is really unique. You should share with your readers how you do that … thing you do. I think they’d be interested in hearing that.”

Now, if it turns out Cat is wrong, and you’re not interested in that, then … cool! I’ll totally try to parlay that into the foot rub Cat keeps getting out of giving me.

The reason I don’t suffer from low self-esteem is because I was basically born with a very strong sense of fairness. I don’t know why, but I’m Joe Wrightenwrong. I’m just … extremely tuned in to what amounts to the morality of any given dynamic or situation.

And to be clear, I don’t think that at all makes me special. Who doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong?

As a baby I was acutely aware that my mother loathed me: that she was deeply and even dangerously angry, and had no more interest in being a mother than I have in being a prison guard. But I never thought her psychological problems had anything to do with me. It was her. She had issues.

I was just a kid in Keds. I knew I hadn’t had time to have done anything so wrong I deserved for my own mother to despise me. I didn’t keep my room that messy.

And that’s always been the way for me. I’m sort of preternaturally good at putting the cause for any kind of trouble or disharmony where it belongs. (And yes — and maybe especially yes — that includes when it belongs with me.)

When I was in third grade everyone in my class made giant Valentine’s Day cards out of that Oldye Thymyee construction paper that was so thick you could practically use it for drywall. Afterwards I gathered with other kids at the front of the room as we all deposited our cards on the teacher’s desk.

When our teacher saw mine, she snatched it off the top of the pile, jumped to her feet, and started screaming at me about what a horrible, foul Valentine’s Day card I had made. Every kid around me backed away like I’d started emitting noxious fumes (which, suddenly panicked as I was, I just might have done). Mrs. Hinton was a tall woman with tall hair wearing tall heels. As this towering inferno moved threateningly toward me, berating me at the top of her lungs and violently tearing my Valentine’s Day card to shreds, what I did not think was, “What is the matter with me? Why didn’t I make a better card? What have I done wrong? Why am I bad?”

The card was fine. True, in making it I had stuck with my usual policy of applying glue in a way intended to subtly communicate the message, “Avoid making John Shore use glue,” but, through my dazzling, Ninja-like mastery of scissors, I had also adorned the thing with enough white lacy cut-outs to send Liberace into a mooning swoon. My card might not have gotten, say, my best friend’s completely hot airline stewardess aunt to invite me to her place for an evening of Graham crackers and debauchery. But it didn’t deserve this.

As I slowly backed up whilst peripherally assessing immediate escape routes (if it came to it, and I had to dart [pre-murderous] O. J. Simpson-like into the sea of school desks just to my right, I knew that relative geriatric of a teacher of mine might as well be wearing lead boots), what I thought wasn’t anything like, “How could I be so bad and wrong?”

It was just this: “Whoa. Full adult snappage.”

I blamed her. What was happening was her problem. It wasn’t about me. Even if she started tearing me to shreds (which, eyes ablaze, it seemed likely she might actually try), it would still be about her.

(As it turned out, not too long before she exploded on me Mrs. Hinton had lost her young son in terrible car accident — and he, apparently, looked and spoke a lot like me. I was a victim of her grieving.)

One of my core premises about life is that everyone is innocent. People react to terrible things done to them by in their turn doing terrible things. But they themselves are not terrible.

We’re all victims of someone’s grieving.

More on this next time, maybe, but … that’s the idea behind why I personally have never suffered low self-esteem. Depression, I know. But I’ve always sort of instinctively rejected the premise that anyone is inherently better than anyone else. And if no one’s better than anyone else, then no one’s worse than anyone else. And that includes me.


I snagged the photo for this post off the great photoblog, Snapshots of a Good Life.

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  • So, you were born very blessed. most of us have to learn this after years of not knowing . . . not understanding . . .

    Most of us assume as children that we are the problem, because our world revolves around us.

    I’m happy for you that you have been able to be so healthy through so much darkness.

    I am getting to learn it the harder way.

    Intellectual understanding is very different from the heart knowledge you seem to have been born with.

    One of life’s mysteries. Some are born knowing more than others . . .

  • leanne mcginney

    I really related to this because I am kind of the same way, but not enough so. The best part was where you explained (with great example) how we are all vicims of someone else’s grief. Thanks, John.

  • Wonderful post! And how fortunate to have that innate ability to account for the foibles of others. This is a compassionate approach – both to yourself and to others around you. THANKS

  • Rebecca

    hmmm… wish I’d known this when I was a LOT younger. As always (even when I don’t comment), Thanks, John.

  • Renee Peggs

    I had a therapist say to me once, “Hurt people hurt people.” Which is another way of saying that people react to the terrible things done to them by doing terrible things to others. Which is why most people in the universe would benefit from therapy. And thruway Christianity.

    I always felt like everything was about me because I have this inflated sense of my own importance vis a vis other people’s lives because I didn’t learn from my parents that I was important in their lives. So when my parents did completely irrational things and i picked up those habits or traits or whatever and then was socially ostracized as a result, I wondered which part of me was bad and did I need to fix. It took me over a decade of therapists and a lot of messed up relationships to realize, OH! I was given improper tools for dealing with ___ situation! I just need to learn new skills and I’ll be fine! (to a greater or lesser degree… My BF will be the first to tell ya I still have issues! But that’s ok! And so am I! And so are you!!!!!)

    I still require more external affirmation than is perhaps desirable, and, I’m LEARNING skills for self-love. Some people seem to have those naturally, and God bless ’em! For the rest of us, here’s to evolution!

  • Love it!!! Like Don Miguel Ruiz says in The Four Agreements, “Don’t take anything personally.” It’s about them, not you.

    Thanks, John.

  • “An evening of Graham crackers and debauchery.”

    I like that.

    This is probably at the root of my problems. I blame myself for *everything.* Always have. I’m starting to learn not to little by little. My man helps by being an observant person who points things out. Like, at work… I really am the lowliest person there – I enjoy my job, but being low on the totem-pole means I get the brunt of verbal abuse when it is doled out (never from my main boss, she’s totally a saint who doesn’t scold anybody), but the sub-boss…. yeah, I’ve kind of learned that when she gets on me, it’s typically because she is sick (she suffers horrible migranes), or she’s been working twelve hours a day. I really caught hell the week after a couple of the horses broke free from her and ran her over – and it wasn’t really my fault, she was just sore and needed a bitching outlet. (I work at a barn. I am not an equestrian, I’m just the person who comes in 4 hours a day to clean up the horseshit and to put hay down).

    I know the dynamics becasue, for about a year, while he was unemployed, my common-law hubby decided to make it his hobby to help me at work. (It started as helping me after an injury but just continued after I was fully healed). When things went wrong, he got more bitching than I did. He didn’t *technically* even work there, which just shows the whole totem-pole dynamics of work and life, eh?

    For my part, I try not to be like that, myself when I’m in a position where I technically can bitch people out. I know enough from being on the brunt that it’s not fun to receieve.

  • N

    This is so, so very true. I may not have it as deeply as you, but I have some of that somewhere, and it baffles my wife (and sometimes drives her absolutely insane, as she is very protective, and very prone to lashing out when somebody has “wronged” somebody she cares about). Everybody has a story, and everybody has reasons why they do things. My realization didn’t come until later in life, though, and I shudder to think what I would have done with a childhood like that.

  • Jeannie

    Love your premise that nobody is better than anybody else. It took me a while to grasp that I wasn’t a lot worse than everybody or at least most people. Glad you had that truth in you at such an early age.

    Okay, I am a total sci fi geek and I have to say that when I read some of your stories I keep thinking, man, if I had a time machine I would totally try to be there for him. LOL! And if you think that is a stupid thought, I remind you that I am not worse then you. : )

    Great post, John.

  • Suz

    Me too! I was, however, an adult before I could bring myself to blame the appropriate party. I was lucky to have good parents, but my dad was often very harsh and disproportionately angry. I knew many things couldn’t be my fault, because I could not possibly be *that* important, and I could not possibly have the power or the malice to be *that* bad. Mostly, I just shrugged it off and avoided mean people. As an adult, I learned there are reasons for how people behave, and those reasons have NOTHING to do with me. I’m still not that special. It was then that I developed such a keen sense of justice, and by justice I mean fairness, not retribution.

    The thing is, I’ve always thought that, “I’m unimportant,” was a form of low self esteem, and my being comfortable with that attitude means that I have relatively low standards. Yet I hold myself to rather high moral standards, even though I know my morality doesn’t affect many people. I do it because it’s right. So is that humility or pride? Or what?

  • marymary

    I love this post, very encouraging. But I do wonder if your depression is a sign of low self-esteem. I suffered it on and off for years and never correlated it with low self esteem despite a psychiatrist and several counsellors pointing me in that direction. Frankly, I didn’t even know what self-esteem was. I finally “got” it with my most recent counsellor, or maybe I was just brainwashed, ha ha.

    Whatever, you definitely come across as resilient, humourous and kind.

  • Thanks, MM.

  • I guess it all depends on what exactly you mean by “I’m unimportant.” I mean … obviously. But that’d be the place to do digging, yeah?

  • Yes, you are worse than me, Jeannie. Bummer for you. (HAR! Kidding, of course. And it WOULD have been nice if someone from the future could have come to me in, say, 1967, and told me, “Yes, John, you are, in fact, absolutely correct. This shag green carpet really is hideous.” It would have made everything so much better.

  • Katie D.

    I am the same way! I thought I might be the only one. Or at least the only one who wasn’t delusional, meaning that I can tell when things ARE my fault too. I know lots of people who think nothing is their fault 🙂 When I was little and my dad (whom I was VERY close to until he abandoned us to play Sea Captian) left us people were constantly telling me that it wasn’t my fault. Except my older brother, who said that it was “all your fault” (he was distraught, i didn’t blame him either). I thought he was just upset and everyone else was stupid. Of course it wasn’t my fault! I was 10. I mean, DUH! It was dad’s fault. He’s a selfish asshole. My mother, who tried her best but had no idea how to handle raising a little personality replica of her ex husband alone, used to tell me that “you’re not normal! normal kids don’t do ___!” I’d just calmly tell her that it really wasn’t healthy for her to talk to me like that and she should go read some parenting books. I was literally the least popular and most teased girl in school from k-8th (I chopped all my hair off and was called a boy and a dyke and ugly etc.) and I didn’t develop and eating disorder or start cutting, i didn’t even grow my hair out, it looked cute short. I knew that THEY were the ones with the problem. Yeah I was different, but that was good because apparently they were all f**king stupid! I think everyone needs to read this. If someone is being mean to you for no reason, or for an unreasonable reason, it’s their fault not yours. I wonder why some people are born knowing this? It must be the justice. I too have a hugely strong sense of fairness and of what is right. I’ve always thanked God that He made me strong. I guess He knew I was gonna need to be.

  • Suz

    I guess I’m wondering if I’m too proud of my understanding of how “small” I really am. I feel genuine sympathy for people who blame themselves for things over which they have no influence or control, and I try to encourage and comfort them. But sometimes I also feel smug. Proud of my humility. I try to keep that smugness to myself because I really dislike it in others.

  • liz


    You have completely clarified something for me. I NEVER think it’s their problem not mine. Even when it absolutely theirs, really!

    OK. Now how do I fix it?

    Awaiting your wisdom….

  • Megan

    Another great post, John. I think you and I have this in common. This may also be the reason that I’m the friend everyone knows they can vent to without having me think their partner (or kid, or parent, or whatever) is a total jerk. I’m good at seeing all sides withouth lots of judgement. I just shared this on my profile with the comment,

    Another interesting title to this piece might be: “How to Love Those Who Wrong You, Without Making Yourself Their Victim”. Among my favorite quotes:

    “One of my core premises about life is that everyone is innocent. People react to terrible things done to them by in their turn doing terrible things. But they themselves are not terrible.

    We’re all victims of someone’s grieving.”

    Thanks, as always!!

  • Allen

    Bingo! I was right with you through childhood, but lost track of this philosophy somewhere in my late teens, early twenties. Oh, right, when I was closeted! Back on balance, more recently. “Everyone is innocent” is so much better than “All have Fallen Short etc.” as a basis for living, in my opinion.

    You’ve summed this up beautifully once again, John. It’s like you’re a gifted communicator, or something! :.)

  • I’m cursed/blessed with exactly them same malady – seriously. Also, I’m sorry your mom made you wear Keds.

  • I remember a lesson on this topic a few short years ago when something went wrong (can’t remember what exactly). I said, “I’m sorry.” A friend looked at me a little perplexed and replied, “You don’t have to apologize. It’s not your fault.”

    I thought about that for a second or ten and said, “Oh. Right. Sorry.”

    Knowing this truth intellectually is good for post-processing. Knowing this emotionally in the moment can be very freeing. Knowing this innately is a gift, John.

  • Brighid Rose

    Hi John…

    Beautiful article…thank you again for putting a part of yourself out there for all to see. This is a lesson I’m starting to learn. It is true that I’ve always been about fairness in my life, but I seem to also be one to feel things very deeply. When my parents told me I was an inherently bad kid, I believed them. When they told me (directly and indirectly) that was no point of me going to college because I wasn’t smart enough, I believed them. When they told me that had I only been a better wife to my abuser, he wouldn’t have needed to hit me, I believed them. And so on and so on (and scooby dooby Point is that you’re very fortunate to have taken that world view right from the start. After everything that’s happened in my life lately, I’m finally getting that lesson, learning how to NOT take responsibility for other people’s shortcomings. Just because someone treated me badly, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. The “sins” were theirs, not mine. I am not defective or a “bad seed” causing people to treat me like junk. And I most certainly no longer will allow it. It’s not fair.

  • Matthew Eagleton

    Hi John,

    I’m sorry but I hope you don’t mind me commenting in a negative way – everybody seems to be responding as if you have some special, amazing gift……I’m not so sure.

    It just doesn’t seem to be very healthy this srategy that you describe or feel required to publish.

    I enjoy your blog & hope you will not be offended.


  • No, no worries; I’m not offended. What about what I wrote do you find unhealthy?

  • Don Whitt

    Nice, John. Perhaps the one gift your parents gave you was their over-the-topness. They might as well have worn signs that said, “Ignore me, I’m bleepin’ nuts”. It’s harder for kids whose parents are loving and reasonable for the most part, but who get subtler signals that say, “You’ll never win my approval.” That stuff hits you like a slow rust, eating at your self-confidence. You parents, on the other hand, removed all doubt with regards to their mental and emotional instabilities. Still, it sucked to be you, John. Wow.

  • Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, Brighid. What a moving testimony. (And wow. What terrible messages your parents sent you. That’s so awful. What cretins.)

  • Wow. How beautifully said, Ric. Thanks for this, very much.

  • No, way, man. I LOVED Keds for the fourteen seconds before they fell apart.

  • Let’s stick with “gifted communicator,” and not look to deeply at that “or something,” shall we? Great! Thanks!

  • Thanks, Megan. It’s good that you’re so generous in your assessment of others! I tend to be … sort of harsh in that regard.

  • That does sound like a good thing to write about, doesn’t it?

  • MAN, I love this. Fantastic.

  • Thanks, Don. I should probably write to this, insofar as I’ve know I’ve not given anywhere near a clear enough picture of my parents. They weren’t over-the-top crazy, at all. My father was a very successful salesman: confident, funny, smart, insanely articulate, etc. And my mom was strikingly pretty, and very self-posessed, etc. My parents were alpha people, in the extreme. They weren’t, like … crazy-seeming, basically. Anyway. Maybe I should address that. (But … does anyone really want to hear THAT much about my parents?)

  • John, I’m not sure why Matthew thinks your coping skill is unhealthy. As a therapist, I think it’s great! And you are lucky that the response is innate for you. A lot of us have to practice, practice, and – oh, did I say practice? – to remember that we don’t have to take on other people’s opinions, behaviors, or feelings. Great post and good teaching tool for the rest of us.

  • Thank you, Bobbi. This means a lot to me; I really appreciate it.

  • Don Whitt

    We’ll read just about anything you write.

  • Don Whitt

    Okay – ANYTHING!

  • Brighid Rose

    Thank you but it is only the truth. And it’s okay now too (well, not *okay* but you know). I’m just looking at it now as an opportunity to rise above, to discover things about myself that have been buried for a long time. Most interesting journey 🙂

  • My goodness. What a kind thing to say. Thank you.

  • marymary


    Liking your post. I have five nieces and am struck by how they came into the world with their little personalities in place. One of them in particular is so very sure of herself, and of what we should all be doing for her! Another is very sosensitive. We have to be careful not to tease her, she takes it very much to heart. She’s also cuddly, affectionate and just downright lovely. Her sister, we tease relentlessly, she seems to enjoy being the brunt of our jokes.

    Anyway, my point, (yes I have one) is that children are different (shocker!). It’s terrific that you and John had that inner steel, but not all children do. They are like delicate flowers to be protected and strengthened. Even so, the human spirit survives the most terrible onslaughts and is even deepened by it. God is good.

  • marymary

    “Proud to be humble”! Brilliant. It must be the sunshine (yes in England!) Everything is funny today.

  • “We’re all victims of someone’s grieving.”

    Brilliant insight, John. So true.

  • Susan Fiore

    Thank you for this, John. A bad example can be just as effective as a good one in influencing what we want to be like when we grow up. The conventional wisdom is that abused kids become abusive parents, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

  • melanie

    John you are very blessed to have this ability from childhood- this understanding is something that at 30 I am finally almost possessing. I cannot imagine what the previous commenter would find “unhealthy” about this, and I certainly hope he explains. I’m very curious.

  • Don Rappe

    You have written about your parents on and off. I wouldn’t be surprised if you learned your sense of right and wrong from your mother and the sense of standing your ground from your Dad. He even taught you to box for Pete’s sake! Sorry I can’t link to the articles 🙂

  • littlefairy

    For what it’s worth, I have found TREMENDOUS help through daily reading of Melody Beattie’s daily mediation book, “The Language of Letting Go..” Another of hers that may be of interest to readers of John’s blog is, “The New Codependency.” It’s not that I’m looking to live–or put on anyone else–inside a label, yet there are behaviors and thought pattens (thus, lives) that get created by the experiences we have growing up and how we internalize them and understand the world. I am grateful that finally, in my early fifties, I have not only had insight (that’s been here for years), but that I am actually growing up for my own self irrespective of my history. It’s incredible to finally get to the place where the thought actually becomes mine: “I don’t have to think like that anymore” and then I let it go and open myself to a new thought and hope.