Guest post! How do I stop letting my terrible self-esteem sabotage my relationships? (Reader question #99)

A big bowl of self-esteem
Chow down.

Dear Captain,

My question is two-pronged: I have serious self-esteem issues, in particular concerning my looks. I just don’t think I’m very pretty. My hair is frizzy and awkward and takes a considerable amount of styling to look even remotely presentable, my skin is greasy and tired-looking, I had a tooth smashed when I was small and, even with the best replacement money can buy, something still looks off about my smile, and the rest of my features don’t really shine through either. To the extent that I’ve been able to delve into the psychological origins of my anxiety over this (and I get *very* anxious over my looks) I think it’s (predictably) related to my up-bringing: my old psychologist (who was marvellous and I loved) had suggested that I didn’t get enough attention to build up my confidence in my early teens (which is totally true as my mother was battling a drinking problem at the time, that also absorbed most of my father’s energy and time). Anyway, my hair and skin are also practical concerns for me, in that they are very difficult to live in/with: instead of being the carefree girl who jumps out of the shower/swimming pool/sea, flips her hair back and looks, if not amazing, then at least, you know, presentable, I’m the girl who puts on her grumpy face as soon as a drop of rain lands on her, because she knows it’s frizz/greaseball onslaught time. It doesn’t help that I now live in the Netherlands (not where I grew up) where a) it rains a lot and b) everybody is gorgeous (like seriously, it’s scary and disconcerting and *very* bad for my self-confidence). Also, generally speaking, my whole family (or at least the family members that it makes sense to compare myself to, i.e. my mother and sister and female cousins, not my old bald uncle) are all of the “effortlessly pretty” persuasion and I feel like the ugly duckling/black sheep.

Anyway, the result is that I don’t live my life the way I want to – I can’t enjoy traveling as I would like, I avoid biking or other outdoor activities which otherwise I find very appealing, I try to stay indoors when it’s raining, etc. I also avoid being photographed like the devil avoids holy water, because I simply *hate* seeing myself in pictures – most of the time I have an image of myself in my head that I can live with, but photographs simply smash that idea to smithereens (for some reason I see myself differently when I look in the mirror). And the problem is that this just doesn’t feel like it’s really *me* – at least not the me I could be, *should* be, if I could only get rid of my infuriating neuroses and insecurities (or, depending on my point of view on a given day, if I only had better hair/skin/smile/face…) I feel like I’m holding myself back, because, even if I let go and decide that I’ll just run out into the rain and damn well enjoy it, I know that as soon as I come home and look in the mirror I’ll just be reminded that I shouldn’t be running around in the rain, because I’m not pretty enough to pull it off.

As mentioned above I have seen a shrink about this (like 5 years ago), but we really only ever got the chance to scrape at the very surface of my issues – very soon after I started seeing her I moved country and although I have tried to find a suitable replacement in the Netherlands it’s been wholly unsuccessful. At my last attempt I spend an hour pouring my heart out to a very nice-looking girl, who then however had to report back to her superior for a diagnosis, who apparently ignored all the alcoholic mother/failed relationships/history of depression stuff and instead thought it was a good idea to focus on my weight. As in, look me up and down and ask me how my appetite is and, after being reassured that it’s fine, asking if I’m sure I don’t throw my food up in secret after I swallow it, because apparently I just look (to a medical professional no less!) like I’ve got an eating disorder. I found this approach very unprofessional and condescending (not to mention challenging to my self-esteem, because the last thing I need is to start worrying that I’m too thin – which really, objectively my BMI is fine and subjectively my weight is not something I feel bad about or try to change in either direction) and after that gave up on trying to find somebody new because a) trying to filter potential shrinks for appropriateness is just exhausting, not to mention really ridiculously expensive (my insurance, infuriatingly, only covers 8 sessions, which is not enough to do anything) and b) the truth is that most of the time I can bluff my way through life more or less fine. Also, shrinks in the Netherlands are so busy they’ll only see you once every two weeks at best, which I find unhelpful.

So I guess my first prong of my question is this: is there any way I’m missing on how to build self-confidence/get comfortable in the body I’m living in/grow a completely new and different type of skin/hair??? (I’m just throwing that last one out there you know, just in case there’s some huge secret everybody else is in on here and I’m not 😉

The second prong of my question is this: the bluffing thing becomes much more difficult when I’m in a relationship, with somebody who, you know, seems me when I wake up/really need a shower/have just dried my hair into a scary mess etc. Which currently I am. I just started dating this seemingly (for now, because you never do know) really nice guy who at least when we first met seemed to be really into me. And I say at least when we first met, because I think I might have started doing my usual trick of sabotaging my relationships by letting my insecurities take over, till they are reflected in the guy’s behaviour towards me, because he’s seeing the insecurities, which are basically just the flip-side of the worst things about me, till he decides I’m not that great after all and he dumps me. How do I stop that from happening this time??? Last weekend we went on a trip to Paris, for example, which didn’t go badly really, but which probably would have gone even better if a) I looked more glamorous (I mean lets be honest, looking great is always a plus) b) didn’t start getting fidgety and uncomfortable when it started raining, because I knew my hair would turn into a beehive (which it did) and c) had been more relaxed about having my photo taken in front of all the sites (this is my least favourite thing to do *ever*).

It’s pretty difficult to be loveable around somebody if you don’t love yourself. And it gets worse the more I get to know and like this guy because I start being all “what’s somebody so great doing with somebody like me?” And I mean, this guy has superb skin and lovely hair and the hottest beard ever (and other amazing qualities besides his looks, but those don’t have the same self-hating effect on me because I totally feel I can hold my own in areas that are not looks-related) and instead of just sitting back and appreciating his hotness, I find myself comparing myself to him and coming up short and then concluding that I simply don’t deserve him and why would he ever love me. Which is not good and could totally turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy, which I so totally know, but have no idea how to stop happening.

So, any advice? I don’t want to let my insecurities define me, let alone condemn me to a life of celibacy and solitude.

Self-Saboteur Extraordinaire

Dear Saboteur,

I love your dark humor and your self-awareness about this problem, but your letter gives me the sads, on many levels.

First, what if you are ugly?  Maybe you are ugly.  You would still deserve a great life, with bike rides and trips to Paris and good sex with attractive beardy men who like you. You don’t owe it to the world to never let your hair be out of place, or to achieve a certain level of prettiness before you deserve good things.

Second, there is a level where such extreme self-hatred and distorted thinking becomes narcissistic because you try to control the way others see you all the time and make their reality of you match up to your distorted inner eye.  Probably what people think when they see you coming out of the rain is something like “Oh, it’s raining outside, better grab my umbrella.”  Probably what your boyfriend thinks when he sees you in the morning is “Oh god, her hair is huge.  Let’s have sex again!  And then eat croissants!”

Third, there is some stuff you can do to look your best.  Visit a dermatologist if you don’t like your skin. Shop around for a great hair stylist who can help you work with what you’ve got.  Make sure your wardrobe is really chic – become the wearer of fantastic shoes and impeccably cut raincoats!  I’m not going to say that appearances aren’t important and don’t have impact on how people receive us and how we feel about ourselves, but maybe you can learn to do this in a self-loving way instead of a toxic way. For this, I’m a big fan of Sal at Already Pretty and Gabi at Gabifresh (formerly Young, Fat and Fabulous).

For a nice primer on concrete, practical steps you can take toward self-love (one of which is Therapy: Get Some), let me turn this over to General Expression, who blogs about music and life as a professional choral musician at


Dear Self-Saboteur Extraordinaire,

Well, I have some bad news for you. There are no easy answers to this one. I suspect that everyone who writes in to Captain Awkward wants to find a way to avoid difficulties and become happy with the status quo, but sadly you are in a verified pickle. You are correct that you are “sabotaging my relationships by letting my insecurities take over” but this is not limited to romantic relationships; this will have an effect on all personal and professional relationships as well. Therefore, a problem to be worked on immediately!

But, instead of trying to talk you out of your opinions and feelings (I’m sure your friends have done that, the commenters will try to do that, and it won’t change a thing) I recommend action. Let your thoughts be your thoughts, but if you DO the following things, I predict your thoughts will slowly change to fit your actions. There is experimental evidence that your physical movements/gestures/expressions can change your emotions and thoughts, not just the other way around (we usually assume that our thoughts and emotions guide our physical actions, not the reverse, but it’s not true!) So, don’t worry about your thoughts right now, just DO the following stuff.

1. Get a therapist. It might take time. It might take a lot of interviewing. But you must do at least two things each month to move you towards finding a therapist. You know this. No excuses. Look for someone who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

2. Move your body.  Find a physical activity that is social that you enjoy, and do it at least once a week. Three times a week would be better. Dance (tap, swing, hip-hop, contra, whatever), martial arts (taekwondo, judo, aikido), curling, soccer, yoga, boating, biking, whatever. You need to start experiencing your body in a way that is not visual.

Side note: I biked across the continental US ten years ago and I have never felt so free of self-consciousness or appearance anxiety. If you can go on a multi-month bike ride, or hike, or join a tall ship crew, it would be great for you. But probably difficult for most people given the scheduling. However, if you could, I bet this would go a long way towards making you feel better.

 3. Banish negative talk about yourself.  You need to go on a conversational crash diet. You are no longer allowed to say out loud ANYTHING negative about your appearance. EVER. Not to your boyfriend, best friend, at all. Other topics for conversation include a book you’ve read, a movie you’ve seen, local politics, sports, the weather, what you ate for dinner. However, you are to start viewing self-put-downs as a deadly allergy. If you need to hate yourself somewhere, scribble it down in a journal and get it out of your system, but don’t inflict it on other people.

 3A. Learn to take a compliment. If someone compliments you, you are not allowed to say “Yes, but…” or “Oh, no…” or roll your eyes or shrug your shoulders or huff a sigh. Here is your script.

Person: Your eyes/hair/figure/shirt/shoelaces look great!

You: Thanks.

Note the period. Thanks, PERIOD. You could also say: “Thanks. I like your eyes/hair/figure/shirt/shoelaces!” or “Thanks. Speaking of looking great, doesn’t Dina over there look awesome today?” or “Thanks. So, how’s work going?” or “Thanks. Have we met? Where do you live?” If you deny the compliment, you are forcing the other person to take care of you for the next 10 minutes. “Oh, no, I look so ugly today.” “No, you really do look great!” “Oh, I don’t think so.” They don’t want to be your mommy. They just wanted to give you a compliment. Be polite about it. Arguing with a compliment is rude.

Another side-note: Not putting yourself down can feel very difficult socially, because women in our society frequently bond by making derogatory comments about ourselves. So this may feel awkward not just because of your anxiety around your looks. Tough titties; You are on a diet and are allowed zero negative self-talk. And this will require practice, but if you fail to accept a compliment well or you make a mean comment about your skin, just note the mistake and resolve not to do it in the future. That’s what practice means – trying, failing, trying again, then slowly improving.

4. Get a super-short haircut. Or buy a series of awesome hats. Proceed to ignore whether or not it is raining. Really. But do not adjust your actions to suit the weather going forward. I know it will be uncomfortable. But we are on an action-plan, so feeling uncomfortable is fine, but make sure you stick to your actions!

5. If someone takes a picture, grin and bear it. Say nothing. Get it over with. Distract them if possible. But don’t make derogatory comments about it.

6. Enjoy your new guy. Remember your deadly allergy to self-put-downs. If you find yourself thinking about your appearance issues too much around him, give him a compliment or a kiss.

We all have insecurities around our appearance – capitalism is built on exacerbating them, otherwise we wouldn’t buy stuff – but the mark of a grown-up is to go forward boldly, doing the things you need and want to do, and not allowing the voices in your head to warp your life. I know repression is a bad word right now, but do your best to shut up those voices in your head, enlist a therapist to help you process them in a safe way, and go forward doing things like biking in the rain in Paris with sexy beardy men. Good luck!

General Expression 

49 thoughts on “Guest post! How do I stop letting my terrible self-esteem sabotage my relationships? (Reader question #99)

  1. As a fellow frizzball-hair-haver, I had to chime in to say that GE’s step #4 is solid GOLD. I hated my hair for all of my adult life; it was uncontrollable, messy, frizzy, poofy, etc, and it made me really unhappy with my looks in general which in turn did nothing to help my flagging self confidence. Then, when I was 24 I took the plunge and chopped it all off, from past my shoulders to a wee pixie cut and it looked GREAT. Yeah, I actually had to style it every day but that took 5 minutes, tops, and it actually did what I told it to do for once. The cut had a huge impact, for the positive, in how I felt about myself, how I carried myself, how I presented myself. After a few years I got bored and have grown it out a little but it’s still on the short-ish side because I’ve learned that style suits me better and makes my hair much easier to wrangle.

    And on point #6: one thing I try to keep in mind when I have “why on earth does HE like ME moments” in re. my new guy is “I like this person. He has many good qualities, among those being intelligence and a fine character. I will not then insult his intellect or judgment by assuming he has bad taste in ladies and/or has no idea what he wants.” I mean, think about it: you haven’t (I hope) bound this dude to you with magic or a love potion. You don’t keep a blindfold on him at all times when you’re together? Then he has chosen to be with you, of his own free will, because he finds you attractive both inside and out. Other people find you awesome (Just by reading your letter I already find you kind of awesome and if I lived near you I would suggest that the two of us go outside on the next rainy day to play in some puddles, giant hair bedamned.) and I hope you can start seeing your awesomeness for yourself.

  2. Oo, I like #6. More kisses are better for *everyone*. I might do that myself!

    And I read somewhere there’s an actual reason why you dislike your image in pictures but like yourself in the mirror. Apparently your brain edits what your eyes see in person, but pictures don’t let you for some reason. I got my picture taken in a photo booth recently for passport pictures, and I was shocked that I looked ok on the computer screen but looked like death warmed over in the actual pictures. You could ignore pictures for a bit until you feel a bit better about being you, no law says you *have* to look at them.

    Also, as I tell my niece and nephew often, (not that it’ll help right now) there’s more important things in this life than being pretty. Pretty is useful, but I’m sure you were put on this earth to do something more important than just to be decoration.

    1. To add to this, a crucial thing to remember is everyone else edits what they see too, so they you that you see in the mirror is closer to what everyone else sees than the you in the photograph.

      It might also help to remember that because it’s a static, 2D representation of a moving, 3D person (living people are NEVER perfectly still), it’s going to have some distortions. There really are flaws in skin tone and body shape that show up MUCH more in a photo than in person or on video.

      In that vein, thinking of picking out good things about yourself to focus on, do you have a particularly mobile or expressive face? It’s something that lots of people find really beautiful, but which doesn’t come out in photos at all because the still image has sucked all the motion out of it. Maybe you’ve got a beautiful smile and the kind of face that emotions just shine out of!

  3. Oddly enough, the thing that had most effect in stopping me wasting time and energy in feeling yeti-ugly* was having a life-threatening illness a few years ago. Until then the shortness and chubbiness of my legs seemed to be their most important attributes, but it turned out that motility, painlessness and the absence of blood clots were considerably further up the list.

    *Whether or not I am actually yeti-ugly does not matter for the purposes of this discussion, or indeed at all.

    1. I never liked my legs either and thought they were way too fat.

      Then I broke my leg, and with the muscles all atrophied, it became a skinny, skinny leg.

      That pretty much killed my desire to have skinny legs – turns out what I thought was fat was actually useful, kickass muscle!

  4. Two things.
    One: The advice to just say “thank you,” or even “thank you, I got this dress on sale!” sort of replies to compliments is SOUND. I have struggled similarly to what you are struggling with and JUST learning to accept and even, eventually, enjoy a compliment, is really really helpful. I also tend to compliment people more, for no more reason than I actually like their earrings or think that color looks great on them, or whatever. And hopefully the mutual day-brightening helps give you some positive feelings about you.
    Two: I thought I was gross and fat and whatever and then 10 years passed and I look at pictures from then and go “oh my god I had no idea how hot I was” and then 20 years passed and I am showing these pictures off to people going “check my shit out I have the hotness in me.” We always are going to be dissatisfied with something, but forgetting to appreciate the rest of what we have NOW. Find something on yourself that you love the look of. Even if you have a doughy face, are your eyes sparkly and intelligent? Gaze at your beautiful eyes. It sounds weird and narcissistic but sometimes I think, “I could eat fewer carbs and have the stomach I want, but I always have these eyes and I know people would love to have these eyes.”
    Or whatever. Feet with straight toes. Graceful fingers. A strong back. A sexy arched eyebrow (achievable with pro help!). Grab that straw and suddenly the things around it look all the better. Listen to your boyfriend’s admiration of you as a person and as a visual and try to see yourself how he actually sees you and not how you imagine he “must” see you.
    I too would splash in Amsterdam puddles with you!

    1. Man, I have to second the appreciation of some of your features. It really does *work*. I had some pretty crippling self esteem/image issues in high school. I was too flat, my face was too thin and angular, my forehead too long, my legs looked kind of weird around the knees… the list went on. After a while I found things that I *liked* and started focusing on that. A little waist, nice blue eyes, hair with a nice colour and thickness (that I cut into bangs to hide the forehead), a good sense of style.

      Ten years later and I can consistently think of myself as maybe not stunning but ‘cute’ and I am satisfied. I looked back at a picture of myself at 15 and I looked… much the same. The difference was that now I could see myself as looking okay (aside from the unfortunate sweater vest I was wearing).

      TL;DR-Thinking positively about yourself really does work. It’s all in the focus. And remember one thing, OP. Looks can only go so far, but confidence is ALWAYS sexy.

  5. Dear Saboteur,

    I am ugly. I am short, fat, hairy, bewhiskered, and scarred. I have a big head and a square face. My hair never does as it is told, and chopping it off only makes my head and face look even bigger and jowlier. My teeth are crooked, unevenly sized, and of a colour a kind person would call “antique” and another would call “kinda yellow”. My breasts are different sizes. I’m not curvy fat, I’m “built like a bulldozer” fat. I even wear glasses.

    And it doesn’t matter. Despite expectations, I do not scare babies or little old ladies. Turns out I was much harder on myself than anyone else will ever be.

    I also think I have something of an advantage when it comes to romantic relationships. I never have to worry whether someone likes me for me or just wants a trophy or whether I’ll be left for a younger woman (etc). It’s clear zie loves me for who I am and not for how well I conform to Cosmo guidelines.

  6. The advice in the post is awesome. I just wanted to link two blog posts that I found really useful in dealing with my issues with my body.

    You Don’t Have to Be Pretty

    28 Days to a Bikini Mind

    I’d generally recommend checking out fat-acceptance blogs in general, especially the Shapely Prose Archive (the blog is now defunct but it was one of the best fat acceptance blogs and has a huge archive of posts). You don’t mention weight so I assume you are not fat but the general principles of learning to love and respect your body instead of battling and punishing it seem really applicable here.

      1. Oh yes. I understand why she stopped blogging, although it’s a shame but it is really good that the posts are still there for people to read and chew over. There were other factors in changing my attitude to my body (a girlfriend who inexplicably loves my gigantic ass is one!) but Shapely Prose was a strong influence.

      2. Yes! Shapely Prose! Self-acceptance blogs! Just being in that environment of no self-belittling can do so much…

    1. Saboteur did mention weight, but in the other direction. Still, Shapely Prose is a great resource for anyone looking to change their relationship with their body for the better.

  7. With the compliments thing, I would totally agree with learning to say thank you with no other qualifications. Something else that I’ve done which works for me is responding to “You look good” with variations on “Thank you, I feel good!” Often there is indeed something about our bodies which feels good, whether it was sleeping really well or being in a really good mood or feeling warm on a cold day or having had an amazing piece of cake just now or knowing that you are wearing the best shoes in the known universe. By checking in with that good-feeling part – and having a compliment is a good reminder to do that – “Yes, I love these pants too, they make me feel awesome!” – I’ve found it’s effective in snapping me out of some circles of self-esteem problems.

  8. oh, friend, yes. i also have to work at negotiating my self-image and relationships. my appearance isn’t quite as sensitive a spot (though it’s not an INsensitive spot), but i tend to assume if i’m not perfectly composed and reasonable and responsible at all times, NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE ME. which means, basically, NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE ME.

    however! my own lovely therapist recently gave me my favorite piece of advice and new personal mantra. which is: YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR BOTH SIDES OF A RELATIONSHIP. and it is in fact fundamentally manipulative to try.

    which is to say, you can’t control how fellows perceive your appearance, or how important said appearance is to them. and while there’s nothing wrong with trying to look your best, compulsively avoiding rain/morning/pre-makeup time with your sexytime associate can eventually become deceptive and distancing. think about it: if your partner insisted on donning a suit before seeing you 100% of the time, wouldn’t that ultimately become a bit insulting?

    “what, he thinks i’m some kind of shallow juicebox who’ll run for the hills the first time i see spinach in his teeth?” you are not that person! you likely are not dating that person, and certainly do not want to! hopefully that person doesn’t even exist!

    and as for pictures: they do, in fact, suck. DON’T LOOK AT THEM. take them graciously (or at least as graciously as you can manage), because you are not responsible for how people respond to your image on film. but don’t look at them, because you are responsible for your own self-image, and they stress you out. done!

  9. Frizzy hair does not reward a lot of attention. It survives best on neglect, very little washing, etc. Mine does best washed once a week or less. This time frame is terrifying for people who wash their hair daily; my advice is to cut down gradually.

    My mother used to spend a lot of time straightening and recurling and generally fussing with her very curly/frizzy hair and freaking out when it rained when she was in her early 20s. Then she started dating my Dad who said he wasn’t sure why she spent so much time and effort on it, when it looked fine when she didn’t.

    Not spectacular. Not knockout gorgeous. Fine. Fine is good enough for every day. Hey, half of us are going to be less attractive than average. I’m TV ugly, but really I look fine. I wear clean mended clothes, and I let my hair follow its own inclinations for the most part (which tends toward big, but I get compliments for the dyed rainbow in it). And I get to go swimming and go to the waterslides, and go biking in the rain, and take my kid to the dollar swims at the outdoor pool and not care at all about what my hair looks like, because seriously, this is not something that affects my worth. I have a great job, and I own my own home and I have great friends and a partner who loves me.

    1. I agree with this advice; I was going to mention the Curly Girl book, which talks about how to deal with curls and frizz and gives the fewer-shampoos advice. Conditioner is MUCH better for curly/frizzy hair than shampoo!

      Also, the bit about being “TV ugly” is a good point. Most of us are TV ugly because the people we see on TV are not representative of the general population. But when we’re surrounded by images of beautiful stars, it can start to feel like we have to live up to their standard. We don’t.

  10. I completely agree with all this advice, and I’d especially like to get behind #2. Moving your body in a way you enjoy can transform your feelings about your physical form. Your body can do awesome things that make you feel great, and that’s more important than what you look like. Rides around Paris and sex with bearded Dutchmen comes to mind, but I would suggest some more structured activity as well. I guarantee that when it starts raining 30 miles into a bike ride or half way through a hard run, your hair will be the last thing on your mind. Good luck, LW.

  11. As a person with frizzy hair, I second the “hair chop” and “hats” recommendations.

    ALSO have you tried using sulfate free shampoos? That did wonders for my stupid hair.

    Also also, I don’t think you’re probably ugly at all. I think your brain is being an asshole to you, and I think you can teach it to stop doing that.

    Good luck ❤

  12. I have the above-described tendency to brush off compliments with a qualifying statement of some kind (“This haircut isn’t as terrible as the last one because I finally found a good stylist”) or a self-deprecating joke. I didn’t realize how annoying it was until I became friends with someone who does the exact same thing. I never felt like he was making me take care of him, just derailing the conversation out of embarrassment. We talked about this a few months back, and he said he assumes that when someone pays him a compliment they are Just Being Nice and aren’t really thinking things through or aren’t sincere — even when they’re saying something he actually agrees with. I TOTALLY relate to this, but I was just like, “Man, I do not give out compliments like candy. I give them to you because I have noticed you have some pretty great qualities that you may not be aware of, or that you may not realize people have noticed. Next time don’t be a big baby about it. Just say thank you and move the fuck on.” Then of course I had to start taking my own advice.

    Unchecked negativity is like cancer. Minor insecurities about one’s appearance can become a tendency to downplay and diminish all of one’s good qualities or accomplishments (“oh, I did a good job with that project, but it wasn’t very hard” in reference to something many people would find quite challenging) and this can color one’s perceptions of other people too (“oh, she only got that promotion because the big bossman has a thing for her. Too bad I’m not a blonde with big tits and a perfect manicure” in reference to someone who, for all you know, is perfectly qualified for the job). That’s another way low self-esteem can sabotage relationships in the long term: chronically negative people aren’t a bit of fun to be around once you’ve run out of people to gossip about.

  13. I used to really hate having my picture taken, and now I don’t mind (cognitive reframing victory!).

    Growing up, my mom only took posed pictures, and, going through them, always expressed a lot of disappointment about any picture where people didn’t look just as good as they possibly could (herself, me, anyone). (She also had a bad habit of expecting people to instantly interrupt whatever they were doing (eating, conversing, etc) to put on their perfect camera smiles.) So I thought that was just what photos *were*, “appearance pop quizzes” graded harshly.

    Then I started dating this guy who liked taking candid pictures, who thought of photos that didn’t look good (or capture whatever he was hoping for) as failures of the photo, not failures of the subjects. He convinced me that I didn’t “owe” a photographer a certain result (even if they were my mother), and that getting one occasional good shot out of a few hundred bad ones was just fine. (He had this wacky thing called a digital camera…) Once I started feeling “safe” about being in candids, I was able to apply that thinking to posed pictures too, reminding myself that I wasn’t responsible for how they turned out (beyond being a good sport and not fleeing).

    (Epilogue: my mom eventually converted from film to digital and is herself warming to the idea that not every picture has to be worth 1/36 of the cost of a roll of film. Also: I married the guy, and the posed pictures from our wedding actually don’t suck, maybe because for once I didn’t have to force myself to smile.)

  14. We all have bad self-esteem days, sometimes weeks or months. But the problem happens when you start letting it affect your life and keep you from doing things you enjoy. It’s almost like a phobia–a lot of people don’t LIKE [insert thing here], but when you have a phobia of [thing], it keeps you from doing activities you would otherwise enjoy, and that’s when it becomes a problem. You owe it to yourself to move towards caring less about how you LOOK and more about how you FEEL when you jump through puddles in the rain, because I’m pretty sure when you’re old and can’t jump in puddles anymore, you’re not going to be saying “oh, I’m so glad I never let anyone see me with frizzy hair!” You’re going to be saying, “I wish I had jumped in more puddles when I had the chance.”

  15. I would also like to add, that in addition to all the personal approaches the Captain listed –

    You are not the first woman to be deceived into the idea that you must be beautiful to be loved. It’s a big, ugly world out there sometimes, and it can be bigger and uglier towards women in a lot of ways. Part of defeating my insecurities was coming to realize that I was not alone in my flaws and imperfections, that these inconsistencies of appearance and characters were as intrinisic to myself and everyone around me as anything else.

    I agree with the Captain that your humor and self-awareness is the first step toward getting past this. Acknowledging that the problem exists is the refusal to be a victim of it forever. Five years ago, I was one of the most miserable and unhappy people I know; it bordered into the territory of serious depression for about two of them. These days, when I look over past journals, I almost can’t recognize the person speaking from those old letters. It didn’t happen over night, but with each small change I made with my life, I stopped being that unhappy person. Give yourself some credit here and there – every day you muffle that voice that says “you aren’t good enough” is a victory, however small.

  16. Advice number 2 is great. I’ve had some issues with eating disorders in the past and actually using my body have been really helpful.

  17. I would also suggest to do something like take a picture of yourself for an entire year. It’s easy to feel repelled by oneself, if you never see that person. Get used to seeing yourself! Dress up, or take arty nude shots! If you avoid mirrors and cameras like a vampire, you’re just making it worse.

    I’d suggest that to anyone who is uncomfortable with themselves. I did it for a year — it’s difficult sometimes, and you want to say “Oh man I look so hideous in this picture!” but eventually you hit “Ah well, that’s okay too, another day is another picture anyway.” At least I did. I’ve even got a picture up on Flickr of me grabbing the fat on my stomach.

  18. Hey LW! I just want to say first, I get where you’re coming from:
    I was (and still am at times) extremely awkward with low self esteem in my teens and early 20’s. I’m noticeably tall with noticeably big feet and have an obviously crooked nose (when i was younger i used to tape my nose before bed in a – vein – attempt to straighten it), I would only let people take pictures of me from certain angles that downplayed the bent direction of my nose, I would only wear baggy trousers to hide the size of my feet, and I wore quite a lot of make-up to try and feel ‘presentable’- not attractive, just presentable.

    Now onto the positive stuff! When I was in my late teens my grandfather sadly died and left me with a modest amount of money. In my mind at the time I had 3 choices of what to do with the inheritance a) get a nose job b) learn to drive and get a car c) get a head start on backpacking. I chose option c and travelled and worked around Europe and SE asia. Backpacking does not really allow for vanity and in SE Asia the humidity is not kind on hair…so i got dreadlocks (i know, i know, walking stereotype), humidity and heat is also not great for the staying power of any makeup…so i just stopped wearing it, and the frenetic opportunities that arise don’t allow for much time for mirror gazing. Travelling is the time for lots of photo-ops and impulsive activities and i wanted mementos of this time so allowed for a lot of unflattering pictures.

    Anyhoo, back at home I was looking at photo’s from my trip and also some older ones from before and you know what I felt? I felt I looked prettier in the travelling pics at all sorts of angles, dirty, sandy, sweaty, wet, ecstatic, tired, drunk, hungover etc than the ones I would carefully stage before, just because i was happy to be there (which genuinely shows in photos) and looked at the pictures not to judge or scrutinise myself but to remember a fantastic time.

    I understand your frustration with yourself and appearance, but how you choose to let it affect your life is just that: a choice. I made loads of friends travelling that I still have to this day, not because I am pretty, but because I chose fun; instead of putting all of my energy into MYSELF negotiating MY life around MY insecurities, I put it into conversations and opening myself up to OTHER people and experiences.

    Therapy sounds like a great start to begin navigating the source and triggers of your insecurities, but also I think its time you brave it and get out of your comfort zone. Hot bearded guy sounds like he finds YOU hot (trip to Paris, Hello?), so focus on your confidence in your character and personality and build from there. Its tough and its not a permanent fix but you’ve got to just keep on trying.

  19. To the original letter-writer.
    That’s a lot of negative self-talk you’ve got there. I know it’s difficult to change it, especially when you believe what you’re saying.
    One thing I do is I have index cards with positive statements on them, and I look at them every day in the morning, like a kick-start. I make a new one if I find myself having a new kind of negative self-talk.
    For mine, where I worry more about my personality than looks, they say things like, “people like me” and “I am pleasant to be around” and “I deserve to be loved.” Which I totally didn’t believe when I wrote them, but now I’m feeling a little better about those things.
    Perhaps for you things like, “I have a pretty face.” or “My hair is fabulous” would be appropriate. (who says frizzy hair is bad? Didn’t the “beehive” used to be a style? My hair is straight and flat-which I know makes me lucky, but my mother spent tons of time trying to make my hair poof up and get big in various ways. I understand that there are many issues, but I personally think wild curly or kinky hair looks fabulous.”)

    Objectively false statements may not help (“I am 8 feet tall”), but value judgements can definitely grow on you. The more you tell yourself something, the more you believe it, as the other commenters have said-this is just a technique to help give you positive stories about yourself. Also not my own invention, it is from my therapist.

    I hope all this helps, and you can enjoy your life to the fullest

  20. Dear LW, in seventh grade the bullies called me Bird’s Nest. My hair tends towards frizz, and combing or brushing it when dry makes it grow (and grow and grow). During college I spent a semester and London and the humidity there drove me to shave my head, and I kept some version of a buzz cut/pixie cut for many years. Then I grew it out (wearing hats), then I just put it in pigtails every day for several years. Then, in my 30s I finally found a stylist who LOVES my curls. My first hair cut with her lasted 3 HOURS! She cut, dried, and styled my hair 3 times during that first appointment. She wouldn’t give up until she found a shape that worked with the weight and springiness of my particular hair. That gave me the confidence to start wearing my hair down and learning how to work with it (instead of against it).

    The turning point though, the thing that really made me learn to like – even love – my hair, was when I stopped washing it every day. I now wash once a week (on Sundays, the day when I see the fewest people), and my only styling product is hand lotion (seriously, Aveeno, in my hair). Leaving in all the natural oils means that I start the day with sleek curls, and if I get caught in the rain I might frizz up a little, but only as much as I used to on a “good” hair day when I washed every day.

    Oh, and one more thing that helped break me of my hair hatred: one drunken night with some fabulous friends they decided they wanted to do my hair. They teased it out HUGE, slapped crazy make-up on my face, then we had a photo shoot where they took turns finding the most ridiculous things they could around the house to put in my hair. There is a picture of me making a goofy face with silk flowers, a giraffe figurine, and several birthday candles tucked into my frizz, and I love it.

    1. Yeah, in middle school and high school I was “Puff” or “the white girl with an afro.” Good times, good times.

      I’d never trade my curly hair for anything. When it frizzes, I pull it in a ponytail and move on.

  21. Building on the comment that it is borderline narcissistic to think everyone is noticing your every imperfection, remember that the vast majority of people really do not care what you look like. They’re busying fretting about what *they* look like. Sure, they notice if you are sloppy, or not practicing basic hygiene and grooming, or are dressed egregiously badly, but as long as you are trying, as you obviously are, the result is surely within acceptable parameters and your looks probably aren’t that big a deal to other people. While there’s no denying beauty is a plus, lack of beauty is not necessarily a minus. People look at you and think “hey, there’s whatsername,” and start thinking about something they want to tell you, or ask you, or do with you — not “my god, what’s with her hair??” It’s not that they’re being sweet, or actively non-shallow. They simply do not care.

    If you don’t believe me, check yourself: do you really scan your friends’ faces every time you see them, checking for blemishes, oiliness, or flakiness? Or if you do happen to notice a defect, do you actually *care* or just notice and move on to more interesting things to think about (unless your friend’s appearance is so bad you worry that it means they’re unwell, or unhappy). Don’t your friends make self-deprecating comments about their own appearances that leave you thinking (and saying quite sincerely) “I think you look great!” The thing is, they probably aren’t being phony. They probably are too busy cataloging their own defects to give much thought to yours. In fact, I think a lot of people like to be around plain/average people *more* than they like being surrounded by beautiful ones, because being around pretty people makes them feel dumpy! I mean, don’t you ever see someone gorgeous and think you *don’t* want to get to know them, because you figure you’ll feel drab every minute you’re with them?

    Next, and I know I sound like such a mom saying this, but what is the single thing you can do that will have the most transformative effect on your appearance? Be happy! Smile! Do those things you want to do, and any negative effect on your hairdo or makeup will be more than outweighed by the glow of health, and the natural smile on your face.

    I know: this stuff works just great when you’re talking about “people,” or the world at large. It’s a lot harder when you’re talking about romantic/sexual interests. But even there, realize that the moment when a person pays most attention to your appearance is when they first meet you. If you’ve gotten past that, to where your morning-hair is an issue, then clearly the person does not think you are hideous at all.

    And yes, I am plain, at best. I don’t look in the mirror with pleasure, any more than I look at photographs. But the fact is, nobody in my life seems to give a darn. I bet your friends don’t, either.

  22. Many have already mentioned this, but I too will suggest that the hair thing is not insurmountable. I always loathed my hair. I could never get it to do anything I wanted, and at it’s best it took a ridiculous amount of time and effort to basically do nothing interesting and just not be so horrible.

    Then I went to a good salon one day with a photo of a cut I wanted to try. I don’t know if it was the salon (a good, counter-culture type of place), the stylist, or the fact that I brought a photo, but the cut and style I got took advantage of my hair’s worst tendencies and made them work for the style. It also was simple for me to style myself because I wasn’t working against it’s nature, I was working with it.

    So, I strongly recommend trying something new, radical, or going somewhere you’re slightly afraid of to get your hair done. Try the pixie cut — it takes nerve, but it might be just the thing! This won’t solve everything, and I won’t belittle your feelings by suggesting that, but I just wanted to say there’s hope on the hair front.

    That said, I have a friend who has ridiculously bushy curly hair. She never mentions this and I see photos of her and yes, I have to chuckle about the hair. It’s so obvious! It’s never discussed! But she’s so vibrant! I don’t want to be specific in case she reads this, but she does so many awesome things both creatively, practically, and physically that the hair has become a trademark to me. To heck with the hair, that girl could survive the apocalypse! Own it, rock it, don’t let it stop you from being your awesome self.

  23. I was just thinking about this letter again today. I realized that it reminds me of a friend of mine. Not the self-conscious about appearance thing (although a little bit of that) but more of the relationship saboteur part.

    My friend grew up in a very dysfunctional home and never really believed that anyone loved hir. So zie gets in relationships now where zie makes hir lovers prove that they love hir – over and over and over. Zie verbally pushes them away and is not satisfied until they prove their love for hir again. What it means is that they constantly bicker at each other, which turns into “you don’t love me, how could you love me, I’m such a bad/unattractive/selfish/needy/whatever person”, hir lovers tell or show that they love hir (sometimes simply, sometimes extravagantly), there is a brief moment where there is an eye in the “prove that you love me” hurricane, and then it is back to the sniping and bickering again.

    It’s not clear from your letter if you have a similar cycle (the only hint is that you say it is hard to be lovable if you don’t love yourself), but the thing that is most helping my friend is personal therapy, plus sometimes couples therapy. Zie works on hirself to deprogram the crap from hir childhood, and when zie is in a couple they work out better ways to respond and relate when the cycle starts.

    1. And…. of course I messed up and left a gender pronoun in there. Captain, my captain, if you are able to edit, could you please fix that? Thank you.

  24. I really really understand where you are coming from because I had/have the same problems as you, if for different reasons, and the thing you need to work towards is this, So What? yes, you may never look effortlessly perfect, and you may never have sleek and shiny hair, but so what? Does it mean that you suck as a person? No! Does it mean you will be alone for the rest of your life? No! it’s really hard as a woman to stop listening to the voices, both in your head and externally that all that matters is looks, but until you stop thinking like that it won’t matter if you look good or not because you will feel like an impostor.

    As for photos, today I got my working with children check card in the mail, and the photo on it is atrocious, I look like I have a double chin, lazy eye and a drug problem, and you know what the first thing I did was? Show it to my boyfriend so we could both have a good laugh, because I know that that is not me.

  25. Can I just wholeheartedly second the idea of crewing on a tallship as a way to connect to yourself and your body? And LW, you are in an excellent place – NL has lots of ships (I can especially recommend Stad Amsterdam, Europa and Oosterschelde), and there are some good ones sailing out of the UK too (Stavros S Niarchos, Pelican of London, just to name two).

    I have my own body issues and nothing makes me feel so solidly inside myself as sailing does.

    I used to have the thing with photos too, and avoid them (sometimes still do tbh) but I noticed that in hindsight, I’d regret it – it would mean I wasn’t in any shared physical memories, and I felt I missed out. So now I tell myself to stop avoiding the camera. It’s not easy, but later on I’m glad to have a photo of a situation I enjoyed, and I don’t pay as much attention to how weird I look as I thought I would.

    1. There are a bunch of women at my work who shriek or shield themselves whenever someone pulls out a camera. I figure there’s no point to that, because everyone else knows what I look like anyway. So…who am I hiding from?? A shitty picture of myself has not yet ended the universe.

  26. I love my bushy, curly hair. I deep-condition it with a mixture of olive oil and honey (let it sit for twenty minutes under a shower cap and then wash your hair as normal) when it’s being particularly annoying, but my hair is special and unique. I used to iron it every day but you know what? I don’t need to look like everyone else to look good. I’m already fat, and I have zits on my face! I stand out as it is! So I decided to GO with it. I started dressing in clothes that fit and bright colors, I put a little gel in my hair but mostly just rocked it. And you know what? I feel good about the way I look, even when I’m surrounded by sleek-haired women talking about their weight loss. I don’t feel good about the way I look because everyone tells me I do (on the contrary- everyone compliments me on the rare occasion when I iron my hair)- I feel good about myself because I make the conscious choice to do so every single day.

    Find the things you like about yourself and just freaking GO with it. And I agree with those who say physical activity helps- I lift weights and walk everywhere and it has made me appreciate my body and the things it can do.

  27. Heh. So it seems I’m late to my own party! I seriously did not expect a reply to soon from Captain Awkward and was away without an internet connection over the past week. I have been soaking in the responses since yesterday though. So many, *many* thanks to everybody who chimed in here with the advice – it’s given me a lot to think about and a few plans on how to deal with/fight this thing.

    I did want to make a couple of points for anybody whose still around. For starters, although I’m totally on board with Captain Awkward and General Expression’s insistence that I should give therapy another chance (which is why I was trying so hard to find somebody suitable in the first place), it really is impossible for me at the moment. I should perhaps have mentioned this is my initial post, but I’m due to take up a new position as of 1 September, which although really exiting in terms of my career development, does mean a significant downgrade in my salary for now. As a result, I simply can’t afford a therapist at the moment. I could conceivably dip into my (not particularly great) savings, but that’s not a sustainable plan in the long run and I’m also very reluctant to spend money I haven’t got to receive therapy about the usefulness of which I have reason to doubt. Also, there’s the language barrier to contend with.

    The second point is that while I totally agree with what everybody is saying about the pressure placed on women in our society to look attractive at all times, I have to be honest and say that I have doubts as to the extent that advertising and perfect film stars have played a role in my particular case. I grew up in a family environment that devalued appearances and taught me precisely that a woman’s worth does not lie in her looks. As empowering a message as that sounds on the surface, perhaps in combination with the conflicting messages from the media, it has not helped me develop a proactive attitude towards my issues with my appearance. That’s why I mentioned my other female family members in my initial letter: although I can avoid comparisons with super models on the reasoning that those women have entire crews making sure they looks amazing and photoshopping away any perceived “flaw” that escapes their attention, most women I am close to in real life are beautiful without trying. They are beautiful and real-looking, substantial, effortless way. This has resulted in a very real feel of *guilt* for me every time I decide to spend time or money on my looks – which is very much the opposite result I think of what one might expect in a culture that emphasises the need for women to be constantly fussing over their appearance. This is compounded by the fact that no amount of make-up can give me the flawless complexion of my cousins. So I end up feeling both guilty and like a fraud. I wish I could blame Photoshop and Kate Moss for this – I can’t.

    I would also (in my defence!) like to point out that I’m also not a negative person in general. I was in my letter obviously because I was writing to an advice column about my lack of self-confidence, so I kinda let all my self-loathing pour out. But I *never* indulge in these thoughts out loud in real life, except very rarely with very trusted friends, when I’m really feelings dejected and disappointed with myself. And I never gossip or criticise other peoples looks – in fact I’m very generous in what I consider good-looking in anybody but myself.

    But really, thanks for everybody for their suggestions and encouragement. And now I think I’m off to start a positive thinking tumblr for myself and look into yoga classes. For starters. And my boyfriend is also back from a trip abroad, so I’m looking into that kissing suggestion also.

    Once again, many thanks!

    1. I think you hit a chord. Clearly many of us have had the same self-confidence issues. I’m so glad to hear you rarely indulge in those thoughts out loud – I know many people who indulge in them out loud all the time! Good luck, post a link to that tumblr for all of us if you want, have fun in yoga, and get on that kissing thing as soon as possible!

  28. Hey, this is an old thread but I want to sneak in one more idea.

    I got a brazillian blowout and it’s made my formerly limp frizzy curly awfulness into something manageable! It’s sort of like a straight perm, but honestly it just makes it shiny and relaxed. The frizz is gone. The downside is its expensive, and you have to be careful NOT to get the treatment that contains formaldehyde. My hair is still curly, but it doesn’t take long to straighten it, and it doesn’t curl up when it’s humid/raining.

    Good luck, you deserve to be happy and love yourself!

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