Fake Self-Esteem

By Matt W Sandford, LMHC

Look around you. Look at the people in society, in your workplace, in your family. Now, as you look at them, ask yourself what you observe about how they project themselves. In what way do they convey what they want those in their world to think about them? What opinion do they hope to engender from their environment? And as you look, realize that everyone is seeking to convey an image and to persuade the world around them to see them in a certain light.


That’s what we’re talking about; the idea that we can construct a persona through a number of elements and approaches. First we need to explore the underlying issue, which would be why – why do we do this, and does it really matter?

So, did you spot it when you took that look around? Did you see that folks everywhere are projecting or developing their image? They wear the latest fashions, hairstyles, shoes. They drive the latest cool cars and feature the latest technologies (often while incurring sizeable debt). They can talk up the latest popular topics, TV shows, and events. Or maybe the latest gossip or the newest weight loss strategy. Or what’s all the buzz in politics. Whatever the trend, something in our culture today says that it is really important to be informed and current. It’s a pretty big part of being respected and well thought of in many circles.

I realize there are other circles – the techie circle, the artsy circle, the sports circle, the country music circle, the vampire (or sci-fi) circle, the fitness circle, the soccer mom circle, and more than I could possibly be aware of. The point is that we all are seeking to fit in somewhere because fitting in creates security and acceptance. We find comfort in fitting it and belonging and I’m not knocking it; not in the least. We were made for connection. The drive to develop a persona or image is really about a need for belonging.

However, sometimes our legitimate needs and how we go about getting them met run counter to one another. Although the longing for acceptance is a natural and healthy one, the way that it is addressed in our western culture is often not so healthy. Peer pressure and the media rule way too many decisions when it comes to finding a place and a way to fit in. Have you ever wondered why? Why does everyone care so much whether you and I dress a certain way, like certain things, use certain products, and spend our time in certain ways? Here’s a tip: it’s not because ‘they’ know what is good for you or because they really want to help you in some way. You aren’t encouraged to really get into American Idol because it will in any way make you a better person. You aren’t reminded about the latest book, movie, or product because someone is thinking about how much it will bless you. They just want your money. And yet, our culture in so many ways says that your involvement is somehow meaningful and that you will benefit from it. This is because the culture has picked up on how much we all want and need to belong, be accepted by others and be seen as current, cool, savvy, smart, sexy, or whatever else we aspire to.

The point is not to go on and on about this issue, but to get underneath it. We are putting A LOT of our finances, energy and time into developing and maintaining our image for the purpose of upholding our sense of self. We want to belong and be thought well of, and so we buy the latest this or that and we invest in keeping up with the popular.

What is this really about? Is it that the media is that powerful? Not really. It’s not the media and advertising, but human nature that is powering it, even though advertising has really learned how to read and manipulate human nature! It’s the need for self-esteem; for a secure identity. If you had not developed a secure identity through your childhood, then you likely are going to seek out ways to build your identity externally, i.e. through what you can show or prove to others to gain their acceptance and approval. That, my friends, is big business. A lot of companies are in the business of self-esteem and identity formation although some don’t know they are and wouldn’t want you to see them that way. If you did, you may see through it all and discover the manipulation.

We were never designed to get our sense of worth and definition of our identity from external sources (at least not to a high degree) like how much we have, how good we look, how fast we can run or shoot a ball through a hoop, how skilled we are at singing or dancing, or any of our abilities. Don’t get me wrong - I am not claiming that these are not good things, or that it is not okay to enjoy the abilities or skills or gifts that God has given to us. But what happens when we look to these things to define us and determine our worth?

1.       We become performance based , meaning that our sense of our worth is always fluid: I’m only okay with myself to the degree that I can achieve and keep achieving (and getting strokes for it).

2.       We diminish grace and live with a sense of judgment of others based on performance as well. We define everyone on these same scales and weigh people’s value on them. This means we will dole out levels of acceptance and love like a commodity to be earned.

3.       We forget to be thankful to the One who gave us what we have. We take credit for our abilities, our money, and our looks. How odd, since we did not bestow them on ourselves. Even if we developed our abilities to make money, we did not give ourselves the abilities or the opportunities (meaning we did not determine the culture and family to which we were born).  However, our culture heavily rewards such things. There is so much acknowledgement and so many accolades for abilities - mostly of the entertainment variety - although we also award smarts, at least in the scientific fields.  What this produces is comparison, pride and self-absorption.

4.       We invest a large portion of our resources into cultivating the image. What if you did a brutally honest survey of your expenses over the last year, say, and consider what amount or percentage of your money went to image categories? You may have to push into your heart on this. Why did I really get the new phone or tablet? Was it just because of its functional benefits? In your spending, to what degree were you moved by fads and by media propaganda? How about your investment in body image: fitness club, workout clothing, music player for working out, diet plan, hair styling, laser eye surgery, cosmetic surgery, magazines with tips on exercising or style. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the time invested in working out, shopping, reading up on the latest this or that, and trying to look your best, or keep yourself “well informed.”

5.       And most impactful of all, when we look to externals to define us and seek out a sense of self through our image and what people think of us, what happens is that we actually diminish our self-worth rather than build it up. You see, the reason we try to establish our worth on what we can do or what people think about us is that we need this external recognition because we don’t already have this sense of foundational value in us already! We are seeking external validation because we are lacking in validation and are trying to fill ourselves up. It is not wrong that we have determined that the recognition and approval of others is significant and feels really good, but we have misunderstood that, ultimately, what other people think about us does not sum up our value or give us our identity. People can recognize us, praise us, admire us, compliment us, but they cannot define us. We can never find our worth by seeking approval.  And when we train ourselves to seek out this external form of identity, we erode rather than develop our internal sense of worth.

In part two of this series, I’ll pick up where this leaves you hanging. If image, approval, and performance can’t define us, then what can legitimately define us? Where can we get what we need to have a true sense of self-worth and self-esteem?

Watch for it on the Life Works Group website and on my blog at:



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