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Low Self-Esteem

May 13, 2010 | 25 Comments

To the Host:
I hope my question isn't too silly, but do you have any advice for overcoming low self-esteem and gaining confidence? I'm a college student who wants to be an artist but I have no faith in myself whatsoever, even when people tell me I'm good at sketching and writing, I just end up thinking that they don't mean it.

Did you ever have this problem? What did you do to overcome uncertainty?

Kala F.
Mount Morris, MI


My dear Kala, anyone from the Midwest is born with a powerful inferiority complex and this is an engine that propels us. We turn down all compliments, we doubt ourselves continuously, we feel like failures most of the time, but we persist, we persist, we persist. And we keep going. Overcome uncertainty? Darling, we're in a line of work that is about adventure and taking big chances — certainty is for airline pilots and cardiologists. We artists and writers don't know if our work is good or not. Nobody does. Picasso was rich and famous and he had as much uncertainty as you do, probably more. All of my heroes were full of self-doubt. I end up every show feeling like a failure: it goes with the territory. The pain diminishes over time, though, and my sense of failure today is mild compared to what I felt as a kid, playing right field, the time that easy fly ball was hit straight into my outstretched mitt and bounced off the heel of the glove and rolled into tall grass and I retrieved it and threw wildly toward home and three runs scored — my soul was seared that day.

I don't know if people mean it or not when they compliment you and me. People are polite, they know how sensitive we are, so they say nice things, but surely you know some people whose opinions you trust, who would tell you if they think something is mediocre. Listen to them, but not too closely. Walk away from your work and start up something new. Maybe you need to overcome low self-esteem by being a little more outrageous. I never dared to do that, having been brought up by very nice people, but maybe you should. Maybe I should, too. I don't know. I am just a demented moth, hurling my tiny thorax against the screen every Saturday evening, beating my diaphanous wings, mesmerized by that old light bulb.

I had a speech teacher at Anoka High School named LaVona Person who always smiled at me from the back of the room when I stood up and did my assignments. She was a beautiful Lutheran woman and her smile was brilliant, stupendous. (She also was gay, which I knew nothing about until she died and I spoke at her funeral, standing next to the little urn containing her ashes.) I was a kid with half-rim glasses and high-water pants and I don't know why she smiled so dazzlingly at me or if she smiled even more brightly at others, but the light of her smile stays with me, a sort of general benediction.

Life is good. You are loved, kid, and go do your best and then forget it and do something else. Amaze us. We're waiting.


Garrison's reply should be handed out to every new high school freshman in the country. (And that's not just a polite compliment.) They need to hear it. So did I, and I'm kind of old. Thank you.

Jeff S

What terrific counsel. Those of us who perform are always re-considering our performance, our offering. It is tough to keep from taking our performance to the "review booth" repeatedly. GK's comments remind me that humbling oneself and telling the truth is quite powerful. Thanks GK and go-Kala-go!

A truly beautiful response. I agree wholeheartedly with Jeff. Every high school student--actually anyone wondering about where their path leads--should be so lucky to receive advice and kind encouragement like GK provides here. Thank you, kind sir.

Thank you Mr. Keillor. For all the times I had someone compliment what I did, and I started telling them where all the mistakes were, I think I shortchanged myself. I wanted to point out the errors before they pointed them out to me. But after reading your reply to Kala, I want to be amazing, too.

I am a only child and was always encouraged to do what I really wanted to do by both my parents and teachers. Yet, I still look for approval for everything I do and I'm five years older than you, Garrison. I love your comments here and your "Audacity" for some thirty years thinking you could do it. You certainly have. David

And keep on doing it. and read:"Art and Fear" by David Bayles & Ted Orland and/or "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron. Both books come highly recommended by many artists in many different fields.

Garrison nailed it on the head. All of us could use this great advice, especially in the cabin fever part of the year, or at Holiday gatherings, where some people have one up on us, and remind us of it.
I have looked for approval all my life, been that something and someone to everyone. In that circus It's hard to be all the animals, the MC, the acrobats, and the clowns. Maybe it's time to break the mold.

Marvelous advice! If only I had the wisdom of my age now, with the looks I had 30 years ago and the confidence I had when I was six!

Hi Garrison,

I think you had the same speech teacher as mine in Coon Rapids Senior High. Miss Person had me stand up one day in class and count to 10, just to demonstrate my "beautiful voice" to the rest of the class. I was flattered, but also mortified, being the shy person I was (and still am).


P.S. I graduated in 1969 and immediately went into the Air Force.

Thank you!! From another person who graduated in 1969, you encouraged me and my efforts today. I believe you were a God send to me today!

Brings back memories of my high school days in the Bronx, NY. Bashful, vertically challenged, no dates, no prom. Survived! Have traveled to 21 countries, BA in English, married a lovely woman and have 2 great adult children. There is hope after all. Thanks GK.

If you are filled with self-doubts and wonder if it is possible that you really are worthy of praise...Listen to a few hours of AM talk-radio. If that doesn't convince you of your innate superiority to your fellow human beings, nothing will.

Thank you GK! And also Jeff S. and Ramon

Great advice! (Well, I didn't expect anything else from GK!) I would add that every piece of work you complete will feed into your're still finding your unique voice right now, but bit by bit you'll place greater reliance on your instincts and less on the comments of others; think of the artists of the past.........most of them didn't pop up fully mature, they had long developmental periods, and many of them weeded remorselessly on the way to mastery of their art!

Thank you, Garrison. I hope my familiarity with your name conveys how deeply and how personally your comments resonated with me. 1953 was my high school graduation year -- debate, public speaking, a teacher who didn't smile, and a personal goal to communicate something very important to the world -- at that time, primarily the Gospel. Over a half-century later, I know with certainty I didn't change the world (!?), but I can now say comfortably and thankfully that I did make a difference along the way. Kala will make a difference along the way also! It's written into the consternation of her inquiry. And you, Garrison, have made a real difference and contribution to my life -- not to mention a legion of others around the world! Peace!

Bullseye, Garrison! as, you are blessed with astute vision and equally clear expression. Humor, too; that critical if elusive icing on the cake.

Kala, beware the Red Pencil Mentality, both from others and your own, applied to your works. It's not the critic who counts, unless she's you, but even then allow yourself some cautious credit and pride in accomplishment. Even if something you create does not meet the realistic goals you set for yourself (realistic goals being accomplishments themselves, from the start) you deserve to bask in at least a moment of feeling good about the effort you expended in trying.

Even if you write something that wins a Pulitzer, a Guggenheim, and a Nobel or draw something that Museums fight with the Smithsonian to bid millions of dollars on, it is not the finish line but part of a continuum that guarantees little beyond endless risk of negative criticism, and failure to meet your realistic goals, and that's if you manage to produce anything at all by dodging or overcoming Writers' or Artists' Block.

In the end I would very much prefer the company of a person who tries and comes up short and tries again, than that of someone whose head is permanently basking in a cloud of narcissistic pride untempered neither by a little humility, by attempts to seek continuous improvement, that ambition to do better still that is hardly negotiable by anyone who produces anything. Still, know when you have achieved or even exceeded your goals, and when those goals are sufficiently lofty.

Persist, with tenacity, as you pursue, and try to enjoy the journey rather than withholding self-congratulation until you finish the masterpiece at hand. The reward, in my experience, comes mostly in the moments when I back away from what is usually an excruciating but perhaps apparently successful effort to write, or sculpt to my talent- deficient satisfaction a most uncooperative piece of wood, play an instrumental lead without my usual mistakes with my band, or get that perfectly composed photo with the light better than I could hope for, but there is temptation sweeter than the singing of Sirens to fall into the ego pit if the bonus rewards of appreciation from others present themselves and stop my progress on my path, to dwell on them.

It takes a real effort for me to thank people for compliments but it is rude not to do so, insincere as they may sound and however much I feel that I genuinely did or didn't earn it, but doing so is, at least, good practice in the opposite direction low self- esteem, of not giving yourself credit you deserve, for how can we truly be sure whether our critics are honest and perceptive, ill-willed or overly fawning, brutally blunt but maybe well qualified to judge, blindly kind, or disingenuous?

Strive to please yourself, at least when you're not assigned a task by an educator with a grade book and Red Pencil and narrow criteria for doing it right, and always know that success and recognition and the over- rated but rare adulation come capriciously rather than in a consistently fair manner. You will know when you have done well, even though your fame may only come long after your demise. However things turn out for you, you will always be in good company, whether among we who have achieved or we who have convinced ourselves that we haven't or never will. We all do both! Also, please try to write more succinctly than I just have, employ humor when appropriate, and maintain the ability to laugh at your own mistakes and shortcomings, which I hope does not have you laughing as hysterically as I do so often. I bet Mr. Keillor allows himself a chuckle now and then, or he wouldn't have been doing what he does so well for an almost geologic era.

A friend of ours, a fine watercolorist and 85 years old, had one of his paintings hung permanently in our state capital in Lansing, Michigan earlier this month. It is a painting of the Capitol building and hangs in a room where it will be seen by thousands of people every year who visit the Capitol. At the unveiling ceremony, he was asked to say a few words. All he said was, "What I have to say is all there," and pointed to the painting. Later he said, "I can see 50 things wrong with it right now." He wanted to take it home and work on it some more but also noted that he felt that way about everything he had ever done. He left it there, of course.

Here I am at the bottom of a long string of good advice. I just want to say, Kala, to go ahead and do what you love. I spent 10 years writing a book on a subject no one around me was interested in (esp. my university colleagues) but I loved researching and writing it and it won an award. Then I edited another book on the same subject--900 pages--and then I retired.

As I look back, I'm not sure that I taught anyone anything in my 40+ years of teaching, but I did what I wanted to do and loved it. Some of my students have become my friends and one became my son-in-law.

At this point in my life, I realize that all that worry about what other people thought about my "talent" isn't worth diddly squat. What IS important is my family--my two perfectly amazing children and their families and the other people around me who have been my friends through thick and thin.

Go for it, Kala. Do your own thing, but be a friend, too. That's what will last.

My son-in-law and I agree on three things that make this damn world a better place: Joan Jett, Guinness, and Garrison Keillor -- GK being #1.

If by some miracle you had caught that lazy fly ball out in right field, pegged the ball blindly back to the infield and, again by miracle, double up the runner scrambling to get back to first base-- had you been carried off the field by your teammates-- had the crowd (six parents and a little sister) stood and cheered your very name-- you would to this day feel like a fraud and a fake. It's in our DNA.

Hello, this is the poster of the question. Thank you all so much! You have no idea how much that means to me. Sometimes it gets hard to try, but the important thing is to keep trying. I'm going to do my best and I won't forget what got me there, to this point so far.
I hope to do something amazing and to really really earn it.

As always Garrison you meet us where we are at and take us to a higher plain giving our spirit the courage to be what we are meant to be.

Dear GK, My children think I'm great, but I just realized, It has always been you. Since they were born, uncle GK has been their best friend, now when they are in the late teens, I can see the fruit of your advice in them...So, mission in life has been accomplished as i guided them to your good teacher's smile. this is how simple being a father of four is to me.

All I can say is ..AAhhhh the

oops was I out of line?

Garrison Keillor is quite amazing. He gives Wonderful advice for people in all walks of life and has a deep sense of understanding for peoples problems and fears. And he is right, you have to keep on trying, keep on going.....

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