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OVERCOMING NEGATIVE SELF-IMAGE
By NEIL T. ANDERSON DAVE PARK
RegalCopyright © 2003 Neil Anderson and Dave Park All right reserved. ISBN: 0-8307-3253-5
Try as we might by our appearance, performance or social status to
find self-verification for a sense of being somebody, we always come short of
satisfaction. Whatever pinnacle of self-identity we achieve soon crumbles under
the pressure of hostile rejection or criticism, introspection or guilt, fear or
anxiety. We cannot do anything to qualify for the by-product of being
loved unconditionally and voluntarily.
One day the DuPeire family received a phone call from their pastor.
He told them about a three-year-old boy who had been begging for
food at a local motel. Nobody was sure how long the child had
been left to fend for himself. The boy's mother, who had developed
cancer, had abandoned him, apparently thinking that little Matt
would receive better care as a ward of the state.
The DuPeires adopted Matt as their own son. Living in his
new home, he received the care and guidance that every child
needs, yet feelings of abandonment haunted him for some time.
Old programs ingrained in his mind from early childhood continued
to gnaw away at his self-perception and shape his behavior.
He ate every meal as though it might be hislast. Sitting quietly at
the dinner table was next to impossible. Matt would pile as much
food on his plate as was humanly possible. He devoured every
morsel that was placed before him.
Aware of Matt's behavior, his adoptive parents sought to
correct his thinking. At the dinner table, they encouraged him
to actually taste his food before he swallowed it, and later they
showed him all the surplus food stored in the refrigerator and in
the pantry. They thought that these acts would close the case of
the child glutton, but they did not. A few days later Matt's adoptive
mother entered his room and noticed a strange smell coming
from his bed. At first she thought that one of the cats had
an accident. Then she discovered a hidden tuna-fish sandwich
under his pillow. Tuna was on the lunch menu three days
Matt's environment had completely changed, from insecurity
to security, from rejection to acceptance, from abandonment
to belonging. He was now a DuPeire. He had a new identity and
a new family that promised to care for him, but the beliefs he
held about himself and the world had not changed. It would
take years to grow out of the old ways of thinking and acting.
Today Matt is a well-adjusted member of his adopted family.
The transition he made from a dysfunctional family system to
a healthier one is similar to the transition that every Christian
makes at salvation. We have been transferred out of the kingdom
of darkness to the kingdom of God's beloved Son (see
Col. 1:13). We have a new father and a new family, but our minds
have already been programmed to live in the kingdom of darkness.
To correct the negative images that we have of ourselves, we
need to understand how we have learned to live in this fallen
The Kingdoms of This World
We were all born dead in our trespasses and sins (see Eph. 2:1).
We had neither the presence of God in our lives nor the knowledge
of His ways. Consequently, we all learned to live our lives
independent of God. Like Matt, who as a child struggled to survive
without parents, we learned to live without God. Our identity
and perception of ourselves were programmed into our
minds as we responded to the natural order of this fallen world.
That is why Paul writes in Romans 12:2, "Do not conform any
longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the
renewing of your mind" (NIV).
Renewing our minds does not fully happen the moment we
receive Christ, and it certainly does not come naturally. There is
no delete button that erases all the old tapes that have been
recorded throughout our years of natural development. New
believers and those who have failed to grow are like Matt was.
They tend to gravitate back to their old patterns of thinking and
The kingdoms of this world vary dramatically from one culture
to another, as do the family systems within the cultures.
Matt's previous family lived in the same community as his new
family, but the culture was completely different. Culture and
family systems are incredibly complex, and each has its own set
of beliefs and values. Many sociologists and psychologists have
devoted their professional lives to understanding these sociological
systems. They attempt to explain why we do what we do
as a result of the system in which we were raised. People, however,
are not solely a product of their environment. Every one of us
interprets the data and responds differently to the surroundings
in which we were raised, because God gave each of us the capacity
to think and make personal choices.
The kingdoms of this world are nothing like the kingdom of
God. Living in this fallen world has many harsh realities such as
poverty, disease and war. For the purpose of this chapter, let's
consider rejection and the inevitable effect it will have on our
self-perception and feelings. No matter how hard we try, we cannot
avoid the rejection of others. Jesus lived a perfect life and the
entire social and government establishment of that day rejected
Several years ago, a 17-year-old girl drove a great distance to
talk with me. I have never met a girl who had so much going for
her. She was cover-girl pretty and immaculately dressed. She had
completed 12 years of school in 11 years, graduating near the
top of her class. As a talented musician, she had received a full-ride
music scholarship to a Christian university. Her parents had
given her a brand-new sports car for graduation. Few people
have been endowed with so much.
After 30 minutes of conversation, it was easy to discern that
her external presentation did not match the insecurities of her
internal world. "Mary," I asked, "have you ever cried yourself to
sleep at night because you felt inadequate and wished you were
Tears started to form in her eyes as she asked, "How did you
I could ask almost anyone the same question at some time in
his or her life and get the same response. The image we project
to others often disguises how we really feel about ourselves.
Most people cover up negative feelings about themselves in
order to gain the acceptance of others. It is not always easy to live
with someone who finds it difficult to live with himself or herself.
So we wear a mask-even in church. Most people do not do
it maliciously. We do it because we desire the acceptance and
approval of others.
Many Christians are unaware that such negative self-perceptions
are based on the values of this fallen world and that
they reflect an inadequate understanding of the gospel. Genuinely
speaking, appearance, performance and social status are the standards
of this world. We use them to evaluate ourselves and to
compare ourselves to one another.
In the kingdom of this world the natural man marginalizes
unattractive, low-performance social misfits-there is no gushing
nor offers of unconditional positive regard. Do attractive, smart
and successful people experience the polar opposite? Obviously,
some people lust over members of the opposite gender, such as
supermodels and jocks, and members of the same gender become
jealous. But how many years can you realistically stay attractive or
strong? The huge fashion, fitness, health and beauty industries
reveal that many believe their appearance is important to their
sense of worth and enhances their prospects of being accepted. If
that is not enough to prove our point, consider how many people
in our current culture get Botox treatments to remove their wrinkles
or cosmetic surgery to reshape their bodies.
When we focus on appearance, performance or social status,
we fail to develop the lasting values of character that hold a relationship
together. The result is a superficial life full of superficial
relationships. External beauty cannot hide internal ugliness.
Regardless of outer qualities and status, anything with a shallow
base will eventually erode. Can you imagine the sting of rejection
that must be felt when a woman discovers that a man "loved"
only her body? Pity the man who is "loved" only for his money.
I am not suggesting that we should ignore our appearance,
perform poorly or shun society. Rather, I am declaring that there
are other standards by which we should ultimately evaluate ourselves-standards
which are fair and available for all of God's
There is no such thing as unconditional love and acceptance
in any human culture or family system. There is no way that we
can live a perfect life and there is no way that we can please everyone.
Consequently, the feelings of rejection are unavoidable.
Generally speaking, we react to this fallen world by choosing one
of three defensive postures (see figure 1).
The Top of the Ladder
Some people have an abundance of life endowments. A few who are
born with very good genes or lots of money choose to use their
assets to beat the system, and all too often their parents are the driving
force behind their acts. The beat-the-system crowd recognizes
the dog-eat-dog nature of our culture, and they do not want to be
the ones that are eaten. So they do what they can to get to the top.
They seek to establish names for themselves and take full advantage
of their social status. They are going to gain their acceptance,
security and significance via their own strength and resources.
Racism, sexism or any kind of elitism is perpetuated by people
who want to maintain their favored status. They have exclusive
clubs and form social communities that only welcome the privileged
and the best. The tragedy and utter selfishness of those who
climb to the top at the expense of others was revealed to the world
when Enron collapsed. Enron's executives were living the high life,
and every new employee wanted to be just like them. They saw
the yachts and expensive homes, but what they did not see was the
emotional insulation and perfectionism that was driving them.
Pride comes before a fall, but in this case, the fall affected thousands
of investors who lost their retirement and financial security.
In the end, the world's system cannot deliver.
There are many ways in which people try to beat the system.
They will attempt to leverage their exceptional appearance, talents,
intellect or athleticism. Consider the tragic life of Lyle Alzado. He
was one of the fiercest competitors who ever played the game of
football. As a defensive end, he personified the Raiders's mystique.
With his incredible strength and speed, Alzado was like a heat-seeking
missile. He locked on to whoever had the pigskin and usually
left the poor fellow drilled into the ground. Twice he made the
In college Lyle was not sure he could make it to the NFL, since
he only weighed 195 pounds. That is not enough weight to be a
defensive lineman in the National Football League. So Lyle
decided to take steroids, and he became a monstrous 300-pound
defensive machine. His decision to take steroids brought him the
success and fame he desired, but only for a short time. The steroids
probably caused the brain cancer that ended his life. Lyle Alzado
died at 43 years of age. His life was literally cut in half.
The Seductiveness of the System
Most people will never be a part of the jet set, be a corporate executive,
win a beauty pageant, play professional sports or achieve
something considered significant by the world's standards-and
we know it. We tend to buy into the negative side of the worldly
success formula where appearance, performance and status
equal acceptance, security and significance. We cannot compete
with those who are more talented or gifted, so we give in to the
system. I asked a high school student, "Suppose there's a boy on
your campus who has a frail body and matted hair. He stumbles
when he walks and stutters when he talks. He could use some
help with personal grooming, and he struggles to make average
grades. Does he have any hope for acceptance, security and significance?"
He thought for a moment, and answered, "Probably
not." The world's system of measurement can be quite hostile,
even in the best of countries.
Studies have revealed that in American homes an average
child receives ten negative or nonaffirming statements for every
positive or affirming statement. In school, where teachers are
taught to know better, an average student receives seven negative
or nonaffirming statements for every positive or affirming
statement. A study wanted to find what it would take to erase
the effect of one negative statement, and it found out that
it took at least four affirming statements on average. If four
people affirmed you and one criticized you, which are you
inclined to believe or at least think the most about? No wonder
most people struggle with a poor identity and a negative sense
Several years ago when I was a pastor, I put the words "inadequacy,"
"inferiority," "insecurity," "guilt," "worry" and "doubt" on
a card. When people sought counseling, I pulled out the card and
asked if they could identify with any of those words. Forty-nine
Christians said all six and one mentioned only four. Something is
radically wrong. These people were beaten down by the system,
and they seemed to be ignorant of their spiritual heritage in
Christ. Many struggled with the idea of God, believing that their
poor state in life was His fault.
The Rebellion of People
I was right across the street from Columbine High School when
Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris took the lives of a teacher and
several classmates. They were part of the school's trench-coat
mafia, exemplifying rebellion against the system. They underscored
their defiance by dressing and behaving in objectionable
ways. Their actions suggested that they did not want or need
anyone's love, but in actuality they did-as we all do. This kind
of disenfranchised segment of society has been growing since
the 1960s. Those who sought to beat the system were their
nemesis. Bullied and badgered, they finally snapped, as have
several others on high school campuses around the nation. The
system is sick. Everybody loses in the end. No wonder John
Do not love the world [system], nor the things in the
world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is
not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the
flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of
life, is not from the Father, but is from the world (1 John
The Example of Solomon
If anyone had a chance to beat the system, it was King Solomon.
He was the king of Israel when the nation was at its greatest
prominence. He occupied the highest of human positions.
Excerpted from OVERCOMING NEGATIVE SELF-IMAGE by NEIL T. ANDERSON DAVE PARK
Copyright © 2003 by Neil Anderson and Dave Park
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.