Backfire – Self-Esteem – Curious Compliments


Sometimes we say things with an intention our words do not quite convey. Choose your words wisely for someday you may have to eat them. I thought this was such a silly saying when I was a little girl. The first time I tasted the bitterness of words misspoken I understood exactly what it meant. It was meant as a compliment – I think, but it almost changed the course of my life.

I’d written a story, a great story according to everyone but my fifth grade teacher. She didn’t actually say it wasn’t good, but her comment was disheartening. “Keep it up, maybe one day you’ll write something worth reading.” My little writer heart sunk, I thought I was writing things worth reading. Thankfully, I didn’t let those words stop me, and by the end of that year she was one of my greatest encouragers when it came to the written word.

Since that day, I’ve made certain to carefully choose each word I say. I admit to some in the heat of the moment faux pas, but for the most part, I do a good job of thinking before I speak. I wish more people understood the power of words. They can hurt or they can heal. They can make you laugh and they can make you cry. Sometimes, they can do it all at once.

Something seemingly insignificant can affect someone in an unexpected and unintended way depending on their state of mind. Someone who is angry may take what is said to them as something meant to fuel their fire. Someone who is sad may hear nothing but gloom. Someone with low self-esteem may take the innocence of a compliment and hear criticism instead. I happen to be a good example in this respect. Self esteem and I are not always the best of friends.

Self esteem is often a fleeting thing with mothers in general. It comes and it goes, leaving us feeling elated or downtrodden whenever it pleases. Motherhood is not glamorous. Gone are the high heels and short skirts. Gone are the dangly earrings and the always applied, never faded lipstick.

White clothing vanishes from our closets and finds its resting place next to all of our former dry clean only garments. They are replaced by more practical attire. Comfy sweats, baggy T-shirts and well-worn jeans. Slippers and tennis shoes best suit our tired tootsies now.

You can see how the fragile self-esteem of a mother can suffer. Husbands no longer feel the need to comment on the days you forgo the ponytail and wear your hair down. Friends no longer envy your wardrobe, or the way you look in for that matter. Family members can make you feel like a princess or a pauper; one will proclaim your beauty while another will grimly announce how tired you look.

No, mothers do not receive spirit lifting compliments often enough, and when they do, they either do not believe they are sincere or the compliment seriously backfires leaving the poor woman feeling nothing if not perplexed. I have several examples of these compliments gone awry filed away in my memory. I keep them around for the day my true beauty shines through so I can stuff them back into the mouths from whence they came and watch the poor souls eat their words.

My son overheard me complaining to the mirror one afternoon about, well; let’s just say I was mourning the body of my youth. He came to me, and in the kindest little voice he said, “Mommy, I think you look really skinny everywhere except your tummy.”  Backfire. I felt it my duty to remind him he was the one who originally began the great tummy expansion of 1989.

Another great example of the backfire is in a wonderful conversation between my husband and my oldest son.

Son #1 – “I don’t like the way mommy looks without her glasses.”

Dad – “I think she looks nice* *without them. She should wear contacts.” This made me smile.

Son #1 – “No way. I like her with glasses, she looks pretty” This made me smile.

Dad – “I don’t.” This made me stop smiling.

Son #1 – ……………….

Daughter – “Uh-Oh.”

Dad – “I didn’t mean I don’t like the way you look, I just don’t think you look as good in glasses.” I’m still not smiling.

Son #1 – “Yes she does.” Smile

Daughter – “Uh-Oh.”

Dad – “No, I meant I think you’re prettier without them, you look okay in them too.” No more smile.

Me to Dad – “You know what? Just zip it and never try to compliment me again.”

Dad – “You know what I meant, gimme a break.”

Daughter – “Uh-Oh.”

Son # 3 – “I think Mommy is beautiful not matter what.” Smiling again.

Son #2 – “I think you are more beautiful than he does.” Smiling more.

Me – To the wonderful children I bore with both pain and pride – “You are now my only family, say goodbye to your father.” We all smile (even Dad).

There are so many opportunities for backfire to take place. For instance, after two weeks of some healthier eating and exercise I happily announced to my husband I’d lost seven pounds, expecting at the very least a pat on the back. He turned to me and said, “That’s great, I didn’t even notice . . .”, my look conveyed my disappointment. “You know what I meant, you don’t have a ton to lose.”  The look remained.


New clothing is very difficult for me to pick out. I hate the way I look in everything so sometimes I take my husband along. I have no idea why. On one occasion, I exited the dressing room with what I thought was a well-fitting pair of jeans and asked the dear man if they looked okay. He sized me up and down, asked me to turn around and then said to me, “Sure, they’re cute, it looks like you’re sucking it in.”


A childless (former) friend said to me, “You look nice today.” Wow, did that make me feel good, someone actually noticed, it made me smile. My (former) friend then said, “It must be nice to get dolled up every now and then. I wish I only had to worry about the way I looked once or twice a month.” My smile faded.


Silently I think to myself – I hope you have twelve children and a stomach that sits on your lap and breasts that sit on your stomach and stretch marks up to your armpits – I smile at the thought, but bite my tongue to keep my words from flowing forth.

Truthfully though, I suppose there are other sources of self-esteem to draw from. In high heels you could never race your children to see who could get to the car first just so they can laugh when you lose. You can’t roll around on the floor in a skirt and tickle them until they can’t laugh anymore. You would never do paint by number in dry clean only clothes you spent a fortune on, and white should just be banned from fashion regardless. Does it ever stay clean?

Their smiles, their laughter, their sticky kisses and muddy hugs are sufficient enough to keep us going. I must admit though, I wouldn’t mind if every now and then someone simply say’s, “You’re a good mother.” That would be the greatest compliment of all.

Crystal R.Cook

15 thoughts on “Backfire – Self-Esteem – Curious Compliments

  1. I feel your pain! My son is the king of insulting compliments (those “wow, you look good for some reason” comments). But we should dig deeper and find our self-worth in other places. Much of our suffering comes from judgement — judging ourselves and others. I’m on a mission to drop that nasty habit, especially because I see my mother being so easily offended by others. It really is a waste of energy. By the way, you just wrote something worth reading. Loved it!


  2. Funny, touching and true! Ah, yes, the great tummy expansion of 1989–don’t feel bad mine started in 1982. I didn’t get stretch marks in pregnancy, I got accordion pleats! Loved this and your writing!


  3. This is great! I try not to criticize my body too much. With Bug being 9 months old I know she will soon see how I treat myself and I want to show her a positive way to embrace her body no matter what. With that being said, I can completely relate to the loosing weight conversation. I have lost 15 pounds and Hubby didn’t notice until I said something. Then he says yeah I guess I can tell a little bit. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post. It really made me smile. It’s hard to find the balance between being a mother and still being a woman. Once in awhile those moments come together and the moment is beautiful. Like you though, if dressing like a mom and looking like a mom makes me act like a better mom, Ill take it 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. So do true! Most of the time though our loved ones don’t mean to hurt us with their words, it just sort of comes out wrong. We know they meant well, they insist they did, but the hurt remains. Sometimes it sucks, other times we shake it off. Life is way too complicated 😓

    Liked by 1 person

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