Dear Patti,

For as long as I can remember, I was always unattractive. As a young girl I was super-skinny, awkward and gangly with really long arms and legs. I had braces and glasses. Up through junior high I was flat-chested and taller than all the boys. I also had three brothers who’d tease me if I wore a dress so I didn’t feel comfortable looking feminine. I never dated in high school. When I wasn’t ridiculed, I was ignored. I buried myself in my studies. I loved animals and science and eventually became a veterinarian.

I now have a great career. I’m 5’10 and leggy with long blond hair and breast implants. People tell me I’m gorgeous and should be a model. Guys always compliment and flirt with me. Yet even though I smile and am nice, I feel uncomfortable. I feel better around animals. I’m finally getting what I’ve always wanted and can’t enjoy it. I don’t like attention and letting anyone get too close. When I look in the mirror, I cringe because I still see a bony girl who’s fake. I deeply desire being with people but I still feel ashamed and ugly and close myself off.


  — Kate

Dear Kate,

In Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling,” a duckling was teased and chased for being different-looking. One day he finally saw his reflection in the water and realized he was no longer a clumsy, oversized bird but, instead, a magnificent swan. You’ve become that swan and yet still feel like an ugly duckling. You’re reacting to past social trauma and, therefore, unable to enjoy the present. No matter how physically beautiful you are or how wonderful you might be, you’re still trapped in that former image and emotionally crippled by painful childhood memories.

Not only are you stuck in the past regarding your image, but you continue to project onto people in your present life the cruelty of those preceding them. Someone might see you and feel nothing but warmth and goodness, yet you automatically defend yourself against potential negativity. Unfortunately, projection such as this can occur after abuse or neglect during childhood.

I recommend professional counseling where you can face and repair the painful, angry emotions you’ve pushed aside and freely talk about your feelings concerning your social life and self-image. The hurt has created a wall so you’re unable to trust and be open to others. The anger you feel is directed inward instead of toward those you’re really angry at and, regretfully, you’re treating yourself the way kids treated you in school; specifically, shaming yourself and calling yourself fake. As you emotionally work through these feelings, they’ll intrude on you less and less.

Visualize the person you love most in the world standing before you. No matter how beautiful, intelligent or special this person appears to you, s/he still ends up feeling insecure and alone. Would you coldly and insistently criticize and point out your loved one’s inferior traits (both real and historical)? Would you withhold encouragement and support? Of course not! Sadly, though, it has become routine for you talk to yourself that way and respond to an inner dialogue that’s extremely damaging to your self-esteem. Confidence is about developing a healthy, supportive inner voice instead of a harsh, critical one.

Here’s a homework assignment. Spend 10 minutes a day being loving to yourself just the way you would to a friend. Keep two diaries respectively labeled “Past” and “Present.” In the book labeled Past, explore the agonizing memories of youth you’ve been unable to shed. Explore the loneliness/outrage at how you were mistreated. In the book labeled Present, you’re not allowed to project feelings from your past. Start over; it’s time for a rebirth.

Each day write at least five compliments/supportive statements toward yourself. Write down five small actions you’ll commit to doing that will connect you with others, even things as simple as, “I’ll make eye contact and smile at three colleagues.” Stretch beyond your current way of relating. When you’re with others and unsure what to say, shift the focus and give them your attention. By expressing interest in them, you’ll become interesting yourself.

Now that you’re an adult, learn to treat yourself differently. Heal these memories and get on with the life you deserve. 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email Visit her website,