Steen mug shot


“Outside show is a poor substitute for inner worth.” — Aesop

At one time or another, we all need a break. Maybe you need someone to fill in for you while you’re on vacation for a couple of days, or perhaps you need someone (anyone) to take your place in a project because you’re just too tired. 

It’s going to happen — you and I will find that others will fill in for us, and even replace us, and there’s a chance they’ll do a better job than we did. Some of these substitutes might put on a good show, but if you are the kind of person I think you are, you’ll come to appreciate that as Aesop said, their outside show is a poor substitute for your inner worth. It doesn’t mean they won’t have great inner worth, but they will never be you.

Stepping away recently from some of my activities, I have found myself feeling oddly at ease.

What if they don’t miss me?

What if someone else steps in and does it better?

What if they discover I wasn’t as talented as they thought?

When I was younger, taking a break from or leaving a responsibility meant feeling threatened that someone else would do it better. Today, I wonder what other people will do that I didn’t — as in, What can I learn from them? Whatever I did, I set the stage for their arrival.

Do you worry that your children will love the sitter (or step-parent) more than they do you? Do you worry that the clerk who fills in while you’re at lunch will one-up you with the boss? Do you fear that the kicker who fills in while you’re on the injured list will pull in more scores than you did? 

No matter your age, understand an important truth — there is no substitute for you, the kind of individual you are. There might be people who can do the job more efficiently or effectively, but don’t we want the family, the company, and the team to be successful? Even if it’s a machine that takes our place, we can still be loved and respected for the humans we are. 

As Charles Dickens wrote about modern communication (the telegraph), “But, it will never be a substitute for the face of a man, with his soul in it, encouraging another man to be brave and true.”

There are two roles to consider: the threatener and the threatened. In each position, our success is dependent on our ability to welcome people who are wiser or more talented and to trust in our value as a person. If we can internalize those messages, everyone will win.

Where do you feel threatened in your life? I’m not referring to being physically threatened, though that’s an important topic, but where do you think that someone else might receive the applause or favor that once was yours? Ask yourself, why do I feel threatened? It sounds so simple, but understanding the why can lead you to freedom.

  • On a project at work
  • On the playground with friends
  • In a social group
  • With other parents or grandparents

I think about The Four Agreements, to which I often refer, and the instruction to take nothing personally. 

If I feel that someone else is trying to take my job or replace me as a friend, even if it’s because they dislike me, it isn’t about me — it’s about their own need to be elevated or to put someone else down. I don’t feel threatened by them, or that’s the goal. I might not like the outcome, but it still has nothing to do with me. It is one of the hardest truths to accept, but it is the key to detaching from what someone else is doing. 

Stop for a moment and think about where you’ve felt threatened (by a co-worker, by another student at school, by someone who doesn’t even know you but is outshining you). You can allow yourself to detach from their actions by simply deciding not to take it personally.

If you aren’t the person feeling threatened, you might be the one who is threatening. It might only be a perceived threat to another, but you and I have a responsibility if we also want to be true to our inner worth. Some people are trying to outdo others, and that’s more about insecurities (maybe that’s true for you, but you’ve never recognized it). 

On the other hand, it’s possible you are just trying to be helpful filling in for someone, or you were looking for a group of friends without a thought that anyone would feel threatened by your addition. Or heck, maybe you are just doing your job. 

Stop for just a minute and think about the people who might feel displaced by your presence. Their feelings aren’t your problem, but recognizing the dynamics might draw you to include them figuratively or literally and avoid complications.

My husband and I have been fill-ins for grandparents who live far from their grandchildren. It is a joy for us. Yet, I am always acutely aware that I want to bring the real grandparents into the scene with us, whether by tagging them in photos and thanking them for sharing or by talking to the children about how special it is to have so many people who love them. My outside show will never replace the grandparents’ inner worth. 

As a good friend recently shared about a situation where another’s work could have felt threatening (my words), “It filled me with ... gratitude. I knew my performance was being elevated by him.” 

In this season of life, allow yourself to be elevated by another person’s presence, let your inner worth to stand on its own.

Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others.

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