By Julie Kurtz – LMFT, Regula Badertscher – MSW, LGSW, Lori Russell-Siemer – LCSW, Amy Ziegenhorn – LMHC
“You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”
~ Brené Brown
Poor self-image of the body may stem from a disconnection of the three essential elements of a human being: Mind, Body and Spirit.
I liken the human to a three-legged stool with each leg representing one essential element of survival for a human (MIND, BODY, SPIRIT). When one leg is neglected, the stool can lose stability.
Numerous studies have linked exposure to the thin ideal in mass media to body dissatisfaction, internalization of the thin ideal, and disordered eating among women. Pressure from mass media to be muscular also appears to be related to body dissatisfaction among men.
The media is clearly defining who we are and controlling how we feel about our image. Ironically, only 5% of the population is ever able to naturally achieve that ideal image (genetics!)
The MIND is a set of cognitive functions developed through intellectual activities such as reading, education and learning. An example of using the mind would be going back to school to learn and acquire a new skill set.
Today, we tend to try to remove ourselves from the details of life. For example, we use electronic gadgets with reminder features. If you don’t sufficiently challenge your brain with new, surprising information, it eventually begins to deteriorate.
This world exists but cannot be quantified. Emotions, feelings, temperament, social skills and social connections all fall into this broad realm.
If you are unaware of how you feel, you can easily misguide your unconscious emotions to unhealthy activities. If you feel sad but eat a gallon of ice cream then this is an example of being out of touch with emotions and how to express them appropriately.
Three Simple Keys to a Successful Body Image are to create a balanced focus on all three:
- Body – A balanced and healthy emphasis on eating and exercise is one path to caring for the physical body.
- Mind – Challenge your mental capacity by trying a new activity every three months. Reading a book, playing a crossword puzzle or taking a class are examples.
- Spirit – This is a spiritual practice of religion, meditation or self-reflective activities such as therapy/self-help groups. It may be as simple as taking 10 minutes a day outdoors with contemplation of your inner world, passion, or life purpose.
Poor self-image is a sign that you are out of sync and need to seek help or re-evaluate your three-legged stool.
I tell all my clients that they need to get a PhD in themselves. The greatest gifts you can give “you” in 2014 are the ability to self-reflect and know thyself.
Julie Kurtz, LMFT – www.juliekurtz.com
Is there a part of your body that you don’t like? Most of us have an area or two that we’re not happy with.
In the extreme, some people are so unhappy with aspects of their body that they develop a deep self-hatred and even hurt themselves. Eating disorders and other self-harming behaviors inflict cruelty, damage health, and worsen self-esteem.
Underneath this body dislike is usually a cascade of emotions born out of a troubled history and a variety of social pressures. No one is born despising their body.
Ideally, we would all love our bodies just as they are. But if we’ve been conditioned to self-hatred through social pressures or traumatic experiences, we won’t easily make the leap to that kind of self-love.
If you feel a great dislike for something about your body, anger and frustration might show up when you think about that particular part of you. These feelings can be intense. While you might want these feelings to go away, that won’t happen by eating another pint of ice cream or any other self-damaging activity. At least not for long.
Here are some healthier steps you can take to feel better and get to greater self-acceptance.
First, name the feelings you’re having and sit with them.
Sounds simple, but it may not be easy. Especially if the feelings are overpowering. Yet simply sitting with them for a few minutes and naming them – anger, frustration, disgust, etc. – is already a form of self-acceptance. You’re saying to yourself, yes, this is how I feel, and I’m willing to be with myself as I feel this way.
If the feelings are too intense to sit with for long, find a way to express them.
Shake them off. Go for a brisk walk. Dance them out. Find some physical way to disperse or diminish the intensity of all that pent-up energy.
Then, once again, sit with yourself, and this time pay fresh attention to the body part that you dislike.
Bring that part to your attention almost as if it were a person sitting there with you.
Welcome this “person” or aspect of yourself with curiosity. Take a few calming breaths.
After a few minutes of paying curious attention and breathing easily, you may start to notice this disliked part of your body as belonging to your larger self.
See if you can move past the narrow focus on disliking this body part and look for some ways it is valuable to you, valuable to your whole self.
For example, you might say to yourself, I realize my thighs carry me, they are robust and strong.
As you connect with more of your whole self, you will feel a hint of calmness and acceptance. Maybe that is all you feel at first – just a hint of these comforting feelings.
The whole point of this exercise is to come back to a sense of integrated wholeness again, back to the real, original you who was not born despising yourself. It’s a way to find and cherish your uniqueness, inside and out.
The more often you do this practice, the longer you will be able to sit with your feelings of self-hatred and connect with them. Each time you have to first calm your reactive self by naming and discharging these intense feelings. Then, in a calmer, more mindful state, you can better listen to what your body wants with genuine curiosity and care.
Little by little, you can add compassionate feelings to support your acceptance of the body parts that have troubled you.
One way is to place your hands on your heart to arouse feelings of love and tenderness toward your body.
You can also bring tender, compassionate touch to the body parts that have been rejected. Welcome them back into your whole being. If you feel an inner prompting to respond in some way to what you are feeling, follow through with naturally flowing movement, sound, or some other nurturing exercise.
Do only what makes you feel safe.
Ask yourself, What would I need in order to feel safe? Go as slow, step by step, honoring what your body and spirit are ready for.
We are each unique. There is a genuine beauty to each one of us.
Yet, being conditioned to judge yourself harshly may have created considerable hurt and pain for you.
By sitting with yourself, discharging intense emotions, and giving your body compassionate, curious attention, you can learn to accept who you are and no longer hurt yourself with harsh actions or harsh words. You can come back to wholeness.
Regula Badertscher, MSW, LGSW – www.regulabadertscher.com
The shame I felt in that moment was a complete juxtaposition from the beauty which surrounded me.
The heat from the sun on my face, didn’t compare with the flushness beginning to burn from within. We were at the lake, my “Happy Place”. I’m sitting on the dock with a friend from school. We have our feet dipped into the cool water below us, on the edge of the dock. The air is fresh and fragrant with the smell of freshly cut grass.
My friend and I are both wearing swimsuits. She looks me up and down and says, “You know, you and I have the exact same body type, except your hips are bigger and my boobs are bigger.”
In that moment, I felt a whirlwind of confusion.
This one statement had a dizzying effect on my mind, as though the world was spinning around me. I felt completely torn between the part of me who felt enraged, overcome by a desire to thrash out, and the part of me who wanted to please and make peace thinking, “That was rude, but I don’t want to be rude back.”
As my mind races, I rationalize by making up excuses like,
“Well, she didn’t mean that.” Or “She didn’t realize how hurtful that comment sounded.” I questioned whether or not she was actually my friend. I worried and wondered where the need for comparison was originating from. I couldn’t help but think, “What have I done to deserve this?”
So, I did what I habitually did in my youth in situations where I’d find myself on the receiving end of unwarranted and unsolicited body shaming: I ignored it.
While reflecting about the #MeToo movement, I realized that I was allowing my feelings and thoughts about myself and my body to be influenced by people in my life, by the media, and people I don’t even know!
This realization horrified me! I had been allowing other people’s ideals to influence my own thoughts, impressions, feelings, and behaviors!
Despite having some difficulty resonating completely with any formalized religion, I have always held steadfast to the belief that humans are created in the image and likeness of God.
This belief has helped me illuminate many a dark crevasse in the depths of my psyche and mind.
When we allow other people to influence our feelings about ourselves, we give our power away.
That power presents in the form of space in the mind, the body, the energy, our precious time. We need all of our space, energy, and time to be of service to others and do what we came here to do, be, learn, and develop.
We’ve all experienced these moments and felt completely disgusted by ourselves due to other people’s perceptions of how we should look, how tall we should be, how much we should weigh, or how much muscle mass we should attain. There are immense external pressures to fit some ideal, which is different for each and every single human being.
Instead of embracing that which makes us unique, or connects us to our ancestors, we carve, burn, or alter in some way.
This self-destruction is also reflected in the way we destroy our relationships (with ourselves and others), and the very planet we are all dependent upon to live and thrive.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes describes beautifully, the purpose for body in her book Women Who Run with Wolves,
“In the instinctive psyche, the body is considered a sensor, an informational network, a messenger with myriad communication systems- cardiovascular, respiratory, skeletal, autonomic, as well as emotive and intuitive.
In the imaginal world, the body is a powerful vehicle, a spirit who lives with us, a prayer of life in its own…
In systems of body work such as Feldenkrais method, Ayurveda, and others, the body is understood variously as having six senses, not five. The body uses skin and deeper fascia and flesh to record all that goes on around it.
Like the Rosetta stone, for those who know how to read it, the body is a living record of life given, life taken, life hoped for, life healed.
It is valued for its articulate ability to register immediate reaction, to feel profoundly, to sense ahead… To confine the beauty and value of the body to anything less than this magnificence is to force the body to live without its rightful spirit, its rightful form, its right to exultation.”
For those who struggle with feelings of shame about their body, or feel like they never quite measure up, I recommend a reprieve from social media plus this daily self-love practice, originating from the yogic tradition:
Find a comfortable seated position.
Begin to withdraw your awareness from the external world and into your heart, or the center of the chest.
Connect with your breath. Set an intention to connect with the body and express love and gratitude.
Then, starting with your toes, imagine sending a beam of light (whatever color you associate with “healing”) and saying to yourself, “Thank you toes for supporting me. I love you.”
Then move the light to up your feet and say, “Thank you feet, for allowing me to stand strong and grounded. I love you.” The move to the legs, “Thank you legs for supporting me. Thank you for the movement in my life. I love you.” Continue this way, giving gratitude and love to each part of the body.
When you have loved and accepted each part of yourself, imagine that love and healing light being so abundant it flows all around your body.
If you’re feeling generous, imagine flooding your ancestry, friends, communities, and the planet with it.
It’s important to remember nobody is perfect.
Let’s all celebrate our own uniqueness and extend that love to others. There is far more power in unity than there is in separation.
For those wanting more help to process old emotion, sensation, memory, and thought from the body, EMDR therapy is highly effective.
Lori Russell-Siemer, LCSW – www.lorirussellsiemer.com
Let’s wade into a very difficult area today, shall we? Many of us (most of us?) look in the mirror and dislike at least some aspect of what we see. We berate ourselves and we dwell on flaws. This afflicts men and women alike. It is something that has a lot of stereotypes around it and there are different movements to increase body positivity.
It’s hard though. When you look in the mirror and see something you don’t like, or avoid looking in the mirror because you KNOW you are going to be disappointed and saddened by what you see. This body dissatisfaction is often linked to anxiety.
Sometimes the reasons we are displeased or disgusted are because we believe we are unhealthy.
Folks who are overweight often struggle with this. They are told repeatedly that they are not ok because they are fat. And then they are told to love themselves. Nice contradiction. So what can people in this situation do?
I don’t think there is an easy answer. I think that sometimes, it takes giving yourself a little grace.
Understanding that there are more factors involved than simply overeating.
Understanding that we all want to be healthy. People who are heavy may have a genetic propensity, or they may have a trauma (this is a big one), or they may have a medical condition, be taking a med, or any number of other things.
So to have it be as simple as “Love yourself” or “lose weight” isn’t an easy directive. But offering yourself grace and allowing that most of the time you are doing the best you can is a way to stop hating your body (or yourself) and beginning to view things differently.
Taking the view that I am who I am and whether I am thin or fat does not change my value as a person or my ability to contribute.
In effect taking away the fat = bad equation that often seems to occur. Also, hard to do sometimes.
Other times, a person doesn’t like what they see because they notice certain, or all, imperfections in their appearance, and sit with them, holding them tightly and devaluing themselves because of it. In a situation like this, sometimes it is helpful to take a step back.
Often people who are very focused on their flaws are certain everyone is looking at them and notices too which contributes to the anxiety they feel over this.
In reality, most of the time other people are thinking about their own stuff and really very few people look that closely at others in casual conversation.
A way to check this is to notice how much you pay attention to others flaws and if you hold them accountable (just in your head) for them.
Most of the time the answer will be no. If we can take that and apply it inward, it can alleviate some of the anxiety and pressure we feel about our appearance.
Body dissatisfaction is not a simple thing to come to terms with.
It takes time and understanding what the dissatisfaction is rooted in. Looking for ways to alleviate the anxiety that we feel around it and rebuilding our concept of how we look and how we think and feel about that.
There are exercises that can be done such as journaling to come to peace with it. Or a technique sometimes used is to focus on a part of your body you don’t find distasteful.
Really focus on that, what do you find ok about it?
Then the next day, what’s another. This is just another way to give yourself grace, which is really, in my opinion, the name of the game when we are dealing with body dissatisfaction.
Amy Ziegenhorn, LMHC – www.amyztherapyservices.com