Negative body image and low self esteem are issues that many women and men struggle with, but for those who suffer from a skin disorder, have a visual difference like burns, scars or disfigurement, or have mental health problems like eating disorders or body dysmorphia, the way we see and feel about ourselves can have a devastating effect on our daily lives, and in some cases can lead to isolation, bullying, depression, self harm or even suicide.
Having to live in a body that you hate, a reflection that makes you cry and being constantly bombarded by images and messages across the media of the perfect body and how to get it, leave us feeling inadequate, depressed and ultimately bankrupt.
So how do we move from a state of body hate to body love? The first step is beginning to work towards body acceptance. When you have a negative thought about your body, try to acknowledge the thought, say, “thankyou for that thought,” and allow it to pass (imagine it floating away on a cloud). Remember YOU are in control of your thoughts. You do not need to believe everything that you think. Just because your mind is telling you negative and cruel things about your body, it does not mean that these thoughts are true. These thoughts could stem from beliefs that you had as a child; maybe you were or are being bullied; maybe your parents didn’t give you the affection that you deserved or your partner never tells you that you are beautiful. Maybe you lived in the shadow of a more pretty or popular sibling, or a visual imperfection caused you to believe that you were ugly and different. Low self esteem and a negative perception of the way we look can be a result of many factors but what’s important is that you try to challenge these thoughts and beliefs. Everyone has negative thoughts to some degree but not everyone allows them to take over their lives. The less you allow your negative thoughts to control your behaviour, the quieter they become.
Now you might be thinking but I have the same thought again and again, I can’t keep letting it go, it overpowers me. The 2nd step towards body acceptance is to uncover the feelings your body loathing may be masking. The next time you have a negative thought about your body, challenge yourself to think about what you are really feeling and what else might be bothering you. Often it is easier to focus on what we dislike about our outward appearance, than to focus on other issues in our lives that the body-hatred may be masking. If you aren’t able to talk to a therapist, friend or parent about it, try to journal or draw what you are feeling. An exercise that helps me is one that I learnt in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) where you challenge your negative thoughts to come up with an alternative thought that is far healthier and more self-loving. Its hard to change an ingrained thought or belief that we’ve felt for sometime overnight, but even the act of being able to think about it differently can help to ease the distress that negative, self-inflicting thoughts can bring about.
So next time you come across a situation that evokes a negative thought, follow this exercise below:
1) State the situation – what’s happening?
2) Rate the emotion from 1-100
3) What are the thoughts going through your head right then? Highlight the ‘hot’ thought (this is the one that you will use to find evidence)
4) Where’s the evidence to support that thought?
5) Where’s the evidence that doesn’t support that thought?
6) Come up with an alternative thought based on the evidence you’ve generated. Maybe think what you would say to a friend in that situation.
7) Now rate your emotions, have they lessened somewhat? Do you feel different emotions?
TIP: When trying to come up with the evidence, it’s all too easy to say, “well because it is,” or “well I feel it so it must be true.” Try to think about yourself standing up in front of a jury where you have to convince them that what you are saying is fact. Therefore question your evidence – would it get thrown out of court? If so, don’t write it down.
Keep doing this exercise with your other thoughts. You will probably see that there are some thoughts that come back time and time again. These will most likely stem from your core beliefs. This is when it helps to be able to talk to a professional therapist who will help you to unravel those beliefs and focus on where these feelings of self-hatred may be stemming from.
Obsessing about our bodies and abusing them through food, over-exercise, self-harm, alcohol etc. are coping mechanisms we use to try to escape from painful and uncomfortable emotions. These will only numb the feelings temporarily before they come back again and you need something stronger. By numbing off from our emotions we also prevent ourselves from feeling more positive emotions like happiness and joy, which ultimately lead to depression and isolation.
Often the place where we experience the most body-hate is when we see ourselves in the mirror. Obsessive checking and scrutinising yourself from every angle can only make you feel more depressed and upset. Try to limit the times that you need to check your appearance and keep the length of time to a minimum. Try sticking post-it notes up around your mirror of uplifting quotes, positive affirmations and reasons why there is more to you than just your appearance – “I am beautiful,” “I am strong,” “I am a good friend,” etc.
When we feel bad about ourselves it can be all to easy to concentrate on our worst bits but for every negative you tell yourself, I challenge you to find 2 positive statements to counteract that. When you look at yourself can you find 2 things you like about yourself, maybe its your long hair, your nails etc. Say them out loud and repeat, for as I’m sure you are aware by saying something repeatedly, if we hear it enough we start to believe it. Try it.
At times of body loathing it is vital that you distract yourself. Find an activity when you feel grounded and connected to your body; take a walk in the park, do a yoga class, put on some uplifting music and dance, meditate, paint/draw, journal etc. If you find yourself with urges to self harm, it is even more important to find things to do with your hands; sew, knit, colouring, play an instrument, do your hair/makeup/nails. Anything that keeps your hands and mind occupied. Feelings can be intense and not pleasant but by sitting through them you will build up your strength and belief that you will get through them. Cos ultimately we can’t go on forever feeling a heightened state of anxiety or distress, it will come down, it’s just weathering the storm until all is calm again.
Finally shower your body with love and self-care. Whether that’s putting on clothes that make you feel good, having your haircut, booking a massage or running a nice warm bath with candles and your favourite bubbles. Put on some relaxing music and let yourself drift away. If you find it difficult to switch off download a guided meditation or one I find is helpful is www.calm.com, which contains 2-20min meditations of the sound of waves, birds, rain etc. If you are anything like me a trip to the seaside, lake or countryside can do wonders for your stress levels. Bring a little of that back into your home for a happier, healthier you.
And lastly, know that you are not alone in your struggle towards body-acceptance. These thoughts and beliefs didn’t develop over night so nor will they disappear by morning. But by slowly chipping away, practicing self love and limiting the time spent at war with your body and mind, you can start to feel better about yourself and by engaging in other healthier activities we learn that that there is more to us than how we think we look.