Does that first look in the mirror make or break your entire day?
It hurts my heart to say that you’re definitely not alone. Body image can carry enormous weight on our sense of self-worth and, therefore, our mood and satisfaction levels in life.
What if I told you that body image actually has less to do with the shape of your body than you think?
The trigger that drives us to think that we’re worth more one day than the last – when our weight is more or less the same – has nothing at all to do with our body’s shape.
What I’ve learned to be true is that much of the time, our bodies actually look the same as they did yesterday to outside eyes. We, however, see something different because our minds are trying to protect us.
The Distorted Cycle
Throughout our lives, we’re taught that there is an ideal way to look. Through subliminal and straight-forward messaging from media and society, we learn that people who don’t look this way are everything we don’t want to be. Maybe a few of these descriptions resonate with you: lazy, messy, disgusting, no willpower, weak, sad, unlovable, unhealthy, careless, etc. In a word: bad.
Our minds are complex things, but when we’re fed that kind of information day in and day out for our entire lives, one belief becomes simple: if you are not the ideal body type, you are bad.
We’ve spent so much of our lives trying to make sure that we never ever fit the horrible descriptions we’ve been taught about those who have body types different than the ideal. We devote countless hours and energy to creating the perfect body. Many of us become obsessive about it. Because we’ve have focused so heavily on “fixing” our bodies, our perspective automatically shifts towards that when things go wrong.
We’ve learned to blame our bodies when we can’t control what’s wrong. It’s a coping mechanism.
Here’s how it works:
- We have a stressful day, week or year because of things outside of our control.
- We wake up one day (or many), see ourselves in the mirror and are aghast at the way our bodies look.
- We blame our bodies for this helplessness we feel.
- Now we have a reason for why we feel out of control: our bodies are obviously to blame.
When we feel out of control in our lives, we default to this simple explanation so we have something to control; it’s called “displacement.” It’s a term from Freudian psychology that means: “an unconscious defense mechanism whereby the mind substitutes either a new aim or a new object for goals felt in their original form to be dangerous or unacceptable.” [source]
Being out of control for many of us is a completely unacceptable way to be. We’ve just never learned how to deal with the parts of life that we can’t fix. If you’re a do-er, this might be one of the most uncomfortable sensations for you.
In an attempt to give you something to control, your mind displaces your helplessness onto poor body image.
Another “bonus” is the shame that comes along with it because our minds know that this shame is comfortable in its familiarity. Many of us have never lived without it! Our minds determine that giving us both this digestible reason for our helplessness (our bodies), and the shame that we’re so familiar with is a protective measure.
While it seems a twisted way to care, that’s exactly what our minds are doing for us: taking care of us. It’s sweet, really. Now that you’re aware of how this cycle works, however, you can shift it to serve you.
How To Break The Cycle
So how do we heal this? It all starts with awareness. If you notice that you have more negative body image thoughts than usual, take a moment to explore what else has been going on in your life:
- Are you stressed?
- In what areas of your life do you feel chaotic or helpless?
- Are you dealing with a lot of emotion you just don’t know how to feel?
Any of these experiences could lead you into feelings of helplessness and, therefore, worsening body image. Acknowledging that issues outside of your control could be leading you to have negative body image might just help alleviate the burden. Here are a few prompts to consider when you become aware of helplessness:
What if it isn’t your fault? What if it doesn’t mean anything about you as a person and your ability to exist? What if it’s just completely outside of your control?
Allow yourself to find some relief by considering those questions.
Then, explore some ways to get comfortable with being out of control. It’s the scariest thing if you’ve never done it which is why I always recommend working with a licensed therapist for this kind of work. If you want to read more about how I recommend beginning to release control, check out this post and if you’re feeling uncomfortable emotions, this one.
What If Your Body Really Is Changing?
Before I answer this, I have another question for you: Have you ever gotten happier in life by shaming yourself into results?
I’m going to venture a guess and say, “NOPE.”
Out of all my clients over time, I’ve never experienced one that shamed herself into long-term positive results. Whether that’s weight loss, muscle gain or even just balancing out her diet. There’s nothing good to be gained from shame and guilt.
By accepting our mind’s interpretation that our bodies are “bad” as they are, we envelope ourselves in a cloud of shame that negatively affects every action we take towards our goals.
Instead of defaulting into this shame, how would it feel to acknowledge your body image, then explore the idea that this is where you are today and that’s ok? Telling yourself that how you look today isn’t resignation to being this shape forever. That’s a common misconception. Finding forgiveness for yourself where you are now allows you to take the next aligned step forward without all the junk that makes it difficult (like resistance, desperation and shame).
Today doesn’t determine your forever. How you look has nothing at all to do with who you are as a person. So you’re not where you’d like to be yet; what’s one thing you can do to truly love yourself today so you might feel better? Because when it comes down to it, that’s all we really crave by wanting to be more “in shape” anyway: more Love. For ourselves and from others. Why wait until you look a certain way to receive it?
If you notice that your body has consistently been changing in a way that doesn’t feel healthy, it might benefit you to try out mindful eating. It’s a great way to get in touch with your actual hunger and bring more Love into the relationship you have with your body without depriving and restricting yourself (which leads directly to overeating). For a few immediate tools, check out my free Emotional Eating Toolkit.
To Wrap It Up…
In conclusion, your distorted body image is not your fault. You haven’t done anything wrong. Your mind has just learned to support you in a really weird way… but she can learn how to do differently from now on.
While I understand that this displacement phenomenon is not the only cause of negative body image, it can be helpful to recognize that it does happen in many of us.