Imagine you overheard a conversation between two people that sounded something like this:
“Those thighs look disgusting. And I hate the way your arms look in that shirt. You’re so fat. No one is ever going to find you attractive. Why do you even bother trying to look nice? Nothing you wear is going to change the fact that you’re just plain ugly.”
The truth is, any one of us listening in on a conversation like that would be absolutely horrified. We’d probably stop whatever we were doing and intervene on behalf of the victim who was getting bullied. Because deep down, we all believe that words like this have the power to destroy and tear down. In fact, words like this are completely unacceptable, and even considered by many to be abusive.
Yet one thing I hear time and time again working with men and women struggling with body image issues is that these are exactly the kind of conversations that are taking place in their minds on a daily basis.
As a licensed professional counselor, I know full well the power that self-talk has on body image. But as a woman who has struggled with body-image issues myself, that reality takes on a whole new meaning.
I’ll never forget the season of my life in which I struggled the most with my body image. I was a few months past the delivery of my second child when it hit me: my body will never be the same again. My clothes didn’t seem to fit right, and nothing I put on made me feel good about myself. My mind swirled with non-stop thoughts about how awful I looked, which then started impacting how awful I felt. It was a terrible cycle of negative thinking which led to negative feelings. And I couldn’t seem to shake it.
The interesting thing about that time period is that I actually weighed less back then than I weigh today. But as I write this article today, I am at a much better place with my body image. Because you see, our belief about our bodies has so little to do with our actual bodies, and so much more to do with our perception of ourselves. My perception of myself was tainted, because I was looking through a foggy lens obscured by insecurity and fear. And it was fueling the negative thoughts and feelings that I had toward myself.
But why are so many of us SO comfortable speaking words to ourselves that we would never dare utter to another person? That’s the question we’re posing today. Because when it comes to addressing body image, our internal dialogue plays a huge role in how we feel about ourselves, and in turn, how we behave.
The truth of the matter is that our words, whether audible or not, are powerful. The book of James chapter 3 reminds us that the tongue is a small part of our body that can have big consequences. Our words have the power to build us up, and the power to completely tear us down.
In counseling, we refer to this internal dialogue as our “self-talk.” Essentially, it’s the conversation that is happening in our mind as we think and interact with ourselves. It’s the thoughts, beliefs, and ideas about who we are and what our place is in this world. In order for me to get to a better place, I had to start doing things differently.
1. Choose to stop thinking negatively. First and foremost I had to take some major inventory of my thoughts. Believe it or not, your brain is actually train-able. Patterns of thinking will easily develop based on the route you encourage your thoughts to go. I had been stuck in some seriously catastrophic patterns of thinking that had become so natural I hardly noticed them. I had to start taking the time to listen for my negative self-talk, begin to write it down, and call it out for what it was: straight up lies.
The second part of this process was not just calling out the lies, but replacing them with truth. I had to begin developing a totally new value system that was based on the value and worth that God had for me. I memorized verses, talked to God, and read books that reminded me of what my true measuring stick was, and I had to daily (sometimes hourly) choose to measure myself up against the unfading qualities of the internal rather than the external.
2. Take inventory of who you spend time with and what is coming out of your mouth. This was huge for me. I realized that so much of my time was being spent with people just like me - stuck in a rut, measuring themselves up by standards that were pretty much unattainable. And we were all falling short together (group failure can be addictive).
Every conversation and interaction was reinforcing my need to focus on my shortcomings, whether it was through complaining, comparing, or competing. I had to make a point to limit my time with the people that only added to my physical baggage, and hold myself accountable for the things I was allowing to come out of my mouth. The less you think about something the less you talk about it and the less you talk about it, the less you think about it. It was time for me to start making some real changes.
3. Get involved in things that promote your true self. It’s easy to get caught up in a faulty measuring stick when you feel as though you have nothing else of value. I knew that I had so many qualities and talents that had been hibernating due to my fixation on the physical. I had to take the time to stretch those muscles again and realize that I had so much more to offer the world than my appearance. I had to learn to love myself from the inside-out. I got out there and volunteered, used my leadership qualities, wrote encouraging notes, and spent time with those in need. I took advantage of these little things that reminded me that I had so much to offer and gave me a fresh glimpse of the world around me.
The truth is a negative and self-deprecating person has the ability to be just as vain and conceited (if not more) than someone who is arrogant and prideful, because at the end of the day, whether negative or positive, both individuals are fixated on SELF. Getting out and getting involved helped me take the needed time and energy to focus my life on others instead of being so completely wrapped up in myself.
4. Take a look at the deeper issues. For some individuals, the concept of body-image issues runs very deep. A few of the above steps might be helpful to some extent, but won’t have the power to pull them out of the trap of their body-image obsession. Control issues, abandonment fears, and lack of boundaries in their world are just some of the things that might be fueling the need to focus on the physical. Eating disorders, anxiety and depression, and even identity issues can begin to creep in. If this is you, don’t take these things lightly. The longer you are in this trap, the more difficult it is to get out. Take some time to address these issues by finding a Christian professional counselor and give yourself the opportunity you need to focus on gaining control and getting your life back.
I don’t know about you, but I want to be a person that sees the good inside of others, encouraging them to live out the God-given qualities and value that is unique to them. But at the end of the day, that can only begin when I learn to see - and speak - the good inside of myself.
Debra Fileta is a Professional Counselor, speaker, and author of the book True Love Dates: Your Indispensable Guide to Finding the Love of Your Life, where she writes candidly about dating, relationships, and how to find true love. You may also recognize her voice from her 150+ articles at Relevant Magazine or Crosswalk.com! She’s also the creator of the True Love Dates Blog! Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter!
Publication date: July 14, 2015