“If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now.”
-Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
Last week I said, “We are all born into some kind of mess for which we are not responsible, and if we want something different, we must become responsible for making that happen.” In order to have a healthier relationship with others, and myself I’ve decided it is time for to walk my talk and work on a mess that has nagged me for years.
Essentially, I have a little gremlin on my shoulder constantly nagging me about my appearance. While appearance is important to a degree, the degree my gremlin nags me is irrational and unacceptable.
At 5′8″, I have weighed between 115 and 155 pounds. At any weight, I would look in the mirror and see myself as a huge beast. I would hone in on areas that had fat (as they should) and upset myself because I was not thin “enough”. Usually the lighter I was, the more I would obsess. I have no realistic desire to weigh less than 125lbs again, anything less than that is unhealthy for my frame.
I was not willing to starve myself to be “perfect”, nor was I willing to binge or purge because I was also interested in being healthy. For several years, I hit the gym six days a week. Many people complemented me on my physique; it didn’t count, because I didn’t see it. While I was smaller, because muscle weighs more than fat, I still felt fat.
Eventually I would give up the healthier lifestyle. I would get tired of always working at looking better, and not seeing any results. I would give in to eating more, eating poorly, and not exercising. Eventually I would start again, when I was tired of being heavier and less healthy than I would prefer.
Over the last two years, I tried again, and started to appreciate my results.
Ten months ago I had been consistently eating well and excercising regularly for a while. Then I, or maybe my gremlin, became hyper-focused on other things. My hairline? Was my hair getting thinner? My skin, was that a new blemish? Was I wrinkling? My nose, perhaps it was swollen on one side, was it getting bigger? This last one was somewhat of a wake-up call, as up until then I perceived my nose as one of my better features. These kinds of thoughts are not ones I share often; I tend to keep them to myself.
Another irrational thought that I managed to put to rest a while ago was that other people were lying to my when they complimented me. At some point, I chalked it up to their lack of standards. While I no longer think either of those things now, reassurance from other people does not actually shift my self-perception.
Then I stressed out in March and gave myself a “break” and many excuses as to why I could stop eating well and exercising regularly. I gained weight, and stopped obsessing on my other perceived appearance issues, which was interesting, and went back to obsessing on weight being the primary one. By October, I started encouraging healthy habits in myself, again.
I’ve noticed a pattern over the years– no matter what, I don’t like how I look more often than I appreciate or like it. At any point in time when I looked at pictures of my past self, my present self sees them as better looking than I remember feeling. Although I remember feeling as bad about myself then as I do. This was a clue into my pattern.
The relatively recent beliefs that other things were wrong with my appearance when I was okay with my weight was another wake-up call. I would obsess on my skin, and check in the mirror to make sure nothing had gotten worse. I looked at every photo someone took of me so that I can veto it if I think I look too ugly. I spent $6,000 dollars on a dermatologist to fix my rosacea. After everything was done, I still sometimes cannot perceive a difference in my skin. Yet others can. I had a mole removed on my arm that was not particularly noticeable. If I have acne, or a perceived blemish, I pick at it, increasing the likelihood of scarring or infection! I actually feel embarrassed talking about my inner irrational beliefs.
I recently helped some friends with a conference. I was on stage in front of an audience and a camera. My thoughts were dominated by my gremlin. How did I looked on film, what was the camera noticing? Was my hair a mess? Did it see my pooch? Was my skin red? Could it see that zit on my chin? Was my skin too shiny? Was my posture good enough?
I know at some point in my life, I want to do public speaking, and if I have that noise in my head, it will affect my ability to convey my messages. I didn’t have this problem in improv, because it was a small class, not a big audience.
Some things that have prevented me from being totally debilitated are: I believe that well groomed trumps ugly. I don’t care (often) what other people think of me. Some guys are not that picky when it comes to looks. I would remind myself that I do not have the ability to judge my own appearance accurately. I would focus on healthy as more important than underweight. I would remind myself that my friends value character over appearance and would be honest with me (one of the virtues of hanging with a technical crowd). I don’t have to live up to society’s standards. I know that some of my beautiful friends think they are less than too. I know that among millions of women and men, I’m not alone in my lack of appreciation for my body when it is healthy.
Where did this irrational way of thinking come from? A tiny bit from some of the very strict rules the media and society has over what is considered beautiful that leaked in before I could think rationally. More importantly, my mother was a huge influence.
Growing up as a child, my mother was always thin, youthful in appearance and well groomed. She dressed to impress men. She constantly asked my younger sister and me if she was fat, or if she looked old. Even now, at nearly sixty, she doesn’t look a day over forty-six and a half. She has stopped asking.
I was always extremely effortlessly rail-thin as a kid, and my sister was a cute baby-fat kid, but not actually an overweight child. I looked at childhood pictures last night, and my sister was a normal looking kid.
Unfortunately, because of whatever demons haunted my mother, she would pick on my sister’s eating habits. This heavily skewed my sister’s perception of herself.
While my sister got the brunt of it, both our perceptions of reality were skewed. For me a child who did not see my mother or sister as fat, I was constantly being told my perception was wrong. This reinforcement from an authority figure damaged my ability to think of my body in a healthy way.
The good news is this is not as bad as it could be. The better news is I can change this.
I’ve been passively fighting this skew in my perception of reality most of my life. I blamed my mother for it. I forgive her now, realizing she did the best she could.
I realize that while my life would be easier if not for this inter-generational transmission from my mother, it is solely my responsibility to help myself, regardless of what my mother does. Taking ownership feels more active.
My goals are:
- Help my inner gremlin be a helpful rather than hurtful
- To replace or eradicate my behavior of picking at blemishes
- To appreciate my body, rather than criticize it.
The first step for me has already been taken, acknowledging that a part of my inner world is in need of recalibration. This is something that I need to work on, as I improve my diet, exercise levels, and other markers of good health. If I do not work on my inner-self, I will continue the pattern of being healthy, giving up, and becoming unhealthy. Rinse and repeat.
The next step for me is to have a very frank conversation with my mother, telling her that I don’t want to talk about appearance with her anymore. When the topic is broached, to remind myself, it is not issue. I’m fortunate in that this does not come up often any more and that I can have a conversation like this with my mother, not everyone can.
Another is to stop picking at my skin. I asked the dermatologist if he had any suggestions, and his solution was to put me on Wellbutrin. I was suprised he didn’t just say something easier said than done, like stop it!
I declined the perscription. Instead I used the idea of wellbutrin and my lack of desire to take it to help reduce the amount of picking that I did. When I felt the impulse to pick, I would remind myself of wellbutrin, and then often I would do something else instead.
I recently remembered that giving people alternative behaviors to choose from when they wanted to reduce an undesirable behavior was sometimes helpful, so I decided my alternative behavior would be to floss my teeth. I may add more.
I don’t know how to effectively create a helpful gremlin so I will educate myself with some books on the topic. The first one I will read is Feeling Good About the Way You Look, if that is not enough I will read The Broken Mirror.
In addition, I will also seek therapy on this specific issue. I know that is something that works for me. Research shows that Cognitive Behavioral Therapies are most effective with this cluster of symptoms.
I am also curious about the readers of Sophisticated Relationships who have had similar issues. How did you get there? Where are you now? What has helped you? What has not?
I know I won’t “fix” this overnight. It will take some time, and patience with myself. I do know that I will be able to have a more realistic relationship with myself. I hope for a closer relationship with others– especially without all the chatter from gremlin. This is a process.