It's about time I start loving myself again.
Join me in my office with Susan, a 41-year-old married woman with three teenage sons and full time job in the banking industry. She first came to therapy six months ago with concerns about body hatred, drinking too much on the weekend, and increasing withdrawal from others.
In last week’s session I asked her to do a mirror exercise where she would look at her body twice a day for five minutes. She was asked to look at each body part in a loving and kind way. She was told to notice the beauty of different parts of her body the same way you would focus on a loved one’s body: great hair, beautiful smile, full breasts, curvy hips, and so on.
She reported in the next session that she was not able to complete the homework assignment. She said, “Every time I look at my body in the mirror I feel ashamed of it. My body is inferior to other women’s bodies, ugly, damaged, and unlovable. My stomach is huge, my breasts sag, and I am already getting wrinkles at age 41.”
She shared that she fears showing her husband her body, hates to go to the doctors’, and cancels many social dates because of how she looks. Because of this she speaks up less at work and rarely goes clothes shopping.
Shame is a powerful emotion that affects every aspect of her life. Her shame gets reflected in patters of avoidance, secrecy, and extreme self-consciousness. It has led to a decreased ability to cope and isolation from others. The more shame a person feels – the more they feel disconnected from others.
Many factors can cause body shame. Experiences from childhood where parents are overly critical of their children, teasing or bullying, being the last kid picked for the team in gym class, history of trauma, or identifying with a parent who is ashamed of his or her body can eventually be internalized as a negative body image. Living in a culture with unrealistic beauty ideals, pictures photo shopped to perfection, and idealization of youth also play a role in body shame. Many compare themselves to these beauty ideals and are left feelings they are unattractive, not worthy, and flawed.
I talked with Susan how she could begin to heal body shame through self-empathy and compassion. Researchers have found that from birth, compassion, kindness, and love from ‘others’ impacts our brains and even how some of our genes are expressed. Self-compassion is a powerful trigger for the release of feel good hormones like oxytocin that increases feelings of calmness, safety, and connection with others.
When we offer genuine compassion, we join a person in his/her suffering. It was time for Susan to learn how to take her body with the same acceptance, kindness, and compassion she would have for those she loves. She agreed to set up a rule for herself that if she wouldn’t say it to a friend, she wouldn’t say it to herself. This following technique helped her understand how negative, shameful thoughts affect her body.
I then asked Susan to close her eyes and think of a body part that she was ashamed of and imagine that you are that part. Susan imagined her stomach. I asked her to tell me what it was like to be the stomach in Susan’s body? She answered that it was awful. She was always putting it down, ached on the weekends when she drank too much alcohol and diet soda, and was sore from her often squeezing it. I asked her to tell me how she treats this part. She said, “I always try to hide it from others, I put pants on that are too tight and it hurts, I always talked negative about it.”
I asked her to imagine someone she admired or who she knew loved her sharing nurturing, encouraging words to counter the negative body talk she normally told herself. For Susan, it was her grandmother. She heard, “Susan, slow down. You are trying to be the perfect mother, have the perfect career, and have the ‘perfect’ body. That body exists only in photo shopped images. You have three healthy kids you were able to carry, birth, and take care of. Just like your life changed when you had three kids, so did your body. Be thankful for your stomach and honor it for everything it does for you. You are maturing into a beautiful woman, you are lovely the way you are.”
I asked her to write down her grandmother’s words then repeat the words to herself. Allow these words into her heart to notice how these words made her feel. I asked her to take a deep breath and say these words out loud to herself.
She was able to take in the compassionate words of her grandmother and began to feel more empathy and love towards her body. Susan had several parts of her body she was ashamed of so she practiced this technique many times over treatment. Over time she began to create a nurturing inner voice to replace the critical voice. Psychotherapy sessions and attending AA helped Susan overcome body shame, decrease perfectionistic thinking, reconnect with others, and change drinking habits.
Do you struggle with body shame? Try the technique I describe in this essay.
- What is the body part you are most dissatisfied with?
- How do you treat this part?
- Imagine a person you admire talking in a compassionate, loving way toward that body part. What would he/she say?
- What it down. Repeat it. Open your heart to this message.
If you have overcome body shame I would love to hear about your story. You can reach me at AnnKCooke@gmail.com.
Dr. Ann Kearney-Cooke is a psychologist at The Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute. Dr. Ann uses a matter-of-fact approach and the guiding motto, "The Time for Change is Now". Dr. Ann helps patients to focus on their signature strengths and to transform their lives. Dr. Ann serves as a wellness coach, professional speaker and consultant worldwide, as well as provides treatment for eating disorders in the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area.