Don’t Believe Everything You Think
A few years ago, when I was practicing in the Washington D.C. area, I had the pleasure of working with a young woman whom I’ll call Kate. Kate used to sit in my office wearing baggy clothes to “hide” her body, talking at length about how she felt “so fat and ugly.” She avoided walking past mirrors or store windows because, “I just look so disgusting, I can’t stand to see myself.” Kate avoided parties and other college social events because, “I feel like people are staring at me all the time, judging me.” Here’s the shocking thing: Kate was a model. She showed me her photo in several magazines and catalogs. She was absolutely beautiful, inside and out.
Anyone looking at Kate would be dumbfounded by her self-perception. How could she see herself this way? The answer lies in the messages that she received from important people in her life. Throughout her youth, Kate’s mother was extremely critical of her appearance. I recall Kate saying, “My mom was always staring at me, picking me apart, finding anything she could that was wrong with me, right down to my eyebrows.” When she developed some acne as an adolescent, Kate’s mother took her to a dermatologist, pointed at Kate’s face and said, “This is unacceptable. Fix it.” Kate’s mother closely monitored Kate’s weight and became angry if she exceeded a size two. Kate also recalled her father bragging about her modeling appearances and “giving me the silent treatment” when she was not chosen for a shoot. Basically, the messages that Kate received from her parents were, “People are scrutinizing you,” “Your appearance isn’t good enough,” and “Our approval is conditional and based on your appearance.” Unfortunately, Kate came to believe these messages; they slowly but surely became the basis of her self-perception and the way that she navigated through the world.
Be Body Positive
I worked with Kate to identify and begin questioning these messages. Could it have been that her parents were wrong? Perhaps she was always a beautiful person, inside and out, who deserved unconditional love and acceptance. Perhaps the healthy people in her life (such as her favorite teacher, who was caring and supportive) were right. Perhaps her parents’ messages were all about their own “issues” rather than any flaw or mistake on her part.
Over time, Kate came to believe that my suggestions might be true- that she shouldn’t believe the negative, self-critical thoughts that popped into her head so automatically. She began to actively notice and question her harsh inner voice. Slowly, Kate came to accept that her self-critical thoughts had been ingrained by influential people who had her all wrong.
Now let me ask you this: Have you simply accepted certain messages that were sent to you by influential people in your life, such as parents, coaches, teachers, or peers? Did you accept the content of criticism or teasing as fact? How have these messages affected your self-perception and self-talk?
Today I encourage you to do this: Don’t believe everything that you think. Starting right now, begin to notice and question any negative message that you have received. It’s very likely that those messages were- and are- all wrong.