My Body My Image’s Mental Health Specialist Courtnay Veazey talks more about how to identify and begin to redefine ourselves.
Have you ever heard the following phrase? “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” What a load of crap. Words are powerful – especially the words we or others use to describe ourselves. Words leave scars just like physical injuries do. And, just like doctors must examine those physical wounds to heal them, we must examine our emotional wounds to heal as well, but where do we begin that process?
First we have to recognize and define our adjectives.
When you look in the mirror what adjectives come to mind? Think about the uplifting and derogatory adjectives. What are the origins of those adjectives? Did they originally come from yourself, or did they originate from an outside source (friends, family, authority figures, media, society, etc.)? Take a moment and write those words on a piece of paper. It may take you a while to remember all of your adjectives. We hear and/or tell ourselves these adjectives so often that we internalize them and thus allow them to define us. But are we really those adjectives? Or are we something else?
As I reflect upon my own adjectives the following word comes to mind: cute. While that adjective appears like a decent descriptor at first glance, my cognitive reaction to it is quite different. I hated the descriptor “cute” because to me that meant I had a good personality but was not attractive. I wondered why I could not be something better, such as gorgeous or beautiful. “No one likes cute girls,” I told myself. However, the more I questioned my cognitive reaction, the more I realized the absurdity of it. Cute is fun, personable, relatable, genuine, creative, and beautiful. Cute does NOT mean that I am unattractive or ugly. It means that I am real, human, and approachable.
Yes, our words are powerful. However, what we think (our cognitive response) about those adjectives is even more powerful. For example, what if your adjectives are ugly, or dumb? (I know those words come to my mind every now and then.) If your cognitive response to those words is to accept them as fact, then you will feel ugly, and dumb and act as such. If your cognitive response to those words is to question them, then you slow down the automatic acceptance of those words and give yourself space to question their validity.
Look at that list of adjectives before you and question each one. What is the proof of them? Who said them to you? Where did you first hear them? What do you think about each one? How do your thoughts of those adjectives contribute to your self-esteem and body image? Recognize the power of your thoughts and interpretations regarding the adjectives you or others attribute to yourself. Even more importantly, recognize your ability to change those thoughts and interpretations.
How awesome is it that if we don’t like our body image’s story, we can create a new one? Keep in mind, however, that creating a new story takes a lot of hard work, honesty, and most importantly, a desire to change.
Changing our cognitive responses to our adjectives is hard work because we are human. As humans, we want change to be instant. We love instant gratification. Unfortunately, when it comes to creating a new story, it takes time because you are re-patterning old ways of thinking, perceiving, feeling, believing. You are shedding a view of your body and your self that is unhealthy. Interestingly, though, as humans we CLING to that old view because it is comfortable. That old view is like an old pair of sweatpants that we refuse to throw away even though it is disintegrating before our very eyes. We refuse to throw it away because it is familiar, safe and indeed comfortable. Yes, even the negative reactions to our bodies are comfortable to us. Admit it. Who are we without those negative body images? That is how we have always known ourselves, and when we lose that image, we must start anew, which is unknown and scary. We must build a new foundation, which takes hard work and courage.
How do we build that new foundation? This Glamour article mentions rewiring your brain, which is the layman’s term for Aaron T. Beck’s cognitive therapy, which he developed in the 1960’s. Basically, Beck believed that thinking, feeling, and behaving are interrelated, and our thoughts about a situation (our bodies, for example) determine how we feel about it. Beck’s belief laid the foundation for Albert Ellis’ rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), which again emphasizes that our thoughts affect our emotions. Ellis used the alphabet to teach his clients his approach.
A – Activating Event – Looking at my body in the mirror.
B – Irrational Belief – “I must be beautiful to be significant.”
C – Emotional Consequence – Self-doubt, embarrassment about body, low self-esteem, etc.
(Our initial understanding of our emotions is that A (looking in the mirror) caused C (low self-esteem). We forget the important role that B (our irrational thought) plays in the development of C.)
D – Dispute Irrational Belief – Is beauty the only way I can be significant? What about my education? My talents? My spiritual life? My relationships? My marriage?
E – Create Effective and New Belief – Being beautiful is NOT the only way to feel significant. I am significant even if my body is not the image I see in the media.
F – New Belief Births New Feelings – Confidence, appreciation, contentment, pride with who I am physically.
The examples of each component of Ellis’ theory stem from my personal experience. And let me tell you, it was HARD WORK dividing events from beliefs from emotions yet acknowledging their correlation to one another. Be patient as you examine what events in your life lead to the irrational beliefs that ultimately create harsh emotional reactions. Dispute those irrational beliefs about what makes the “perfect” body. Throw away the comfortable and create room for the new beliefs about your body that will give birth to new and much healthier (albeit sometimes uncomfortable) emotions.