A younger version of me looked into my full length mirror, pushed my stomach out as far as it could go, and felt fat. I was 10 years old. I was an objectively skinny kid, and yet there I was, with my back arched out to its physical limit and my non-existent stomach filled with air, seeing my reflected image as a sure sign that I was fat and that was bad and feeling ashamed about myself for the first time.
I didn’t want body parts that made me different, attracted attention, made me visible.
A few years later as my breasts grew, hair sprouted from unexpected places, and my feet and armpits began to smell like peanuts, I added my own body to the list of things I was ashamed of. I cupped my palms over my budding breasts, praying that they wouldn’t get bigger than what I could hold in my two small hands. I didn’t want body parts that made me different, attracted attention, that made me visible.
I was mortified I’d let myself lose control like that
At 16 I traveled to Israel for six weeks, visiting holy shrines and historical landmarks, flirting with Jewish boys, hiking 50 miles across Israel, and eating copious amounts of a newfound treat; Nutella. I returned home to the U.S. 10 pounds heavier, having gone from a body that weighed the same as my diminutive mother of 98 pounds, to a whopping 108 pounds. I’d internalized that adult women should be 98 pounds, just like Mom, regardless of the fact that I was taller and curvier, or had built significant muscle mass during the trip. I was mortified I’d let myself lose control like that, and my parents unknowingly piled on more shame as they encouraged me to diet.
I share these examples of early body dysmorphia because I assumed for decades that I would eventually grow out of this shame, gain confidence, and no longer feel like an imposter in my work, relationships, and body.
And that didn’t happen.
Two years ago, at age 37, I realized that this anticipated growth and confidence was taking its sweet time appearing. What if it never happened? What if I lived my whole life waiting around to feel good about myself? What if “fake it ’til you make it” never ended with “I made it!”?
I had a lot going for me, but was unable to internalize any of that awesomeness as my own.
I took a good honest look at myself, and it struck me like a ton of bricks that it was never “just going to happen” on its own. I had a lot going for me, but was unable to internalize any of that awesomeness as my own.
Being honest with myself meant acknowledging that I was — a) in the prime of a successful career, b) nearly the very most knowledgeable and experienced person in the entire world when it came to my field of coworking, c) happily married, d) a good mother, e) a well loved and appreciated leader in my community. I was also reasonably attractive and stylish, with an enviable jewelry collection.
I couldn’t internalize the good stuff even when it was staring me in the face.
And yet, none of that felt real to me (with the possible exception of my mounds of sparkly jewelry). I’d spent so much time internalizing the bad stuff and negative self-talk I couldn’t internalize the good stuff even when it was staring me in the face. Though I could acknowledge it in my mind, I just couldn’t feel it in my body, or believe it in my soul. I didn’t feel smart, beautiful, experienced, or good enough. At every turn I simplyI saw mediocrity draped in huge earrings and glittering necklaces.
That. Was. Enough.
I realized that I had already allowed 37 years of insecurities and shame to hold me back, and change was going to have to come from inside, since it clearly wasn’t getting through via external forces. No amount of success, positive reinforcement, achievement, or compliments had made a dent in my psyche, it was time to take control of myself, myself.
I had no idea how to wrest control back from my shameful self-doubting self.
I began to think about my negative self-talk. I realized that every day as I brushed my teeth, I used those two minutes of electric toothbrush time to critique every flaw I could find. To use the magnifying mirror to analyze every pore. To stare at the small hole in the center of my chest where a clogged pore once required a surgical procedure, leaving this scar. To bemoan my thin hair, visible scalp, and crooked hairline. To tip my head up so I could see how asymmetrical my nose is from the bottom. To hate my neck scar from two thyroid surgeries. To hate my soft jawline and chin flab. To detest every eye crease, mouth and forehead wrinkle, and belly fat roll. To push out my stomach as far as it would go, arching my back like I did when I was 10, to maximize the size of my belly and feel like I’d be hard to distinguish from a whale.
And I didn’t even REALIZE I was doing this until I was 37 years old. I’d been finding fault with myself and my appearance, as much as I could, for as long as I could remember. And a lot of it was unconscious, leaving me unaware and without coping mechanisms.
I decided to try an experiment, that would change my entire life.
I flipped it and forced myself to find things I liked about myself for that two minutes instead?
What if, now that I knew I was giving myself at least two minutes of negative self-talk every day, I flipped it and forced myself to find things I liked about myself for that two minutes instead?
At first, I ran out of things I liked long before 30 seconds passed and the toothbrush vibrated, reminding me to move to brushing another quadrant. I could find positive things like, I like my nose, at least from the front. I like that I don’t have very thick eyebrows. My cheeks are pretty smooth.
And then the bad stuff would creep back in. Yeah, nose is nice but I hate it from the bottom. My eyebrows aren’t heavy but they also aren’t identical. My smooth cheeks are covered with broken blood vessels and freckles.
But, I did feel a tiny bit better about myself. I wasn’t only flaws. I was some likable things, too.
I kept at it, slowly, over many days and weeks, growing my list of positive attributes, and reframing some of the negative ones. Yes, my eyebrows aren’t symmetrical, but like they said on that TV show Broad City, it’s important to realize that eyebrows are sisters, not twins. My gray hairs are like free highlights. My hair may be thin, but my curls are real cute.
I’m now 39 and I’ve been at this for two years.
And I have to tell you, self-love takes work! And time. And I backslide sometimes even after all this dedication. It’s a practice that takes regular effort, like Yoga or gratitude. But it’s there for the taking.
And it’s GLORIOUS.
I no longer feel like an imposter in my body and in my work. I feel truly capable. I’m a great mom. A worthy wife. A beloved boss. I am lovely inside and out, despite and because of every feature and inch. My opinion matters. I even enjoy and value my own company and alone time, something I always ran from without knowing I was running from my own insecurities.
I know that insecurity and self-critique are something most of us fall prey to. More importantly, I know that reversing the damage we did/do through self-talk and self-love is something we all have the power to achieve.
When do you tell yourself things you’d cringe or rage to hear a friend say about themself? How could you take ownership of these things and begin to turn them around? Think about one small change you can make, and see where it takes you.