Humans spend a good part of their life energy creating and maintaining something called “self-image.” Thanks to parents, peers, and the socialization process, we are conditioned to identify with an “image” of our “selves.” While this conditioning is well-intentioned, it can wreak havoc in our lives.
It is only about me
The problem is that our primitive brains are wired to ensure our survival, at all costs. At the same time, the reason we as a species survived at all is that we learned to cooperate with each other. Unfortunately, our highly evolved consciousness, which allowed us to dominate earth’s food chain, is no match for our unconscious survival instincts. So our conscious efforts to control our instinctive patterns of behavior usually are doomed to failure. The neurophysiological basis of chronic pain
Since our survival behaviors are often not exactly virtuous, we do many things to “dis-identify” from them. The common strategy is to concoct a story of who we are, called self-image, largely based on external feedback. Another expression for this activity is building self-esteem. We aspire to high self-esteem by avoiding negative thoughts about ourselves and reinforcing positive ones. Trying not to be judgemental
Now, part of this practice yields positive results. Our brains will develop in areas where we place attention; and consistently choosing a positive outlook is healthy. The problem arises from suppressing the unconscious tendency to be on the alert for danger, which has serious consequences. Your personal brain scanner You are now focusing energy doing battle with powerful unconscious neurological circuits. You cannot win. You are inadvertently reinforcing them and wearing yourself down. There is also evidence that such suppression damages the memory centers of the brain; and in addition, may facilitate a disposition to drug addiction. Ever wonder why it is so hard to hold on to our positive thoughts and feelings? It is because our brains are always busy looking for the negative, for the worst case scenario—for our survival. The myth of self-esteem
Body image disorders
It’s incredible to me how many supermodels have body image disorders. It might have to do with the fact that so much of their “identity” is based on physical appearance. Of all the features we like and appreciate about our bodies, what do our minds tend to fixate on? On that one feature or idiosyncrasy we dislike. Since we cannot easily change it, we are trapped. It is my guess that great majority of us has some degree of body image disorder.
The same holds true of any trait we value for our identity: Intelligence, athletic skill, artistic or musical talent, toughness, net worth—the list is endless. The more important the attribute, the greater the potential for progressive anxiety.
I had lunch with a young body builder, one of the strongest people I have ever known. Hard as I tried, I could not avoid staring at his biceps, which were so large that they sagged almost parallel to the ground when he leaned his elbows on the table. He proceeded to share with me he how bad he felt about his body because he felt so “small”. It drove him to work out almost two hours a day. It hit me how strongly our images of ourselves could affect us. Many of them do not reflect reality and detract from our capacity to enjoy our lives.
One of my patients was an absolutely stunning woman with an eating disorder. When I asked her, “How would you feel if I obtained 10,000 signatures attesting to how attractive you are,” guess what she said: “They don’t really know me.”
So what is the answer? Let it go. You are never going to win the battle with your unconscious brain. It is impossible. But you can learn to calm down your nervous system and to create new pathways that circumvent negative circuits. The general term is somatic work, and there are many avenues to get there. The focus is on clearing out the noise in your head to connect with yourself and your own capacity to heal.
Who are you allowing to define you?
This video showcases a woman with a congenital disfiguring disability, who describes her struggle and resolution with self-image. She is truly inspirational. I am not sure I could have created a full and meaningful life if I had to deal with her condition. What is disturbing about her story is that someone posted her picture on the Internet with the label “The World’s Ugliest Woman.” Even more upsetting is that, of the thousands of comments, she did not find one that was supportive. What is uplifting is that, despite all the attacks from mean people, she still managed to transcend their shallow values. Bullying – My challenge to The Charter for Compassion
The Way to Love
I read the late Anthony DeMello’s book, The Way to Love weekly, to keep his ideas fresh in my consciousness. He presents the most compelling picture of the “attachment” trap, and provides a brilliant solution. As you become aware of your attachment to defining ourselves by external things, you have the power to dissolve it – if you want. The result is a life of freedom that is almost unimaginable.
Let go. Learn to be accepting of uncomfortable feelings. It is a learned skill using effective tools. Increase your awareness and let your ego diminish, along with your pain.